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The Ramming of U.S. Submarine S4

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The United States Submarine S4 had already seen many years of service when she docked for reconditioning late in 1927. Bigger and more up-to-date boats had been built and added to the fleet, outclassing her on many points, but none the less, S4 was still good for many a cruise, and active service if need be. As soon as she was ready it was planned to send her and others of her class to Southern waters with the Atlantic Fleet. At least one of her crew had served with her for eight years, and scarcely one of the forty who were to man her on her new career did not look forward to the day when she left the dockyard again. True, several misfortunes had befallen other boats of the "S" class, but those things seemed bound to happen, and are not thought of more than necessary. As submarines went, S4 was by no means a bad boat, and, in the opinion of her crew at any rate, there were far worse places to be than inside her double shell of steel, listening to the water lapping against her sides, or waiting for the order to dive.

Towards the latter part of 1928 the engineers and fitters had finished with her. Sleek, trim, handsome in her coat of new grey paint, she was ready for her element once more. All that remained for her to do, before rejoining the Atlantic Fleet, was to pass the necessary trials, cruising on the surface, diving, surfacing, and running at speed. Accordingly, on December 17th, 1928, her four officers and crew of thirty-four went on board, together with two representatives from the Board of Inspection and Survey, and she left Provincetown harbour for the open sea, heading for the measured stretch of water which, for about twelve years, had been used for that purpose.

Normally, when a submarine is exercising she is attended by a surface ship, the captain of which stands by, ready to co-operate or assist should any difficulties arise. In this case, however, S4 merely being at sea for a short while, and for standardisation tests, she went alone. The surface of the ocean was clear from horizon to horizon, and to all intents and purposes there was no need for an attending ship to hoist the "Submarine Flag" - an indication that a boat is under water. Surface trials were carried out according to plan, the crew soon accustomed themselves to the feel of the boat, and the order was given to dive. Hatches were closed, men took up diving stations, and the tanks were flooded; diesel engines stopped, and with her propellers running from power stored in her giant batteries, S4 sank slowly into the waves. The line of her deck vanished, the water lapped around the muzzle of her gun, rising up the sides of her conning tower, till finally only her tall periscope remained to cut its feathery wake; and then that too sank out of sight. Those who had watched her from the coastguard station at Wood End turned idly away as she disappeared from view. Far away, and behind them, the grey granite "Pilgrim" monument towered against the silent heavens. The land was as quiet as it was those centuries before, when the Pilgrim Fathers first reached the shore; and the bay and the sea was as empty and unbroken as it had been that day when the pioneers' white sails first cut across the horizon.

No one, looking out across that vast green stretch of ruffled water, would have imagined the strange activity going on beneath its surface. There was nothing to tell of the slim metal fish which ploughed its silent way through the gloomy depths. Presently, all underwater trials satisfactorily completed, the tanks would be blown; bubbles would rise from the depths as the water ballast was forced from the hollow sides and bottom; a feather of foam would appear as the submarine's eye protruded, followed rapidly, foot by foot, by the sleek grey sides of the conning tower. But until that moment arrived there was nothing to see, and nothing to indicate that there was or would be anything to see. And from the crow's nest of the coastguard vessel Paulding the sea appeared as empty as it did from the lookout post at the coastguard station itself. The Paulding was a fast ship, necessary with a large coastline to patrol, when the waters surrounding that coast afforded such scope for ships on unlawful missions. The Paulding had at one time herself been a destroyer in Uncle Sam's Navy, but now her duties included the patrolling of the sea, within the three-mile limit, round Cape Cod; and on this occasion, her day's work ended, she was steaming back to Provincetown Harbour, making a comfortable 18 knots.

Running steadily beneath the surface, at depths varying according to the requirements of her tests, S4 sped silently on her way. Encased in her metal shell, the forty men went about their different duties with orderly precision, eyes on dials, able fingers on switches, levers and valves, ears alert for each sharp order. Stooping slightly, they ran nimbly from point to point as occasion demanded, ducking lower to pass through the bulkheads from one compartment to another, cramped in the little free space reserved for movement, talking above the continuous whine of the powerful electric motors - but cheerful in spite of all things, because it was the life of their own choosing - and comfortable, even, in spite of the discomfort, because they were accustomed to it. At last the programme was completed, and the final underwater notes were made. Everything had been satisfactory. A final surface run would complete operations, and S4 would moor in Provincetown Harbour, to await her full complement of sixty-five officers and men, and the orders to join the fleet for Southern waters.

"Stand by to surface!"

Amidships, in the conning tower, Lieutenant-Commander Roy K. Jones issued his orders. One by one valves were opened, and the compressed air hissed from the metal bottles, forcing the water from the tanks. Eyes glued to the periscope, the officer swung it slowly round, waiting for the first moment when it would become useful. Section by section the needle of the depth gauge crept round the dial as the boat grew buoyant and rose. A few moments more, and the periscope would stab through the waves into the air. Before the last of the water had streamed from the sides of the conning tower, the hatches would be flung open, admitting gushes of welcome sea air into the stuffy bowels of the ship. Thirty feet... Twenty-five feet.... Twenty feet. The tip of the periscope broke surface.

Steaming along at an easy 18 knots, the Paulding drew nearer and nearer to Provincetown Harbour. The coastguards on duty watched her casually through their glasses, though she was already close enough to be able to distinguish figures walking on her decks. Her helmsman, roving eyes automatically on the water ahead, saw a long stick-like object projecting from the waves, almost under her bows - just the type of stick which many of the local fishermen used to mark their nets. Instinctively he swung the helm over, wishing to avoid any obstructions. But, even as he swung the wheel, a dark shadow appeared at the base of the stick. Almost under the bows of the ship, rising in a froth of bubbles, was the glint of metal. In a few split seconds the innocent "stick" had reared up nearly twenty feet. A lightning order for "Full speed and full rudder" was of no avail. Nothing on this earth could have saved what followed. By the most tragic of coincidences, all unknown to each other, the captains of those two boats had set their courses so that they crossed. Rising from the depths, unseen, unexpected, S4 broke surface a bare few feet from Paulding's sharp bows. There was a grinding crash, and a shriek of tortured steel. Paulding hesitated, shivering from stem to stern under the impact. Those at the coastguard station saw her quiver... saw her bows lift momentarily from the waves. Horrified, dumb with amazement, those on Paulding's decks saw the grey sides of S4 materialise from the depths, pause for one dreadful moment, and then, rolling drunkenly, plunge back whence she had come.

It was all over so quickly that S4 had disappeared before all those on board Paulding knew the cause of the shock. A few seconds previously the surface of the sea had been a wide expanse of waves, chopping and rolling without interruption, from horizon to coast. Without the slightest warning hint of her presence, S4 appeared from nowhere, as though mysteriously attracted to the spot. Followed a ghastly crash, and a shock which hurled men from their feet, and once more the surface of the sea was unbroken save by waves. Even as the Paulding was slowed and stopped, great bubbles rose and burst by her side. A grim and tell-tale patch of oil appeared and spread. Boats were lowered at once, ready to pick up any S4 men who might have survived, but not a trace of wreckage or a sign of life was seen; and Paulding, herself in a sinking condition, was obliged to make for the shore at all speed, otherwise she might well have followed the submarine to the bottom of the ocean. A buoy was hastily dropped to mark the scene of the tragedy, and her captain rang the engines "Full Ahead," even while the radio crackled out its terrible message:

"Rammed and apparently sank S4 at 15.37 (3.37 p.m.) off Wood End Coastguard Station. Boats searching for survivors. Paulding Provincetown Harbour. Lower hold filled. Will probably have to beach her."

But though the boats searched, not a trace of any of the crew was seen, and Paulding was barely beached in time at Long Point Lighthouse. As soon as the radio message was received a score of naval vessels put out for Provincetown Harbour, tearing through the water at top speed towards the spot where that single buoy bobbed up and down upon the waves. Minesweepers, submarine tenders and coastguard vessels, with pontoons and deep-sea divers, converged upon that patch of oil from New York, Boston, Portsmouth, and New London; smaller craft arriving off Wood End quite soon, but powerless to make any active attempts at salvage, dropped more buoys round the one which Paulding had left behind her. No one knew what to expect. Barring that significant patch of oil, there was no evidence at all that the submarine lay below; motors still turning, diving slowly, she might easily have travelled many hundreds of yards away before touching bottom. What had befallen her crew? Had they perished almost instantly, drowned in the flood of water which followed the piercing of her hull? Or were they all alive, uninjured even, trapped and helpless on account of damaged machinery? No guess, however wild or optimistic it appeared, was beyond the bounds of possibility. Experts who sought to point out the slender chances of total survival were reminded by others, less technically minded, of a similar collision which occurred some years previously.

In that case a submarine surfaced within a few yards of a destroyer, heading right at it. There was no time to alter course. Collision was inevitable. Stabbing out of the sea, the slender periscope had revealed the worst before even the conning tower was awash. There was but one chance. "Crash dive!" ordered the skipper instantly, and the crew, trained to respond to such emergencies without a second's hesitation, had opened valves, set diving fins, and set motors at "full speed ahead," almost as the words left his lips. Before the conning tower had fully appeared it was sinking again. Bows first, the submarine slipped back into the depths almost in time - but not quite. With grinding force the two ships struck. Bubbles, oil, silence. The surface craft stopped dead, then clustered around the spot where the submersible had vanished. But although collision had been unavoidable, the captain's lightning action had not been unsuccessful. Still diving, staggering, and temporarily out of control, the boat touched bottom. Scarcely daring to breathe, the crew waited - and listened. But there was no rushing of water - no choking gas. Not only was the boat dry, but all the main controls still functioned. A few preliminary trials with the valves, and the captain decided to try and surface. And then followed a miracle. As the crews of the surface craft stood by, stricken dumb with what they had witnessed, a froth of bubbles appeared as tanks were blown far below. A moment or two later, and the submarine popped up into view - her periscope and her whole conning tower torn away. Hatches were flung open, and the entire crew scrambled to safety.

Why, then, pointed out the more optimistic, should hope be abandoned for the crew of S4? True, she was lying in mud at any depth between seventy and two hundred feet, but who was to say that her commander had not also ordered a timely "Crash dive?" Even while they waited, impotent, while the rescue vessels steamed away the miles, the engineers might well be working feverishly to adjust some major fault in the machinery. At any moment, the fault, or faults, remedied, and S4 might reappear. The very fact that no bodies had appeared on the surface was a hopeful sign. But as the hours passed and nothing happened, hopes of a repetition of such a miracle faded. Night drew on, and still the main body of the rescue fleet had not come up. The Wandack, the tender which would normally have attended S4, flying the warning flag, stood by the buoys throughout the hours of darkness. In the early hours of the morning the first of the salvage boats would arrive, and they must know exactly where to anchor.

As night fell over America, the people in ten thousands of homes discussed the terrible calamity. Blatantly the bare details were smeared across the pages of their papers. Radio programmes were broken by emergency messages for divers, and summonses for sailors to rejoin their ships. Somewhere in the utter darkness of the ocean forty poor souls were trapped, doomed to what might be the most terrible of all deaths - if they had not already perished. And if they still lived? That was the question which trembled on the lips of every one of America's millions who heard the news. Would they be saved? Had they air enough, food enough, water enough to last them until such time as the rescue ships arrived and carried out their gigantic task. It was horrible to think of the alternative, but one could not shut out the thoughts which came so easily. But, as the hours passed, so did the more optimistic call forth more and yet more hope.

When an ordinary ship sinks, those who are not picked up from the surface of the sea arc inevitably lost. With a submarine, however, everything is different; or so it was argued. And the S4, although by no means a modern boat, was divided into no less than five compartments, each of which could be sealed in a matter of seconds if the occasion arose. Motor-room, engine-room, control room, battery-room, and forward torpedo compartment, each could be turned into an isolated section, even if the other four were punctured. And so the speculation continued as the night wore on, and in the homes of the sailors who had sailed on hat ill-fated voyage, women sought to reason with themselves against their panic, trusting that what they heard might be true.

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