Commander Edward Ellsberg rose to fame after leading the harrowing effort to raise the sunken submarine S-51 just off Long Island. That is where he begins Men Under the Sea, his tribute to and history of the men who risk everything to plunge into the blackness of the deep sea.
Ellsberg holds an expert’s knowledge of deep-sea salvage, and that knowledge has put him repeatedly on the front lines of some of the world’s worst wrecks. After the S-51, Ellsberg goes on to the heartrending tale of the sinking of the submarine S-4, which sank after a collision with forty sailors aboard. Commander Ellsberg races to the scene through land, air, and sea to search for potential survivors trapped aboard the sunken sub. Ellsberg also regales readers with stories of some of the most famous underwater missions in history, such as men submerging deep to recover £5 million worth of gold from the wreck of the Laurentic, bringing vast treasures from the ocean bottom, and diving to rescue thirty-three survivors from the stricken submarine Squalus. Ellsberg’s passion, experience, and natural narrative talent turn Men Under the Sea into an unforgettable voyage.
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About the Author
Edward Ellsberg (1891–1983) graduated first in his class from the United States Naval Academy in 1914. After he did a stint aboard the USS Texas, the navy sent Ellsberg to Massachusetts Institute of Technology for postgraduate training in naval architecture. In 1925, he played a key role in the salvage of the sunken submarine USS S-51 and became the first naval officer to qualify as a deep-sea diver. Ellsberg later received the Distinguished Service Medal for his innovations and hard work.
Read an Excerpt
Men Under the Sea
By Edward Ellsberg
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1939 Edward Ellsberg
All rights reserved.
Shrouded in a web of frayed hawsers and dripping air hoses, a battered submarine, with a ragged gash laying open her port side from deck to keel, rested in the drydock. With her diving fins cocked drunkenly in opposite planes, her conning tower half smashed in, her rudder jammed hard astarboard, and a trickle of mud and water oozing from her stern torpedo tube, that submarine was a dismal sight. Around her, crazily floating half awash in the nearly unwatered drydock, were the eight huge cylindrical pontoons which had floated that wreck in from her ocean bed at the bottom of the cold Atlantic off Block Island, 150 miles away.
Looking down on that submarine from the towering sides of the drydock were the divers who had lifted her and brought her in, their incredulous eyes hardly able yet to believe that actually they saw her there, the submarine S-51, for whose hulk over nine seemingly endless months they had battled the fierce Atlantic—that at last, safely locked in behind the caisson of that drydock holding back the sea, they had that ship where she could not again get away from them and sickeningly slip from their sight back to the ocean depths.
They were a wan group of men, those staring divers—weather-beaten, with cracked lips, seamed faces, sunken eyes, and lean bodies from which had been burned every ounce of fat by long hours of breathing excessive oxygen in heavily compressed air forced down to them as they struggled on the ocean floor. For the hundredth time they leaned again over the drydock rails, gazing unbelievingly at the ship they had salvaged. Hopeless their task had seemed when, 22 fathoms down at the bottom of the icy ocean, they first had pitted their puny bodies against the powers of the sea, to lift that 1,200-ton wreck to the surface. Even more hopeless the task had seemed after months of fruitless struggling far offshore, when—in the minds of the divers groping in mud, in darkness, and in frigid cold—the ocean began to take on a definite personality, that of a malignant demon with superhuman cunning and unearthly strength fighting to hold from them what it had claimed as its own. Relentless was the grip, formidable were the weapons of the sea—on the surface, fierce gales to batter and to scatter the salvage ships; on the bottom, icy cold water to freeze a man to the very marrow of his bones, the dark solitude of the weird depths to drive cold fear into a man's heart as he struggled alone in the mud and the blackness enfolding that wrecked submarine, a cold fear to paralyze the heart even more than the chilling water ever could paralyze the body, and last and worst of all the terrible pressure of the deep sea enveloping everything, ready instantly to crush a man into jelly under a load of 60 tons should he by any mischance lose the air pressure inflating his suit.
Well, all that was over now and they had won. Singly and in knots of two or three, the divers gaped down into the chasm of that drydock at the ship they had lifted—slight Francis Smith, who once, buried in a tunnel cave-in beneath that boat, had by a miracle dug his way out; big Jim Frazer, who would never dive again, his heart dilated from the superhuman strain of dragging a heavy hatch along the deck of that sunken sub; lanky Fred Michels, who had narrowly escaped being crushed between a swaying pontoon and the conning tower; profane Tug Wilson and silent Joe Eiben, who in cumbrous diving rigs had, like eels, snaked their way through the narrow doors inside that flooded submarine when each door meant a desperate gamble with death on getting back; slow-spoken John Kelley, who with a flaming torch on the bottom of the sea had sliced through obstructing steel like butter; Tom Eadie, ace of divers, who nevertheless had almost drowned in his own diving rig when a strange accident in the depths had ripped his canvas suit wide open; and red-faced Bill Carr, on deck a belligerent bosun's mate, on the bottom as steady-going a diver as ever I worked with.
It was over, certain enough. In the drydock, safe on the keel blocks behind the massive caisson, rested the S-51. The salvage squadron could disband now—the Falcon, our diving ship, to rejoin the submarine flotilla at Panama, the other vessels, their fleet stations, and the divers (torpedomen and gunners' mates, most of them), after brief leaves ashore, to scatter again to the various ships from which they had hastily been gathered when the S-51 had been rammed and sunk. For the men who fought through that heart-wrenching submarine campaign, nothing remained except to pack bags and hammocks and depart. The last order in the salvage squadron had shortly before been posted where the men returning aboard from the drydock would see it—the list of honors recommended for the men who had raised the S-51—Navy Crosses to six of the divers who had heroically distinguished themselves in extraordinary circumstances, promotions and letters of commendation to certain others whose services on the bottom had been only routine (if such a word can be used with regard to as perilous a job as diving).
In a tiny cabin on the Falcon, the scene of many a heartache while working over the S-51, I listlessly gathered up my few belongings preparatory to going ashore myself. I was through, also, as Salvage Officer. Slowly I gathered up my blueprints, my instruments, my records, subconsciously as little able as any of my divers to realize that our seemingly endless task was over, that I should not again have to turn to over those designs of the submarine to figure out a way of untangling another knot that the sea had unexpectedly tied in our plans; that I should not again have to drape myself in that 200 pounds of lead and copper and wet canvas that made up a diving rig, and drop to the bottom of the cold sea to struggle on that submarine, while I mapped out their work, with the same dangers that my divers faced.
Never again should I go through that. Once in a lifetime was one time too many. Sixteen years of the Navy topped off with those nine months battling the depths off Block Island was enough of a naval career for me, and when my report was in the hands of the Navy Department, I was through with the sea forever. I pulled my slide rule from a cubbyhole in the desk and tossed it in on top of the S-51's blueprints, wondering whether, even as a civilian, I should ever get over that leaden feeling in the stomach which griped me every time a diver slipped over the Falcon's side to disappear in a swirl of bubbles as his copper helmet vanished beneath the sea, or that mental agony as on deck I listened on his telephone, the while he groped in the mud and the wreckage on the bottom, over what the treacherous sea was likely to do to him?
I began rolling up the blueprints. Some day, perhaps, when I had got back on myself the flesh that excessive oxygen under pressure had burned off my bones down there on the ocean floor, I supposed I might get over the sickening dread of momentarily expecting that, in spite of all my planning and my care, the next instant something would go wrong and that someone for whom I was responsible would suddenly be in deadly peril, fighting in solitude and in darkness for his life against the—
A vicious rap on the cabin door. I started involuntarily, dropped my roll of plans. Before I could say anything, the door flew open and there, framed in it against a background of signal flags and rigging outside, stood Bosun's Mate Bill Carr, his bellicose face a fiery red, his blue eyes flashing, and waving a paper clutched in his brawny fist. I looked at him in astonishment. An unceremonious entrance into an officer's cabin, to say the least, but Bill Carr apparently wasn't standing on ceremony that day.
"Say, Mr. Ellsberg, look at that!"
For an instant Carr thrust under my nose the paper he was clutching. It was the order containing the list of divers' rewards, evidently torn away from the bulletin board at the gangway.
"This order's all wet, Mr. Ellsberg!" bellowed Carr. "Here it says that Jim Frazer an' Tom Eadie an' John Kelley an' Francis Smith an' Tug Wilson an' Joe Eiben have all been recommended fer Navy Crosses fer their work on that sub, an' all I'm down fer is a letter o' commendation fer what I did! A letter o' commendation! It ain't right, commander! I've earned a Navy Cross as much as anybody, an' I want it!"
I looked at Carr. His stocky figure, tense with anger, filled every inch of space in that tiny cabin between bunk and desk, and his blazing red face, so close to mine, left no doubt that he was in deadly earnest, that he felt badly cheated. I sympathized with Carr, but he was wrong and there was nothing for it but to convince him so.
"Sorry, Carr, but haven't you overlooked something?" I asked as mildly as possible. "Don't forget that, aside from that letter of commendation that's griping you so much, you're down on that order for promotion to chief bosun's mate as well."
"To hell with that promotion!" barked Carr. "What's it amount to in my case? I'd 've made a chief's rate before this cruise's over even if I'd never seen a diving rig! But when'll I ever git another chanst at a Navy Cross? Answer me that!"
I eyed my bosun's mate curiously. Ordinarily such insubordinate language warranted a call for a master-at-arms and a transference of further discussion to a deck court, but this wasn't an ordinary occasion and Carr's previous services certainly entitled him to a hearing, however informal he chose to make it. Somewhat perplexed, I undertook to soothe his ruffled feelings.
"Look here, Carr, you're getting promoted from first class petty officer to chief, right now. And, in spite of what you think of yourself, you might never make a chief's rate this cruise or any cruise. And on top of that, you'll get a letter from the Secretary of the Navy specially commending you for your services on the S-51. That's a lot for what you've done."
"Fer what I've done?" Carr bristled perceptibly. "Commander, I made more dives in salvaging that sub than any other gob in the outfit, an' your own records'll show it. You look. So if anybody rates a Navy Cross fer that job, I'm the lad that oughta be gittin' it!"
To a degree, Carr had me there. A horse for work and a bull in physique, Carr had made the most dives—I knew that without checking the records. When other divers were tied up with "the bends," knocked out by an accident, or from sheer exhaustion unable to don a rig and go overboard, stocky Carr had never missed a turn. But in the Navy, nobody gets medals just for routine work. I wondered if I could make my bosun's mate understand that.
"Yes, Bill, I know that. You made more dives than anybody. I'm not disputing it with you. That's already been carefully considered. Still, you're out of luck just the same. There were more than twenty divers, including you, on that job. But only six of 'em, the boys you mentioned, are getting Navy Crosses. And why only six? Because they did something especially heroic on the bottom. You didn't. I'm not saying you couldn't have, Bill, any less than those who did, but if it was your hard luck that things broke down on the bottom so they got a chance to be heroes and you didn't, I can't help it. So you'd better take your promotion and that letter of commendation and be happy. It's a lot more than some of your shipmates are getting. Come on, Carr; say you're satisfied."
But Carr was obdurate. Satisfied? It was obvious that he wasn't. However, my logic seemed to have had some effect, for he dropped his bluster, took a different tack, and tried wheedling me into compliance. The truculence in his tone faded out, his red face relaxed into a broad grin, and his blue eyes took on a friendly twinkle I had never seen there before.
"Aw, now, commander, be a good fellow. Gimme that Navy Cross anyhow. Sure an' you know I've earned it! An' what good's a letter o' commendation to me anyway? I reads it once an' stows it away in my diddy box an' nobody ever knows I got it. But a Navy Cross is different. There's Jim an' Tom an' Tug an' Joe an' those other lads that's gittin' 'em can pin their Navy Crosses on their coats every time they makes a liberty, an' the girls ashore all knows they're heroes! How about me? Can I pin that letter o' commendation on my chest when I goes ashore so the girls'll know I'm a hero too? Like hell I can! Come on, now! Be a sport, commander, an' gimme that Navy Cross! It'll look grand on that new chief's uniform you're promotin' me to!"
But by all Carr's pleas, as by his bluster, I was unmoved. Fate had never placed him on the S-51 in circumstances of extraordinary peril where he could distinguish himself by heroism above and beyond the line of duty, and I could not recommend him for a Navy Cross. Again and again I patiently reiterated that, and finally, having worn him down somewhat, I managed to ease the still grumbling bosun's mate out of the little cabin and wearily to complete my packing.
The salvage squadron disbanded that day. With a heavy heart I said good-by to the divers on the Falcon, my companions on the bottom through nine terrible months. Never again would I see them, as I was leaving the Service and they were going back to ships scattered over the seven seas.
Once ashore, I toiled in the New York Navy Yard over my salvage report until that, laden down with intricate computations and detailed plans showing how we had raised the S-51, was on its way to Washington. Then I doffed my uniform for the last time, slid into civilian clothes, and, after sixteen years in the Navy, was once again just a civilian.
A year and a half went by uneventfully and Bill Carr and his troubles, submarines and salvage, had gradually faded out of my quiet suburban life in a little town in New Jersey, when, one cold Sunday morning in December, 1927, a week before Christmas, I opened my front door to reach for the Sunday paper lying on the steps, only to be frozen into immobility by a flaring headline screaming at me in large type:
SUBMARINE S-4 SUNK!
FORTY MEN TRAPPED!CHAPTER 2
About noon on December 17, 1927, the U.S.S. S-4 had proceeded from inside Provincetown Harbor to the deep water trial course off the tip of Cape Cod for submerged standardization trials. For some months before, at her home Navy Yard, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the submarine had been undergoing repairs and refitting; now she was to be run submerged under practically laboratory conditions to determine the effects on her submerged speed and maneuvering qualities.
From the near-by Coast Guard station at Wood End on the sandy tip of Cape Cod, overlooking the trial course and not half a mile away, were flying signals warning of an approaching northwest storm—for that vicinity the worst possible direction, as the wind would have a free sweep down the coast and across all of Massachusetts Bay before striking the unsheltered trial course.
The day was cold, the sea already rising, with white-caps everywhere, and a force 4 wind whipping up a stiff chop over the whole bay, as the S-4, leaving her tender inside Provincetown Harbor, moved slowly out of the protected waters to the open bay, under the direction of Lieutenant Commander R. K. Jones, her captain for over two years.
The S-4, designed and built by the Navy, was a double-hulled submarine 231 feet long, 22 feet in the beam, and of 800 tons surface displacement. Of this special class, the S-type, built mainly during the World War and considered generally a very satisfactory size for all-around service, the Navy had about 50 boats. On the surface, the S-4 was driven by two 8-cylinder Diesel engines; submerged, by two powerful electric motors from massive storage batteries.
For safety in case of accident, four heavily reinforced transverse steel bulkheads divided the S-4 into five main watertight compartments. These were, in order, starting from the bow, the torpedo room, the battery room, the control room, the engine room, and the motor room. Of these compartments, the battery room, owing to the space required to house the storage cells which fed the submerged propelling motors, was by far the largest. It extended practically from the conning tower amidships some 51 feet forward through the widest part of the vessel and provided incidentally, in the space over the battery cell storage, the living and sleeping quarters (much confined of course) for the entire crew, both officers and men, except a few torpedomen whose berths were slung over the torpedo storage forward.
On this particular December day, in addition to her regular crew of 4 officers and 34 men, the S-4 carried, to observe the trials as representative of the Navy Trial Board in Washington, Lieutenant Commander Callaway and his civilian assistant, Mr. Charles Ford, making a total of 40 aboard.
Excerpted from Men Under the Sea by Edward Ellsberg. Copyright © 1939 Edward Ellsberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Chapter I
- Chapter II
- Chapter III
- Chapter IV
- Chapter V
- Chapter VI
- Chapter VII
- Chapter VIII
- Chapter IX
- Chapter X
- Chapter XI
- Chapter XII
- Chapter XIII
- Chapter XIV
- Chapter XV
- Chapter XVI
- Chapter XVII
- Chapter XVIII
- Chapter XIX
- Chapter XX
- Chapter XXI
- Chapter XXII
- Chapter XXIII
- Image Gallery
- About the Author