Navy Honors Submarine Rescue Pioneer
Aug. 09, 2003
BATH, Maine (AP) _ Carl Bryson was one of the lucky ones when the USS Squalus sank during a test dive 64 years ago off Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
Twenty-six sailors were dead by the time the sub settled on the ocean floor. Bryson and 32 others spent the next 36 hours shivering from the cold, breathing foul air and wondering if they'd escape alive.
They did, thanks to the efforts of Charles ``Swede'' Momsen, who led a daring rescue that was the fruit of his single-minded belief that deep-sea rescues were possible _ at a time when most others thought they weren't.
The Navy officer is being honored this weekend with the christening of a destroyer bearing his name.
``Swede was a wonderful person and we owe our lives to him,'' said Bryson, 85, of Groton, Conn., one of four Squalus survivors alive today.
The Squalus disaster was a defining moment for Momsen, who had spent 14 years pioneering lifesaving techniques after two sub sinkings in which all hands were lost, the S-51 in 1925 and the S-4 in 1927.
``Creativity was the thing that characterized him. If he went into some other field, he would have made his mark there. He was always asking, 'How could things be made better?''' said his grandson, Christopher Hailey.
Organizers wanted Saturday's ceremony at Bath Iron Works, where the $1 billion warship is being built, to be a family affair for descendants of Momsen, who retired with the rank of vice admiral and died in 1967.
Momsen's daughter, Evelyn Momsen Hailey, 82, of Williamsburg, Va., was asked to christen the vessel with champagne. The honor of delivering an address to dignitaries, sailors and shipbuilders went to her son, Christopher, 54.
A great-grandson of Momsen's, Fire Controlman 2nd Class Andrew Hailey, 29, will serve aboard the ship, maintaining the weapon systems' central computer system.
Submariners including Bryson and another Squalus survivor, Gerald McLees, 88, of Portsmouth, N.H., were also invited.
Born in 1896 in Flushing, N.Y., Momsen was always full of ideas from an early age, relatives say. Today he would likely be described as ``thinking outside the box.'' Back then, his unconventional ideas didn't always endear himself with the Navy brass.
He learned the hard way _ when his proposal for a diving bell languished on a desk at the Navy Bureau of Construction and Repair _ that getting things done sometimes meant circumventing official channels.
Without getting approval, he created a temporary breathing device, the Momsen lung, out of rubber scavenged from old inner tubes. A pickle barrel served as a makeshift diving bell used in his early descents.
He conducted a dramatic test in 110 feet of water in the Potomac River. He rose to the surface using his emergency air supply and held up a pebble he had snatched to show he reached the river's murky bottom.
Top Navy officers learned about his test like everyone else: They read about it in the Washington Star. Despite rankling superiors, he had proved his point and the lung became standard issue aboard U.S. Navy submarines.
Later, Momsen turned his attention to developing a rescue bell that could be lowered to a disabled submarine and retrieve crew members.
It was used to rescue Bryson, McLees and other survivors from the Squalus about 65 miles from Bath near the Isle of Shoals, where the sub had been undergoing sea trials.
In those days, deep-sea diving was dangerous work. But Christopher Hailey said he didn't view his grandfather as reckless.
``I don't know if I'd call him a risk taker. I think he calculated what those risks were,'' he said. ``If he believed in what he was doing, he would willingly take the first step before asking someone else to do it.''
Beyond his natural curiosity and creativity, Momsen was known for his sense of humor and other talents, including playing the ukulele. ``Some of the songs weren't appropriate for young ears,'' Christopher Hailey said.
He got the nickname ``Swede'' at the Naval Academy even though he was of Danish descent. Some called him the ``lucky Swede'' because of his success at cards.
He could cook, too. His recipe for a steak marinade is part of the U.S. Navy Submarine Cookbook. As usual, a major ingredient was a dose of humor.
``He said one ounce of bourbon in the steak sauce and three in the cook. And by the time the steak was finished the cook was just right,'' his daughter said.
Momsen's great-grandson, Andrew Hailey, will carry on the seafaring tradition. Hailey quit his job as manager of a movie theater and joined the Navy with the goal of serving aboard the Momsen.
``In general, I like how he was always trying,'' Hailey said. ``He sees something that needs to be done, and he'll give it a try.''
Momsen history: www.arlingtoncemetery.net/cbmomsen.htm
Bath Iron Works: www.biw.com