Maritime Book Review: Under Pressure

Under Pressure: The Final Voyage of Submarine S-Five

By A.J. Hill

The Free Press, 2002

239 pages

Under Pressure is a true story of men against the sea, painstakingly researched by first-time author A.J. Hill, a scientist and former Navy man. Submarine S-Five’s final voyage was also her maiden voyage, when, on the first day of September in 1920, a practice crash dive by the Navy’s newest ship ended with S-Five embarking 75 tons of seawater and coming to rest on the continental shelf in the approaches to Chesapeake Bay.

There the sub would remain with perhaps 40 hours of air within the skin of the ship, no means of propulsion, no means of egress and no means of communication. There her resourceful crew and commanding officer would make their own luck and survive.

The tale is told largely through the eyes of Lt. Cmdr. Charles M. “Savvy” Cooke, S-Five’s captain. When a faulty valve and human error sends his crew to apparent death, he tries a variety of jury-rig pump operations, finally forcing water to the bow until the 240-foot sub is close to vertical, and the stern is just a bit more than awash above the surface. Thus the rescue by a passing merchant ship, once the steel hull was accessed.

The story tells a tense race against time, wherein Cooke prevails by an impressive combination of technical know-how and incredible leadership — testament to which is that the crew volunteered not only to return to submarine duty, but to do so with Cooke.

In the accident that sent S-Five to the bottom, there was no single point of failure, either human or engineering, that caused the disaster. So it is with most marine accidents. However, Cooke and his crew rather reverse-engineered those many factors and accomplished numerous brilliant jury-rigs that would allow their rescue.

For instance, instead of employing the overwhelmed pump and drainage systems, Cooke thought to use the high-pressure air remnant in his boat — normally used to de-ballast or send torpedoes away. With this approach, he was able to push water out ventilator ducts rather than pull water out through the usual (and by that time inadequate) de-watering means.

Cooke later husbanded enough air already in his fuel tanks, though a careful use of transfer lines, to pump fuel back out into the sea, both further lightening the submarine and sending an oil slick to the surface as a distress signal. Similar feats of desperation and genius are extraordinary in their continuity throughout the ordeal.

Cooke was a close friend of fellow submariner Adm. Chester Nimitz and would himself later become an admiral who walked the beach during the allied invasion at Normandy 24 years later (recommending that more senior officers put themselves under the Wehrmacht guns alongside the junior people).

A.J. Hill has undertaken a tremendous amount of naval engineering research to tell this tale accurately and understandably. Access to Cooke’s personal papers, which include the recollections of the crew recorded immediately after the ordeal by a Navy yeoman, aided the author in portraying both the technical aspects and the human side of this tale. Accordingly, the author does not need to suppose or invent dialogue and actions, as is sometimes the case in Sebastian Junger’s Perfect Storm.

Under Pressure is a tribute to Yankee ingenuity, the courage of those who go down to the sea in ships, and the chivalry of mariners. Yet it is also a lesson that no amount of management can ever replace a ship’s captain’s possessing an intimate knowledge of every valve, deckplate and system that comprise his or her command. Technology will never be failsafe and must always be the servant, not the master.

Raymond J. Brown is a retired Coast Guard captain. He currently is a transportation security consultant.

By Professional Mariner Staff