Harrison Talks About ‘Not Quite Dead’ Ships at Carderock

James Harrison, the director of the Expeditionary Warfare Ship Division at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), was at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division on Feb. 13 presenting a brown-bag lecture on damaged ships that just were not ready to sink. Titled “I’m Not Quite Dead Yet,” the lecture focused on ships that sustained large amounts of damage and kept operating. In addition to the presentation being interesting and humorous, Harrison hoped that it would also highlight why survivability is an important factor to consider in naval ship design.

One of the first ships Harrison discussed was USS Squalus (SS 192). A submarine commissioned in the late 1930s, she was running test dives off the coast of New Hampshire in 1939. Before submerging, they did not close the main induction valve, which ultimately flooded half of the submarine, including compartments like the torpedo room, the engine room and the battery shop. One of the Sailors who was closing the door recalled that they saw a close friend of his coming towards the door, but they had to close the door before he got there to prevent further flooding. Out of the crew of 59, 26 Sailors were lost.

The sub bottomed out in 243 feet of water, where her sister ship saw the emergency buoy and had enough information to know that there were survivors. USS Falcon (AM-28) was rushed from Groton, Connecticut, and set up a rescue effort with a McCann Submarine Rescue Chamber, a bell-shaped chamber that was lowered to the submarine and attached. The first ride brought up seven Sailors, the second and third brought up nine, but on the fourth run, the line partially parted and the chamber sank back down. The crew of the Falcon then hand-over-hand pulled this chamber back to the surface and rescued the final eight survivors, including the commanding officer (CO).

The concern then became that one of the U.S. Navy’s newest submarines was sunk just off the coast of New Hampshire, and the Navy launched a salvage effort. The first effort involved attaching pontoons to the submarine and bringing her to the surface, but once on the surface, the pontoons detached and she sank again. It took 628 dives to get her back to dry dock. She was recommissioned in 1940 as USS Sailfish (SS 192), and the CO later made it a punishable offense to use the name Squalus, although the nickname for the ship among the fleet was “Squailfish.”

“Arguably, it is one of the most successful rescues of submariners from a sunk submarine, and one of the reasons we keep the submarine-rescue research efforts going. It is one of the international standards that we have, not only with our Allies, but also our enemies; everyone agreed on how you would get submariners out of a submarine that sank,” Harrison said.

In addition to U.S. Navy ships, Harrison also discussed German navy ships like the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. For these two battlecruisers, the primary mission was for them to act as commerce raiders, not to fight other battleships. Harrison compared the lives of these ships to video games: once you get past the introductory level, the levels get harder and harder. HMS Rawalpindi was a converted ocean-liner, had eight six-inch guns, completely unarmored and was in the Iceland gap between the Norwegian Sea and the Atlantic Ocean on blockade duty in November 1939 when she came across these ships. The Rawalpindi CO’s final message was, “We’ll fight them both, they’ll sink us and that’ll be that. Good-bye.”

The ships later suffered structural damage due to rough seas and were repaired. They went on to take torpedo damage and need repairs. When they were sent on missions in seas near France, they took on bomb after bomb from air raids, continually needing repairs. In February 1942, they were called back to Germany, where they could be better protected. This was Operation Cerberus, also known as the “Channel Dash,” and despite numerous attacks from aircrafts and ships, the British and their Allies caused no further damage to these passing ships. “Not their best day,” Harrison said of the Allied forces.

Once the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau made it out of British danger, they promptly ran into mines. Both damaged, they needed to be repaired yet again. A cautionary tale emerged from the attempted repair of the Gneisenau: do not go into dry dock with the magazines loaded. A bomb went off in one of the magazines and finally ended Gneisenau’s career. Both of these ships spent more time damaged than not during the course of their careers. The Scharnhorst was then sent to Norway alone and was again damaged by the rough seas and repaired. Here she entered her final action, the Battle of North Cape. She fought a battleship, a heavy cruiser, three light cruisers and nine destroyers in a blizzard over three engagements. The first engagement knocked out her radar; she survived the second engagement, but did not survive the third. Out of a crew of 1,968 Sailors, only 36 were picked up by the enemy.

Also during World War II, the U.S. Navy’s USS Enterprise (CV 6) was attacked in six separate events over the course of three-and-a-half years, and the Japanese reported her sunk four or five of these times. Enterprise sustained bomb damage from multiple battles, to include the Battle of Santa Cruz in October 1942, where the Japanese were introduced to new technology the U.S. Navy had—radar-fused anti-aircraft shells. These were designed to sense when they were approaching something and when it was at the right distance, it exploded.

“This is one of the greatest secrets that the U.S. Navy had during World War II. This set the stage for U.S. anti-aircraft efforts from then on, as surface ships became able to largely defend themselves in a way that they were incapable of before,” Harrison said.

The Enterprise was damaged a few more times before March 1945, when she was damaged again by friendly fire. In May 1945, off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, she was hit with two kamikazes and was taken out of service two months before the end of the war. She earned 20 battle stars, more than any other battleship. The success of this ship left a lasting legacy, even today. First, her namesake lives on in Starship Enterprise from the Star Trek movie franchise. When NASA created their first space shuttle, Star Trek fans created a campaign that it be named after the Enterprise and so it was. Jack C. Taylor, founder of the Enterprise car rental company, was a World War II veteran who had served on the Enterprise.

The name Enterprise will live on as the third aircraft carrier of the Ford Class, CVN 80, which is scheduled to be operational by 2027. It will be the ninth U.S. Navy ship to bear the name Enterprise.