RIP USS F-4 and her crew

Posted by Rebekah
Mar 25 2010

Today marks the 95th anniversary of the very first submarine lost in the modern US Navy’s Submarine Force.

The USS F-4 was one of 4 sisters of the F Class submarines.  Built in Seattle, she was the first submarine named “Skate”, but her name was officially changed to F-4 before her launch.  She had only two short years of service on the Pacific Coast, before 25 March, 1915.

The USS F-4

The fours sisters were the very first naval vessels home ported at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and were towed there in 1914 by destroyers.  (they were already becoming too large to be ferried aboard Submarine Tenders as seen in the Tender Post.)But because Pearl Harbor was still being made suitable as a naval base, the submarines were moored next to their tender Alert in nearby Honolulu Harbor.

The USS Alert with her nest of submarines, ca. 1914, Long Beach, CA. The outermost submarine is the F-4.

On the morning of March 25, 1915, the F-1, F-2, and F-4 left Pearl Harbor on routine diving exercises.  The hazard pay of “a dollar a dive day” had just been instituted by the Federal Government, giving every man of a submarine crew an extra dollar of pay for every day a submarine dove successfully, up to $15/month (the approximate equivalent of $22/dive or  an extra $330/month,) with an additional$60 $(1320) to their families if they didn’t come back.  Submarine commanders, to keep their crews in practice and happy,  frequently scheduled diving practice!

But that morning, the F-4 didn’t return.

After an hour of no one seeing or hearing from here, a speedboat was sent out to see if she could be spotted on the surface.  A short time later, her sister, the F-3 was sent to cruise submerged in the general area the F-4 was last seen, sounding her bell, and listening for F-4’s reply.  Nothing.  Soon, their tender Alert and several more speedboats where scattering, looking for any trace of the missing sub, and a wire was sent to Pearl informing then that F-4 was overdue.

In the afternoon they found it: an oil slick and air bubbles on the surface of the water.  F-4 was probably sunk and slowly leaking, but was the crew still alive?  Rescue efforts were quickly stalled when she was found in 300 feet of water.  No diver had ever been deeper than 60 feet before.  They tried to drag the F-4 to nearby shallow water, then dredging her, but she was stuck fast and couldn’t be moved.  In 72 hours, rescue attempts were abandoned, but the Navy decided to salvage the F-4 if they could to discover what happened to her, and, since it was peacetime and the sub most likely went down due to mechanical malfunction, how they could prevent it from happening again.

But no ship had ever been salvaged from such a deep depth.  And if the Navy was going to be able to understand what happened, they had to raise her with a minimum of damage.  Lt. Cmdr.  Julius Furer was assigned the task of bringing F-4 up and he quickly searched out the most recent technology he could.

The first thing he heard of was a new kind of dive technique where divers paused at pre-determined points during an ascent and waited, which seemed to prevent the “bends”, a painful side-effect of deep diving that often caused death.  (Today, we know that the bends are caused by gases which naturally occurs in the body and dissolves in the blood.  At high pressures, like the depths of the ocean, more gasses dissolve in the blood and if a person ascends or depressurizes too quickly, the gasses form bubbles that can cause intense pain in the joints through paralysis and death.  Stopping and resting at pre-determined depths allows these gases to dissapate naturally.)  There were a group of experimental divers at the New York Navy Yard that Furer requested to come and help with the salvage.

It took nearly a month to get the first one there, and he dove to the F-4 to find her laying on her side, apparently undamaged.  The F-4 couldn’t be raised all at once, but the plan was for the divers to place tow cables under the bow and stern and lift and move her to shallow enough waters to fully salvage her.

It was nerve wracking work, and when one diver got tangled in the cables on April 17 and another diver, F.W. Crilly had to pull him to surface quickly, earning them a 20-hour trip in a decompression chamber, Crilly received the Medal of Honor, the highest award the US can bestow.

Eventually, Furer invented a new salvage technique:  Pontoons attached to cables were filled with water and sunk to either side of the wreck.  Once they were attached to the wreck with cables slung under the hull, air was pumped into the pontoons, forcing the water out, and the pontoons to the surface cradling the F-4.  This also allowed for more than two supporting cables, more evenly distributing the weight of the submarine and keeping the cables from breaking.  This worked, and on August 30, five months after F-4 went down, she was towed under the pontoons to a dry-dock.

An altered photograph showing how the USS F-4 was eventually raised and taken back to Pearl Harbor. This method of deep sea salvage would be used again in 1939 when the USS Squalus sank.

Only four of the 21 crewmen could be identified, and the other 17, including her CO, were buried in four coffins in a mass grave in Arlington (the story of the grave and her marker is also interesting and will have to wait.)

What the investigation revealed is that some of the rivets in the hull had corroded, allowing seawater into the battery compartment, releasing chlorine gas.  Captain Ede tried to blow the ballast tanks and steer F-4 into shallow water, but the engines overheated and quit, and F-4 descended past safe depths.  The intense pressure caused the hull to implode and drown her brave crew.  They were gone before anyone knew to look for them.

Here you can see the implosion of F-4's hull that was discovered once the dry dock was pumped free of water.

The F-4 herself was buried at Pearl Harbor, where she has remained ever since.  Her sisters were towed back to the mainland, and overhauled to fix the rivets, battery compartments, engines, propellors, and  the hundreds of little things that cost 21 men their lives.

All photos on this post are taken from navsource.org.

For the memorial page to F-4’s crew on eternal patrol, click here.

The best article I’ve read about the sinking and salvage of F-4.

The Story of the grave of the unidentified F-4 Sailors

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