Navy Divers Earn the Medal of Honor Saving the USS Squalus (SS-192)

Following an engine failure during test dives on May 12, 1939 the submarine USS Squalus sank. The ship had 56 crew and 3 civilian contractors on board. The main engine air induction valve failed and water poured into the boat’s after engine room, causing her to come to rest under 240 feet of water. 

Four enlisted divers, Chief Machinist’s Mate William Badders, Chief Boatswain’s Mate Orson L. Crandall, Chief Metalsmith James H. McDonald and Chief Torpedoman John Mihalowski, were awarded the Medal of Honor for their work during the rescue and salvage of the USS Squalus

During the disaster, 26 men were trapped and lost in the flooded after portion of the ship. This left 32 crew members and one civilian alive in the forward compartments of the submarine. The survivors sent up a marker buoy. They also began to send up smoke bombs to signal that the ship was in distress.

USS Sculpin (SS-191), sent to the area later that morning, spotted a smoke bomb. More help soon began to arrive. Grappling hooks were dragged across the area, searching for the Squalus unsuccessfully. Divers and submarine experts were dispatched to assist the submarine. Down below, the survivors banged out Morse code by wielding hammers against the hull. As preparations were made to assist the 32 trapped men their situation continued to worsen, not only were they increasingly cold, chlorine gas was being released from the battery compartment. 

Recovery efforts at the site of the sinking of the USS Squalus (US Navy)

Falcon (ASR-2) began lowering the newly developed McCann rescue chamber and managed to make direct contact with the crew. All survivors were brought to the surface in four trips by the rescue chamber. A fifth and final descent by the rescue chamber confirmed there were no survivors in the aft torpedo room compartment. After completing the successful rescue of the trapped men, it took 113 days for the Navy to salvage the Squalus, it was not until September that she was successfully brought back to port.

The Squalus survivors—the captain, three officers, one civilian, and 28 enlisted men—came ashore in two groups at Portsmouth. The wife of one survivor rushed up to him, tears streaming, and sobbed, “Oh, you poor kid.” Following an investigation of the engine room compartments, the boat was decommissioned on November 15. The submarine was recommissioned as the USS Sailfish (SS-192) in May of 1940.

The four enlisted divers were recognized for their heroism with the Medal of Honor on January 19, 1940. They were so recognized for making dangerous dives under “the most hazardous conditions” in order to save lives.

Secretary of the Navy Charles Edison congratulates four divers of the Squalus rescue and salvage operations after presenting them with Medals of Honor. (US Navy History and Heritage)

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