A weekly historical column by Ben Miller, author of the best-selling “The First Resort”
The USS S-5 was the navy’s pride and joy when it was launched in November of 1919. With a length of more than 230 feet, the submarine was 70 feet longer than the Cape May lighthouse would be if you laid it on its side. Picture one block of the mall, from Perry Street to Jackson Street. That’s almost 231 feet and that’s how big the USS S-5 was.
Today’s subs are almost twice that length but back in 1919 a submersible of those dimensions was a source of national pride. The ship underwent nearly a year of sea trials which were set to culminate with a full-speed test of the submarine’s power while submersed.
It was decided that the final exam would take place off Cape May, at a depth of 200 feet. Captain Charles M. Cooke, Jr steered the USS S-5 out of the Boston Navy Yard and towards Cape May on August 30, 1920.
The American submarine S-5 in her trial run after construction. Shortly after this photo was taken
the sub suffered a serious malfunction and sunk off Cape May. US Naval Historical Center
The sub was in the midst of the dive around 1pm the following day, when the Chief of the Boat made a fatal mistake. After missing a cue to close the air induction valve as the boat went under water, he reacted by grabbing it as hard as he could and trying to slam it into place. But the valve broke and remained open, allowing sea water through the ducts that were meant to bring in fresh air while the sub was on the surface.
The crew ran around the submarine, attempting to close individual ventilation valves throughout the vessel, but the torpedo room valve wouldn’t budge. Realizing the hopeless situation, they sealed the airtight doors and the room filled with water. It wasn’t long before the USS S-5 was resting on the sandy bottom, leaving the 40 crew members with little chance of survival.
While some lamented their fate, others came up with an ingenious solution. Since the majority of the water was contained in the front of the ship, they could force air into the ballast tanks on the rear part of the ship and force that section up. With the submarine being 231 feet long and them trapped 200 feet below the surface, if they were able to force in enough air, it would tilt the subvertical and a portion of the rear would stick out of the water.
It may sound like some crazy scheme you’d see in a movie or on MacGyver, but it actually worked! With one brisk motion that saw some crew members sent flying down hallways and across rooms, the submarine was turned nearly vertical with its front stuck in the sand and its rear sticking 17 feet out of the water.
The crew was saved thanks to some quick thinking and more than a little luck – passing ships saw the peculiar sight and helped sailors from the USS S-5 cut an escape hole in the thick hull. The piece of the submarine that was removed to make the hole is currently on display at the Navy Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
As for the rest of the USS S-5, the remains lie on the ocean floor about 50 miles off Cape May. The battleship Ohio attempted to tow the submarine to shore, but the lines snapped and with a big hole cut into the USS S-5, it quickly took on more water and sank. Today, divers routinely visit the submerged vessel and if you would like to see what it looks like today, go to Youtube and search ‘S-5 submarine’.