Tuesday, August 31, 2010


While engaged in the annual fleet maneuvers to the westward of Hawaii, in the spring of 1935, the USS S-27, one of our small submarines, was assigned to a patrol station to the south of Midway Island during one phase of the exercises.  The patrol was established in order to observe and report the possible approach of "enemy" forces toward Midway.

Until "enemy" aircraft or surface units were known or suspected to be in the immediate vicinity of a patrolling submarine it was standard proactice to remain on the surface and to submerge at the first indication of the presence of any "enemy" unit.  This required many hours of dreary observation with no contacts to report and in some cases boats would return from the exercise without once having made a report.

While cruising on the surface one day during the progress of the maneuvers, the officer-of-the-deck, a helmsman, and necessary lookout were stationed on the bridge of the S-27.  An istant state of readiness to submerge was maintained and all that was required to go down was to sound the diving alarm.  All hands were prepared to abandon the bridge hurriedly and to take their stations for a quick dive.  The Captain was normally either on the bridge or below decks, depending upon how tired he happened to be or upon the immediate situation as far as the fleet problem was concerned.

On the S-type of submarine there were two access hatches to the bridge from below decks.  One hatch came up through the conning tower and gave access to the bridge proper and was usually used for passage between the control room and the conning station.  The after battery room, however, just aft of the control room, was also provided with a hatch to the after bridge structure.  Although this hatch served as an emergency exit and was especially designed and fitted for making escapes from submerged submarines, it was a favorite exit for personnel not desiring to intrude upon the officer-of-the-deck or other formally stationed bridge personnel.  For instance, the ship's cooks and electrician's mates stationed in the after battery room liked to get a breath of air now and then and invariabley they used the the after battery room hatch.  This was a custom believed to be generally observed on all S-boats.

On the day about which this account is concerned, S-27 personnel were alertly watching for signs of "enemy" activity and the officer-of-the-deck and bridge crew were intent on performing their assigned duties to the best of their ability.  The Captain was in his stateroom and was taking a nap or otherwise relaxing.  There were no signs that this would be any different from the other days that had been tediously checked off.

The bridge personnel were so concentrated on their lookout duteis that they did not notice an off-watch member of the crew, an electrician's mate, come up on deck via the battery room hatch.  This individual closed the hatch softly and very carefully lest he disturb those on watch on the bridge.  Then he proceeded to stretcfh out on the afted bridge structure, hidden from the sight of all, for the purpose of taking a short nap.  Since the battery room was hot and poorly ventilated the man simply desired to get some fresh air.  He decided to combine his desire for fresh air with a nap.

Several minutes of time ticked by and the mas was fast asleep, the officer-of-the-deck, necessarily oblivious of the presence of the sleeper, scanned the horizon continuously for the approach of the "enemy."  Suddenly a speck was detected which materialized rapidley into an aircraft, headed straight for the S-27.  This was what had been awaited.  The O.O.D. instantly sounded the diving alarm, jumped down the ladder, and supervised the closing of the conning tower hatch after all the personnel had evacuated the bridge.  [That is, all except one perfectly relaxed member of the crew, out of sight and asleep.]

Upon hearing the diving alarm, the Captain rushed to the control room and manned the periscope to inspect the contact.  All the noise and quiet confusion connected with the rapid submergence of a submarine transpired and seconds later the boat was diving.

The man on deck first realized that something was amiss when he was rudely awakened by sea water lapping about his ears.  Incredulously he passed a few seconds tring to figure out what had happened.  Not for long, however.  The realization came to him, and swiftly, that boat was submerging without him.  He was wide awake all at once.  His first frantic desire was to get below.  The hatch nearest to him, the one used to come on the topside, was definitely secured so he rushed forward to the conning tower.  While moving toward that hatch the boat was slowly settling downward.  By the time the man reached the hatch the water was about waist high.  He lunged for a heavy emergency wrench kept on the topside and tried to use it to attract attention.  Unfortunately his beating and flailing fell upon solid sea water and made no sound below.  About this time the periscope began moving slowly upward.

In accordance with a decision previously reached, the Captain had fully intended to go down to at least 100 feet depth in order to be safe from the eyes of the pilot of any plane encountered.  On this occasion, however, he had reason to believe that a possiblility existed that the sighted plane would turn out to be "friendly."  Planes had special markings for the fleet problem, and a look through the periscope was deemed in order.  As the periscope slowly went up the Captain grasped the handles and got ready to make an ovservation.  But there was something wrong!  The periscope seemed frozen.  With some difficulty the periscope was rotated and trained toward the reported bearing of the aircraft and finally the eyepiece came to t he level of the eyes of the Captain.  All this had transpired in a matter of seconds.  When the Captain looke through the periscope he was horrified to see a human face staring back. Without an instan'ts hesitation he orderd "Surface!" and made preparations to rescue the man on the topside.

When his attempt to attract attention by pounding of the wrench had failed, the man on topside had grasped the rising periscope as the only material object to which to cling.  The surface of the periscope was covered with a thick grease used to protect the metal from contact with the water and to act as a lubricating medium for assistance in housing the periscope into the lowered position.  This grease successfully lubricated the attempts of the man to hol on and he moved one way as rapidly as did the periscope the other.

At the top extremity of the periscope was the conventional few feet of painted vertical surface.  No grease was required since this portion was always exposed.  This portion of the periscope was finally reached and the man held on for dear life.  His arrival at the top of the periscope must have coincided with the instant that the Captain was in a position to make an observation.  Coincident with the latters attempt to make an observation the man outside did likewise and they came face to face with each other.

Upon surfacing, a badly shaken man was recovered.  He was so completely unnerved that he could not speak.  It was sometime before his story could be gotton out of him.

In normal circumstances the submarine would have gone deep and the man would not have had a chance for survival.  He would have been cast adrift to certain death and it would have been hours before his loss would have been discovered.  The mystery of his disappearance would have been complete and  it could not have been solved.  The decison of t he Captain to take one "last look" saved the life of the man and saved the Navy the necessity and difficulty of establishing how and wen a member of the crew of S-27 vanished completely without a trace....

Oh and by the way....."The plane happened to be 'friendly'"


Bud Shortridge