The rescue divers could hear the crew tapping out a message in Morse code: Is there any hope? After being accidentally rammed by the Coast Guard destroyer USS Paulding on December 17, 1927, the USS S-4 submarine sank to the ocean floor off Cape Cod with all forty crew aboard. Only six sailors in the forward torpedo room survived the initial accident, trapped in the compartment with the oxygen running out.
Author and naval historian Joseph A. Williams has delved into never-revealed archival sources to tell the compelling narrative of the S-4 disaster, the first attempt to rescue survivors stranded aboard a modern submarine. As navy deep sea divers struggled to save the imprisoned men, a winter storm raged at the surface, creating some of the worst diving conditions in American history. Circumstances were so terrible that one diver, Fred Michels, became trapped in the wreckage while trying to attach an air hose to the sunken sub—the rescuer now needed to be rescued. It was only through the bravery of a second diver, Thomas Eadie, that Michels was saved.
As detailed in Seventeen Fathoms Deep, lessons learned during this great tragedy moved the US Navy to improve submarine rescue technology, which resulted in later successful rescues of other downed submariners.
5 ***** stars!
Seventeen Fathoms Deep effected me emotionally. It is the true story of a submarine that was sunk in December 1927 when struck by a Coast Guard boat that had been cruising around hunting for rum runners. The tragedy threw the nation into an uproar, blaming the Navy in particular in every possible way. Even though they could have followed advice before the tragedy from a respected engineer to install some type of brackets on top so that a sub could be pulled up from the deep in the event of a sinking and didn’t, claiming that the weight would make the craft slower. But, it must be said, that upon the S-4 sinking, the Navy mobilized quickly to the scene, gathering a flotilla of various ships hoping to rescue the 40 men trapped in the sub as quickly as possible. The weather would not cooperate, being some of the worst imaginable. In spite of that, the elite Navy divers did their best to evacuate the men, risking frequently their own lives. As the story unfolded, I kept thinking “Oh those poor men!” trying to imagine the horror of what they were living. Ice cold temperatures, dark, stuck in 18 inches of water and not able to move much to conserve oxygen, and tapping out periodically in morse code “is there any hope?” Mr. Williams thoroughly researched then compiled the forgotten story into a compelling novel that I will never forget, not only what the men trapped must have felt and thought, but the admirable bravery exhibited daily for months by the divers. The good that came out of that tragedy was that it forced the Navy to improve the safety of the submarines, and invent ways for men aboard them to save themselves and also devices for rescue. All history lovers should have this book in their collection. To this day, every November, a service is held in Provincetown, Mass. (the town close to where the sub was sunk) for the men. How come most of us don’t know of this disaster? I received this book from the author and his publisher, Chicago Review Press in exchange for an honest review. I am blessed to have read it.
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5 ***** stars!
This is a nonfiction book of maritime history, taking place mainly in 1927 in the waters off of Provincetown, Cape Cod.
The rum-runner-chasing Coast Guard ship Pauline collided with the partially submerged S-4 submarine with devastating results. The Pauline was relatively unharmed, but the S-4 went down, leaving bubbles and an oil slick in its wake. The crew, if any were left alive after the accident, were trapped in a dark, leaking submarine seventeen fathoms deep, with a very limited supply of food and air that will not last for long. When assistance arrives, can they save any possible survivors before time runs out? With a storm brewing, and divers hindered from going down, the odds of a rescue are slim. Will they make it out alive, or die while their rescuers look on helplessly?
Williams tells the thrilling story of a nautical tragedy of errors in such a vivid way that he literally pulls you back in time and submerges (no pun intended) you in the moment. This is not just the story of a submarine disaster, but it is also about how this one now-forgotten event has changed the world in unimaginable ways over the years. I really liked this book, and think that every nautical history buff should get a copy and read it. Definitely worth five stars.
Interview with Joseph A. Williams, Author
For our previous interview with Mr. Williams, and about his book “The Sunken Gold”, click here.
twogalsandabook: “Seventeen Fathoms Deep” has received very high praise by national best selling authors. How does that make you feel?
Joseph A. Williams: Honestly, it is all very humbling, especially when authors who I admire like my own work.
twogalsandabook: If the S-4 had been equipped with the “lifting eyes” that Edward Ellsburg had recommended after the S-51 tragedy, do you think that the men could have been saved, or would other deficiencies in technology and knowledge still have proved inadequate?
Joseph A. Williams: The lifting eyes that Ellsberg recommended only would have worked if the whole submarine had been retrofitted so that a winch from that depth could haul the submarine to the surface. After the “S-4” lifting eyes were installed on some submarines, but the Navy discontinued them shortly thereafter since the eyes interfered with how aquadynamic a boat was beneath the sea. Now, if those eyes were properly installed on the “S-4,” I am not confident that those men could have been easily saved since the weather savaged the whole rescue operation.
twogalsandabook: With the news media’s obsession to sell papers, and tendency to exaggeration to do so, do you think their presence made matters worse as far as being a distraction and hampering progress? Should there be lines drawn as far as the public’s need to know? If so, how should that decision be made?
Joseph A. Williams: I don’t think that the media’s presence was unwanted or undesirable if you look at their role in a functioning democracy and the right for people to know what was happening. Their interference with the mission, while a nuisance to those aboard the Falcon was certain, I do not believe it really hampered progress. If anything, it intensified pressure on the Navy to rescue those men. I think most of the problems that the mission had with the press emanated from Ernest King, who was legendary for his whiplash tongue and arrogance. I think once they managed to embed a couple of journalists aboard the Falcon, things calmed down a bit.
twogalsandabook: Was it wise, in your opinion, to send men out in a craft that the Navy was still developing? Should the Navy have been so rash as to put men in harm’s way when so little could be done to save them in the event of an emergency? Or, are risks like this viewed as unavoidable in order to progress?
Joseph A. Williams: I think all military craft are always in a state of development and always have inherent dangers — look at modern submarine disasters. By 1927, submarines were a fully developed arm of the Navy, so the risks were known and understood. Unfortunately, it takes disasters to bring about innovations in safety technology since unforeseen contingencies always occur.
twogalsandabook: With all the valiant efforts of the divers trying to rescue the men of the S-4, and many of them receiving medals for their bravery, was there anyone that you felt should have received a medal and didn’t?
Joseph A. Williams: All the men who deserved medals got them.
twogalsandabook: If you had been on the rescue team for the S-4, is there anything you would have done differently?
Joseph A. Williams: Well, that’s a loaded question since I have the clarity of hindsight. As a matter of reference to your readers, the divers upon landing on the submarine, believed that only one compartment was flooded, the battery, S-class boats were designed to be raised with one compartment flooded by blowing the ballast tanks which would tilt up the stern of the vessel to breach the surface where the rescuers could cut through. However, more than one compartment was flooded and unbeknownst to them the ballast tanks had been compromised in the collision.
It would have been best if the divers upon getting to the “S-4” hooked up air to the compartment salvage air valves rather than the ballast tanks since this would have delivered air to the men in the torpedo room — it would still be very tough going since it would have taken weeks to raise the sub using salvage pontoons, but the Falcon was prepared to deliver soup through air pipes and packages through the torpedo tubes. But with that being said, I think that if I were heading the rescue mission and given the knowledge that they observed on the spot, I would have done what they did.
twogalsandabook: If you could travel back in time to this disaster, and had the opportunity to prevent it from happening, knowing that the advances to future submarines might not develop due to the disaster being averted, would you?
Joseph A. Williams: If I were to avert this disaster, another would occur that would result in improvements in rescue and safety technology. I’m thinking in particular of the incredible Squalus rescue in 1939.
twogalsandabook: Have you been to the annual commemorative gathering that was mentioned toward the end of the book yourself?
Joseph A. Williams: Oh yes! I have been there three times and presented twice with the last time being in 2017. I try to get up there when I can. The Vicar of the church is a great, caring man and has been carrying on this important tradition.
twogalsandabook: Has a trailer been made for “Seventeen Fathoms Deep”?
Joseph A. Williams: Nope.
twogalsandabook: What first sparked your interest in true stories of the sea?
Joseph A. Williams: I was always interested in maritime history, and have a MA in American history, but it really got going when I headed collections at the Stephen B. Luce Library at Maritime College. They have a largely unknown, but important collection of archival materials dealing with American maritime history.
twogalsandabook: Is it difficult to put yourself in the shoes of the people you have written about?
Joseph A. Williams: It is, but deep research helps. For example, if you want to empathize with the divers, then you really need to study their manuals and read their memoirs and then visualize yourself in that situation. Even better if you can get into a real Mark V diving dress!
twogalsandabook: Have you ever considered writing a fictional novel, and if so, what would it be about?
Joseph A. Williams: Great question. I have at times wanted to try my hand at fiction and my tastes in reading (if you see what I read on Goodreads) is diverse ranging from fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction, narrative nonfiction, and popular science. I think I’d enjoy most writing a fun sci-fi or fantasy book that doesn’t take itself too seriously — it is a nice reprieve from some of the grim stuff I’ve researched. I would also like writing historical fiction, especially from the colonial period or age of exploration. For example, I always found Drake’s circumnavigation interesting and it might form the good basis for a longer novel — but I definitely wouldn’t do it from Drake’s point of view.
twogalsandabook: If you were to write your own autobiography, what would you call it?
Joseph A. Williams: Who? Me? — Yes, I’d title it something like that.
twogalsandabook: When could we expect to see your next book?
Joseph A. Williams: This week I was planning to do some research at the National Archives in DC since I’m doing a talk at the International Spy Museum on 1/23, but this government shutdown has thrown a monkey wrench into the works. But in terms of big picture, if you do see another book from me, it probably won’t be out until at least 2020 since I am just at the very beginning of researching a new topic and it usually takes me about 2-3 years to finish a book project.
Giveaway For “Seventeen Fathoms Deep”
twogalsandabook.com would like to thank Joseph A. Williams and Chicago Review Press for copies of the book to read, the interview and generously offering one for the giveaway!