U.S. Survivors Recall Sub Ordeal

Tuesday, August 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — When Dan Persico heard that a Russian submarine manned by more than 100 sailors had sunk in the Barents Sea, his anguished thoughts flashed back more than six decades, when he endured a similar ordeal.

``It brought back instant, unpleasant memories,'' said Persico, now 82, of Amsterdam, N.Y., one of the survivors from the USS Squalus, which went down 13 miles off the New Hampshire coast in 1939.

Persico is among six of the 33 survivors of the American tragedy who are still alive. Twenty-six crewmen perished when the sub sank during its trial run.

On Monday, he and several other of the survivors held out little hope for the trapped Russian sailors.

``If they don't have a bell or something, they don't have a chance,'' Gerald McLees, 85, of Portsmouth, N.H., said of the rescue chamber used to pull the survivors from the Squalus. ``I would say these boys are in some real trouble.''

The drama of the Russian sub also kindled memories for a former Connecticut seaman. Kimo Ward, a retired sonar technician, helped search for a pair of U.S. nuclear subs lost at sea — the Thresher in 1963 and the Scorpion in 1968. No one survived either disaster.

Ward served aboard the Thresher until 1962 and was scheduled to be on the sub during its last voyage in April 1963 — but had been delayed. He knew half the men on the doomed sub.

``You wake up and 60 of my shipmates that I had been with for two years, all of a sudden they were gone,'' he said. All 129 men aboard perished.

The Squalus sank when valves used to draw water when the sub was on the surface opened without tripping warning indicators in the control room. Investigators later blamed a mechanical malfunction.

The crew then waited 23 hours before another sub arrived carrying a nine-ton diving bell. The bell was lowered to a hatch on the sub and used to rescue the survivors.

McLees was one of the first to ride up; Persico and Allen Bryson, then a 21-year-old machinist's mate second class, were in the last group. The other remaining living survivors are Carlton Powell of Lompoc, Calif., Carol Nathan Pierce of Louisville, Ky., and Warren Smith of Livingston, Texas.

``During the initial hustle and bustle of activity, you don't have time to think, you have to stop the water from coming in,'' recalled Bryson, 82, of New London, Conn. ``Then you have to worry about air.''

Bryson said the oxygen aboard the Russian sub will run out faster because the boat is in deeper water. The Squalus sank in 250 feet; the Russian ship was at about 450 feet, according to a Norwegian report.

``We didn't have enough,'' Bryson said. ``We had very little oxygen.''

``We were given orders to lay down and take it easy on the oxygen,'' added McLees, then a 25-year-old chief electrician's mate.

Aboard the Squalus, Bryson, McLees and their shipmates worked to seal off the forward battery compartment. But water was not the only menace they faced as the sub tilted, bow up, and descended.

One of the crew noticed that seawater had shorted out one of the ship's two batteries, creating a rapid voltage drain. He wedged himself into a narrow crawl space to shut off the power.

``It's probably a little colder out there (in the Barents Sea) than what we had, but we had no lights,'' McLees said.

Despite growing doubt that the Russians can be rescued, Persico, a seaman first class aboard the Squalus, offered reason for optimism. Despite being one of the last seaman rescued, ``I never gave up hope,'' he said.

Ward, of Montville, Conn., served in the Navy during the height of the Cold War before retiring in 1975. But he identifies with the trapped Russian sailors.

``All submariners are like a brotherhood,'' he said. ``We're a very small group. Even though we were enemies at one point, we all share something most people don't.''


On the Net:

Links to U.S. Submarine Memorial Pages: http://www.1000islands.com/(tilde)cny/history/all.htm