Skip to comments.When one man is determined..
Posted on 11/07/2010 3:45:21 PM PST by pickrell
Those who lined the rails had different viewpoints and destinies. But the one thing they all agreed on was that the men trapped below the sea in front of them, in the sunken U.S. submarine O-5, should at least have had a chance. A number of the crew inside might still have been alive, with less than the length of a supermarket parking lot separating them from the surface, and their chance to live. For most of the men in the ships above, the sense of utter helplessness was overwhelming. It seemed to define the unfairness of the "silent service", and those foolhardy men who volunteered to develop the primitive subs disdained as "pigboats".
None of the crew of the O-5 would survive. And one of the naval officers watching above was forever changed by it.
His name was Lieutenant Charles B. Momsen, but folks mainly called him "Swede", in acknowledgment of his Danish and Germanic good looks. He didn't abide tragedy easily. At that moment, on that ship, he began designing in his mind a rescue system for helpless submariners- fully aware of the daunting challenges not simply from the mechanical difficulties facing him, but perhaps even more obstructive, from the political difficulties.
You see, a certain mindset exists in most large organizations often called, (with lowered voices and careful eyes glancing sideways,) the "Not Invented Here Syndrome". Jealosies that lead many midlevel bureaucrats to dismiss or even actively obstruct any new ideas- and especially those worked out by subordinates-, have always caused an certain unknown number of lifesaving ideas to be lost, never to be attempted.
After a serious work of brilliant design, Lt. Momsen eventually submitted through Navy channels plans for a radical new lifesaving system- a rescue chamber some would call a 'diving bell'. For it to work, the stricken submarine would first have to be located. This was no small task not far from the turn of the century. A releasible bouy would be installed in new construction subs, with a telephone in it, and paying out a line behind it down to the sub. This would enable voice communications to establish the vessel's condition to any vessel which happened upon it. Smoke rockets launchable underwater from the sub would reach the surface, and climb into the sky to draw attention to the lost boat, guiding the rescuers to the precious telephone bouy.
Having located the boat, a diver would then descend and attach a strong line to securing rings next to the forward or the aft torpedo room hatches, depending on the sub's situation. This line would then be brought to the surface and attached to a winching system of the open-ended rescue chamber resembling an up-ended metallic water glass. Lowered by crane into the water, it's crew of two would then adjust its bouyancy to nearly neutral, and maintain the water level at the bottom of the chamber by adding air pressure as it descended. It would pull itself down using the winch, till it came to rest upon the sunken sub- guided by the line to a position directly over the hatch. Communications would be maintained with the surface by telephone.
Once seated and clamped into place, it would then pump out much of the air pressure previously keeping the water from flooding into the rescue bell through its open bottom. When the pressure was low enough to match the submarine's interior, the vastly greater exterior water pressure would firmly force the chamber's rubber seal against the sub. The sub's hatch could then be opened and up to 7 survivors taken aboard the rescue chamber. Given enough repeated trips, any number of crew still alive after it reached them could in theory be rescued. Of course with weather and other adverse conditions, it would never be quite that easy!
Senior officers in the Navy Department, Captains and Admirals, after brief perusals of Momsen's ideas, had wryly disparaged the invention, noting that divers couldn't even reach the necessary depths, and such preposterous schemes were an ill-thought-out waste of time! And so the rescue chamber plans sat under an "inactive" pile at the Bureau for endless months.
Undaunted, Momsen also attacked the problem from the other end, noting that where outside help could not be found, a method must be made available so that the crew might escape on their own. Crude individual breathing apparatuses previously proposed were too cumbersome, ackward and heavy to even begin to approach practicality. The Lieutenant understood that he would have to start from scratch to design a simple "lung" which could be used for escapes where a rescue chamber was unavailable. After all, most of the previous proposals inexplicably failed to utilize the fact that given the shore distances to the surface, the active use time of the device would be helpfully short. By understanding this simple fact and designing strictly to the task, Momsen would lift morale throughout the emerging submarine service. The lung also could be used as an impromptu gas mask against chlorine gas accidentally discharged from the massive batteries aboard.
The story of his work to develop and perfect the marvel eventually known as the Momsen lung, was every bit as spectacular as his suppressed work on the rescue chamber. When the reliability of his lung could finally no longer be denied, the arguments that sailors would be unable to master such a device led him to oversee the building of a 100 foot proving and training tank in which all submariners would eventually have to demonstrate their proficiency on the new "Momsen Lung". But money was tight and such ideas were then deemed too expensive to deploy.
In a bitter irony, when one of our newer "S" boats the S-4, then sank with all hands lost, it fell to Lt. Momsen to write all the letters home to relatives, telling them how their son/husband/brother had died. A lesser man would have quit. But Momsen was not a lesser man. And the fallout and outrage among the public swelled into a tidal wave to come to Momsen's aid. New ideas would have to, at last, be tried.
At each stage of his rescue systems he had to invent and perfect new technologies. A diver, indeed, would suffer the often fatal effects of "the bends" from deep dives, until Momsen worked to perfect the right helium-oxygen mixture to replace the nitrogen found in regular air. Decompression pauses had to be experimented with on returns to the surface, and seemingly endless trials eventually established new engineering answers, enabling maximum dive depths to be pushed down past 300 feet. Answers were being found, and with enough time the Momsen Chamber would be ready.
Yet anyone who pioneered such new solutions earned himself the collective emnity of those he had to step around. Those who bristled when the Momsen lung received favorable publicity, bided their time. He was not making friends.
When all was not quite ready, a terrible accident with the U.S.S. Squalus occurred. With 33 men still alive aboard the sub lying on the bottom 220 feet below the surface, the Navy suddenly turned to Momsen and the men he had trained. The full story of the rescue of the crew makes exciting reading, and is a testament to one man's tenacity. And 33 men were brought to the surface by the rescue chamber in its first use.
After the Squalus incident, no peacetime sinking ever again left men to die aboard a sub without a chance.
Yet, the rescue chamber was not to be named the Momsen Chamber. Instead higher authorities decided to name it after an assisting officer who followed Momsen's orders. Thus the system became known as the McCann Rescue Chamber.
That sort of petty vindictiveness would have given Momsen a perfectly understandable excuse to leave the Navy after WW2. Instead he continued to ponder submarine surviveability. In a thorough examination of the records, he noted that the worst dangers for subs were not from aircraft or mines, but rather from the 5 or 6 knot creeping speed they were restricted to below the surface, making it difficult to escape from depth-charging destroyers. And another vision began to form in his mind.
True to form, the navy establishment, still loath to accept radical changes, did not see the need to transform the sub from the wallowing hull it had, even up through the GATO class design, made necessary because the sub was built as a briefly-submersible surface ship. Momsen's ideas about new hull design fell on deaf, resentful ears.
This was where Momsen demonstrated a brilliance few men achieve. Realizing that the newly emerging hunter-killer surface groups would need subs to work out against, he slyly proposed specially-built target subs, that the crews of the hunter-killers could locate, chase down, and simulate destroying. It would be good training. Somehow the navy was convinced to allow Commander Momsen free rein to design the hulls for underwater target ships. Can you see it coming, yet?
What secretly emerged was a shape unlike anything ever seen before. The wooden decking of previous subs was eliminated, and a smooth, sleek, fish-shaped hull stunned observers. This was the concept previously denied to Momsen by the hierarchy. "How badly would this monstrosity wallow in the surface waves?", it was whispered. "Never mind, they are made for location practice anyway..."
Momsen smiled as his design proved a complete failure! Given the streamlined hull, and the single powerful propellor of the new "Albacore" hull, the sub simply couldn't be caught by the hunter-killer groups! The embarrassment of having to order the sub to slow down and stop evading too much proved the straw that finally broke the establishment's resistance. Momsen had been exceptionally clever. And very little of the story would ever reach the public.
This was a new brand concept, a true submarine. This was a ship designed to leave behind the old limited techniques for ambush, and become instead an active predator of those ships which used to threaten it's doom. Momsen got that hungry look when the submarine Nautilus proved the viability of nuclear submarine propulsion, and sold Rickover on an entirely new weapons system. By marrying nuclear propulsion to the Albacore hull, hunter killers left the surface, and established their prowling paths down in the depths. The new hull inherently allowed a strength of construction that enabled previously unheard of greater depths to be safely reached.
With the now unstoppable advancements then bursting past, and in some cases riding over top of, those who tried to stop them, the concept of a third triad leg swiftly emerged. A survivable weapons platform, able to disappear for months at sea, presented a deterrent that the communists had no early hope of matching, much less defeating. And the new hunter-killers were the Los Angeles class attack subs. The Navy now had their own strategic deterrent, which when coupled with the new Supercarrier groups, entirely re-wrote the book of naval warfare, and enabled the new Pax Americana.
Charles "Swede" Momsen saved uncountable numbers of lives on many levels, but would never achieve the recognition he richly deserved for many of his contributions.
He is an example of what American persistence and ingenuity can bring to a people determined to remain free.
As such, he brought great credit to himself and the United States Navy.
We need more Swede Momsens.
I didn’t know this about the man. All I had ever heard of is the “Momsen Lung”
There’s no latrines in submarines
We all wear leather britches.
We hang our tails out over the rails
And how like sons ....
Read The Terrible Hours for a longer discussion of Swede Momsen’s amazing career.
A tremendous story. Thank you for telling it.
"The battle, Sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave." -- Patrick Henry
Great read, thanks for posting.
Great reading, Thank you for the thread about this great man!