The waters of Pearl Harbor are haunted by the souls of many sailors and the warships they left behind. Tourists flock here annually by the thousands to view the sunken hulk of the battleship USS Arizona and pay tribute to its fallen crew. But few realize that the ghosts of the submarine USS F-4 still hover nearby, on eternal patrol in a 50-foot trench off Pearl Harbor's submarine base.
It was 85 years ago today -- March 25, 1915 -- that the United States lost its first submarine after a sudden mishap caused the F-4 to sink in 300 feet of water less than two miles from Honolulu Harbor. Though the entire crew of 21 sailors drowned, the incident inspired heroic rescue attempts and an unprecedented salvage operation that lasted five months.
A STORY RARELY TOLD
The heartbreaking story of the USS F-4 immediately made front-page news in Honolulu and across the United States at the time, eclipsing even news of the war in Europe for months. The submarine was relatively new and unique, and at that time, only 17 of the underwater war machines had been lost worldwide. This was an unfortunate first for the United States.
Since the F-4's salvage and subsequent resinking, only a smattering of newspaper articles, magazine narratives and Navy reports exist that document what really happened on that day in 1915. Many of these records are stored at either the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park at Pearl Harbor or with the archives of Commander Submarine Forces Pacific. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin followed the F-4's story closely as well. These records weave the tragic tale.
HAWAI`I'S FIRST SUBMARINE FLEET
According to the Dictionary of Naval Fighting Ships, the SS-23, originally named Skate, was renamed F-4 in 1911 and was launched by Moran Bros. Co. of Seattle in 1912. It was the 24th submarine commissioned into the U.S. Navy. After commissioning on May 3, 1913, the F-4 and its sister ships joined the 1st Submarine Group, Pacific Torpedo Flotilla, in Hawai`i. They were the first four submarines to be stationed in Hawai`i.
Because of their limited range, however, all of them were towed to Honolulu from Mare Island by cruisers. One Honolulu newspaper described the boats as "queer little craft but the first warships in many years that Honolulu can call her own." An unidentified article dated 1963 indicates that the F-4 suffered a severe battery explosion shortly after its commissioning, an incident that some took as an omen of the disaster to come.
The submariner's life in 1915 contrasted sharply with that of today's nuclear-powered giants. Space limitations and the short operational range of a typical F-class submarine did not call for a large crew, nor was it designed with a galley, bunks or toilet facilities.
In addition to the captain, Lt. Alfred L. Ede, the F-4 carried 20 enlisted men. Its hull was divided into three compartments: the torpedo room forward, which carried four 18-inch torpedoes, the control room amidships and the engine room in the stern. Operating from the old Navy pier, these submarines made short daily training exercises that usually began around 9 a.m. and commenced at noon. Primitive and small by today's standards, the 142-foot boats used diesel engines for surface cruising and two 310-horsepower electric motors driven by 120 battery cells while submerged.
"As each new submarine became operational, the Navy learned more and more of the frailties and problems connected with this relatively new arm of the fleet," said Alfred W. Harris in "Last Dive of the F-4 Sub," published in a June 1979 edition of Sea Combat magazine. "Many of the difficulties that confronted submariners arose unexpectedly, and attempts to find solutions for these problems were often formulated on pretty much of a trial and error basis."
THE FINAL DIVE
By Dec. 14, the F-4 had completed all repairs from its battery explosion, and commenced normal operations for several months. When it left Honolulu harbor for the last time on March 25, 1915 at around 9 a.m., its crew expected to practice some typical training maneuvers with the F-1 and F-3 and be back for lunch by noon. Many had wives and children waiting nearby in Honolulu, though most of their families lived on the U.S. Mainland.
Some accounts indicate that one fortunate crewman was inadvertently left behind when he reported to the wrong dock and missed the launch.
The last person to see the F-4 was a lightkeeper on duty at the lighthouse at Barbers Point. He saw the boat submerge and minutes later remembered hearing what sounded like an underwater explosion in the same area. At the time, it seemed inconsequential, so he went about his business.
Others began to worry when the F-1 and F-3 returned to the harbor without the F-4, and within two hours smaller boats were launched to locate the missing submarine. Most assumed that at worst the F-4 had lost power and simply needed a tow back to its base. A few hours later, the search party noticed air bubbles and an oil slick -- the telltale signs of a submarine in distress.
Charts indicated that the incapacitated F-4 was sitting in about 300 feet of water, withstanding pressure much greater than its hull was designed for.
Realizing the urgency of the situation, the Navy initiated a rescue operation, which first involved pinpointing the exact location of the boat -- no easy task in 1915.
"Any attempt at raising the F-4 and rescuing any possible survivors presented the Navy with a situation in which (it) had practically no experience," Harris said in Sea Combat magazine. "While fires, explosions and numerous other types of accidents had occurred about other U.S. submarines, F-4 was the first of our boats to take her crew to the bottom, unable to return."
Numerous cable sweeps of the ocean floor by tugs finally gave rescue personnel a good idea of the boat's location, but divers attempting to reach the vessel faced poor visibility and depths that had not yet been reached by any human. "The Navy assumed the F boats were capable of remaining submerged for two weeks," said Ray de Yarmin in a March 1994 issue of Patrol magazine. "It was believed the only real danger would be a lack of food."
During an attempt to attach heavy lifting cables to the F-4, the Navy's best deep-sea divers reached record depths of 185 and 196 feet.
"The search grew more intense as darkness fell and underwater signals to the F-4 went unanswered," said Peter Stevens in a November 1990 issue of Honolulu Magazine. "Rumors of the disaster at the harbor's mouth spread from the piers into Honolulu, and hordes of citizens jammed the waterfront, staring solemnly at the distant lights of the search ships."
More than 24 hours later, however, after four tugs had tried time and again in vain to move the stricken vessel to shallower water with steel cable slings, they lost hope of saving the men inside. The waterlogged craft was too heavy to move, and too much time had passed for the doomed crew, which had most likely run out of oxygen, drowned or asphyxiated. Now full of water, the F-4 would be a deadweight of 260 tons.
FROM RESCUE ATTEMPT TO SALVAGE
Though the men could not be saved, the Navy spared no time, expense or ingenuity to raise the F-4. The submarine's loss had become a public relations nightmare for the Navy, but it would take five grueling months full of endless setbacks before the vessel would reach the surface.
During that time, Chief Gunner's Mate Frank Crilley was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his efforts to rescue Chief Gunner's Mate William F. Loughman, a fellow diver who was entangled for four hours in the cable being used to move the submarine. By then the men were routinely working at depths approaching 300 feet. Loughman suffered severe head, shoulder and chest injuries and was unconscious when finally brought to the surface, but he would survive thanks to Crilley's heroism. During the salvage, Crilley also became the first diver to reach a depth of 305 feet, establishing a new world record.
The F-4 finally came home on Aug. 29 with the help of eight specially designed salvage pontoons built at the Mare Island Navy Yard and shipped to Honolulu aboard the Maryland, an armored cruiser. It was towed into the harbor and dry-docked. Only then could the Navy begin the dreadful task of extracting and identifying the dead submariners.
A Navy investigating board later attributed the accident to the corrosion of rivets in the lead lining of a ballast tank, most likely caused by sulfuric acid. This corrosion permitted seawater to seep into the battery compartment. According to U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, "As the sea valves of the ballast tank were open as usual, additional water entered the hull, probably to the extent of several tons. This caused the boat to sink to a bottom depth of 288 feet within two to four minutes, where the water pressure was so enormous as to open her seams," flooding the vessel.
It was eventually found that the accident was not due to carelessness, negligence or inefficiency on the part of the men on the vessel.
It is assumed the crew drowned, but only after futile attempts to resurface. Fifteen of their bodies were found in the F-4's engine room behind a closed hatch, indicating they had sought refuge there before ever increasing depths allowed seawater to flood the entire hull.
THE DOOMED F-CLASS
Badly crushed and battered, the F-4 was stricken from the Navy Register on Aug. 31, 1915. Her sister ships were marked for disaster, as well.
According to one account, the F-1, 2 and 3 were on the surface making engineering runs off Point Loma, Calif., when fog set in. The F-3 struck the F-1, resulting in a large hole that caused it to sink in 600 feet of water in about 10 seconds. Only five of the crew escaped, leaving 19 to perish. No attempt has ever been made to raise the F-1. Incidentally, the remaining two F-class submarines were rammed by a steamer and dry-docked. Shortly thereafter the Navy declared all of the F-class submarines defective and dangerous, and they were removed from active service.
Archives at the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park indicate that the salvaged F-4 was "tied up at various berths since 1915," and was then "shuttled about Pearl Harbor until 1940," after which time the Navy dug a trench "and put this piece of history in a safe haven very close at hand."
The F-4 sat 10 feet under the silt for another 18 years until 1958 when the Navy, in a clean-up effort, considered raising it again. But concern over the safety of such an operation and the sinking of the submarine Stickleback that same year put the project on hold. Estimates to raise, restore and display the F-4 as a memorial since then have come with a prohibitive $40 million price tag.
The USS F-4 remains the U.S. Navy's oldest existing submarine.
USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park, selected archives: