December 17, 1927

Coast Guard Cutter Collides with Navy Submarine

PRIMARY SOURCE: Newspaper, 1982
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On this day in 1927, a Navy submarine, S-4, and a Coast Guard cutter collided within sight of Provincetown. The cutter's bow sliced into the submarine's hull, sending it to the bottom of the bay within minutes. The Coast Guard and Navy immediately dispatched rescue ships and divers, but a growing nor'easter and treacherous underwater currents thwarted their attempts to rescue the six trapped survivors. By the time divers reached them again four days after the accident, all six had died. The failed rescue attempt got international media coverage, and an inquiry followed. To the outrage of many, only the captain of the submarine was held responsible for the tragedy. However, subsequent improvements in rescue equipment helped save lives in later sea disasters.

Three months later, salvagers raised the sub and towed it to the drydock at the Charlestown Navy Yard. The S-4 was repaired and returned to active duty as a submarine rescue and salvage test ship.

As dusk fell on the Saturday before Christmas of 1927, two Coast Guardsmen stationed at Wood End in Provincetown noticed the periscope of a Navy submarine breaking the surface of the water just in front of the cutter Paulding. Within minutes, the cutter had rammed the sub, which soon came to rest on the ocean floor 100 feet below.

The Paulding's captain immediately sent a distress call and lowered the lifeboats to pick up any survivors. But nothing appeared except a few air bubbles and an oil slick. The Wood End Coast Guard station launched a rescue boat and raced to the spot. For the next six hours they struggled to hook the side of the submarine with a grapple line, but when they finally succeeded, gale force winds snapped the line.

The next morning, Navy rescue ships and divers arrived on the scene. Officers tried to determine if any sailors had survived the initial collision and if it would be possible to rescue them. Despite strengthening winds and worsening seas, the rescuers managed to locate the sub, and a Navy diver dove down to it. He heard noise from inside; it seemed as though at least some members of the crew were still alive. Tapping in Morse code on the hull, the diver asked how many. "Six," came the answer from the forward torpedo room. The survivors estimated the oxygen on board would last 48 hours.

Tapping in Morse code on the hull, the diver asked how many. "Six," came the answer from the forward torpedo room.

The naval officers running the rescue faced a dilemma: should they attach an air hose to bring fresh air to the men trapped in the torpedo room or should they pump air into the ballast tanks in hopes of floating the sub to the surface? Tragically, their decision — to attach the hose to the tanks — proved to be the wrong one. The ballast tanks were more severely damaged than first thought, and rescuers watched in dismay as a stream of air bubbles leaking out of the tanks came to the surface. The already stormy weather deteriorated further; it was no longer safe to send divers into the water.

Using an oscillator attached to the hull of the S-4, the rescuers could communicate via Morse code with the survivors. The six men asked when they could hope to be rescued and received messages from their families. The Navy rear admiral in charge of the operation got many offers of help. He rebuffed them all, including one from the father of a man trapped on the S-4. The Coast Guard cordoned off the area, and officials waited for weather conditions to improve. By the time they did, it was too late. Around 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, roughly 62 hours after the collision, the survivors sent a final heartbreaking message: "We understand."

Around 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, roughly 62 hours after the collision, the survivors sent a final heartbreaking message: "We understand."

Once the weather cleared, the despondent rescuers set to work recovering the bodies of the 38 officers and sailors lost on the S-4. Three months later, salvagers raised the sub and towed it to the drydock at the Charlestown Navy Yard. The S-4 was repaired and returned to active duty as a submarine rescue and salvage test ship.

A court inquiry into the disaster held three individuals responsible for the tragedy: both captains and the rear admiral in charge of the rescue operations. Later, the Secretary of the Navy overturned the decision, exonerating the captain of the Paulding and the rear admiral. He laid the blame squarely on the dead captain of the sunken submarine.

The sinking of the S-4 led to changes in navigation regulations and new escape and rescue devices for submariners.

Having watched helplessly as the tragedy unfolded, the people of Provincetown did not forget. They began holding a church service every year on December 17th. The tradition continues today. Taps are played and the flag presented, in memory of the men lost on the S-4.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Greater Boston and Southeast regions of Massachusetts.

Sources

Provincetown: Stories for Land's End, by Kathy Shorr (Commonwealth Editions, 2002).

Cape Cod Companion: The History and Mystery of Old Cape Cod, by Jack Sheedy and Jim Coogan (Harvest Home Books, 2001).

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