USS S-5 (SS-110)

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USS S-5 (SS-110) immediately after her launching at Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery, Maine, on 10 November 1919. She is dressed overall.
United States
NameUSS S-5
Ordered4 March 1917
BuilderPortsmouth Navy Yard, Kittery, Maine
Laid down4 December 1917
Launched10 November 1919
Sponsored byMrs. Glenn S. Burrell
Commissioned6 March 1920
  • Foundered 1 September 1920;
  • Partially refloated 2 September 1920;
  • Sank 3 September 1920
General characteristics
Class and typeS-class submarine
  • 876 long tons (890 t) surfaced
  • 1,092 long tons (1,110 t) submerged
Length231 ft (70 m)
Beam21 ft 10 in (6.65 m)
Draft13 ft 1 in (3.99 m)
Installed power
  • 1,000 hp (750 kW) (diesel engines)
  • 600 hp (450 kW) (electric motors)
  • 15 knots (28 km/h; 17 mph) surfaced
  • 11 knots (20 km/h; 13 mph) submerged
Test depth200 ft (61 m)
Capacity36,950 US gal (139,900 L) diesel fuel
Complement4 officers and 34 men

USS S-5 (SS-110) was a "Government-type" S-class submarine of the United States Navy. Her keel was laid down on 4 December 1917 by the Portsmouth Navy Yard of Kittery, Maine. She was launched on 10 November 1919, sponsored by Mrs. Glenn S. Burrell, and commissioned on 6 March 1920 with Lieutenant Commander Charles M. "Savvy" Cooke, Jr.,[1] in command. She sank accidentally during full-power trials on 1 September 1920, but due to actions by her crew and the crews of other ships, there were no deaths. Refloated, she was lost when she sank again while under tow on 3 September 1920.[2]



Following builder's trials, outfitting, and crew training, S-5 departed Boston Navy Yard, Boston, Massachusetts, on 30 August 1920 to undergo full-power trials in the Atlantic Ocean 55 nautical miles (102 km; 63 mi) off the Delaware Capes. At 13:00 on 1 September, she commenced a dive for a submerged test run. Water unexpectedly entered the submarine through the main air induction system, pouring into the control room, engine room, torpedo room, and motor room.[3]

Normal procedure was to leave the main air induction valve open until the engines had a chance to come to a full stop, this operation being so timed as to occur just prior to complete submergence. In the case of S-5, however, the chief of the boat, Gunner's Mate Percy Fox, the man responsible for operating this valve, was momentarily distracted. Noticing the mistake, he grabbed the valve lever and jerked hard, causing the valve to jam open.[3] After considerable difficulty, the system valves in the other compartments were closed, but all efforts to secure the torpedo room valve met with failure. The abandoned torpedo room flooded, making the boat bow-heavy. An additional 80 long tons (81 t) of water in the motor room bilges caused her to settle on the bottom. It was now impossible to eject water from the torpedo room. An attempt was then made to pump out the motor room, but a gasket blew out and there were no means for repair. Lying 180 ft (55 m) on the bottom, the crew had little hope of being found, much less being rescued.[4]

The crew reasoned that sufficient buoyancy in the after section could tilt the sub on her nose and extend the stern above the surface. The tilt would cause the water in the motor room to drain forward and increase buoyancy further. However, there was great risk involved because this would allow salt water into the battery room, which would generate deadly chlorine gas. They hoped to have enough time, after the water had entered, to close the watertight door before the gas could reach a dangerous level. After making preparations, air was applied to the after ballast and fuel tanks, blowing them dry. The stern began to rise and then shot to the surface. Men, floor plates, bilge water, and other loose objects fell through the length of the submarine. One man nearly drowned in the battery room, but was fished out, and the compartment door was sealed against the gas.

By tapping on the hull, it was determined that the stern extended about 17 ft (5.2 m) above the water. With inadequate tools, they took turns trying to cut a hole in the thick hull. After 36 hours, they had only succeeded in making a hole 3 in (76 mm) in diameter.

Side view of USS S-5
The steamship Alanthus standing by the stern of S-5 on 2 September 1920, the day after S-5 accidentally sank off the Delaware Bay
NOAAS Whiting's first sonar image of the wreck of S-5 on the ocean bottom, made in late July 2001 when Whiting discovered the wreck's exact location for the first time
The circle of plating SS General G. W. Goethals cut from S-5's hull to allow men to escape is on display at the Navy Museum at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. It is approximately 2 ft (61 cm) in diameter and 34 in (1.9 cm) thick.


A seaman on watch aboard the wooden steamship Alanthus, making her last voyage, spotted what he thought was a buoy on 2 September 1920. Knowing that no buoy should be so far out to sea, Alanthus's captain turned his vessel around to investigate. Approaching the submarine's stern rising above the ocean, the captain hailed S-5 in maritime fashion. That conversation became legend:

"What ship?"
"What nationality?"
"Where bound?"
"Hell by compass."

Alanthus could not help with the cutting, but was able to rig a pump to provide air, provide fresh water for drinking, and rig cables under S-5's stern to hold it above the surface. Alanthus had no radio, but at about 18:00 was able to contact the passing Panama Railroad Steamship Company steamer SS General G. W. Goethals using signal flags.[5]

General G. W. Goethals, which was on voyage from Haiti to New York City, had a radio and contacted the U.S. Navy, and her crew immediately began enlarging the hole. By 01:45 on 3 September 1920, it was big enough to squirm through. At 03:00 on 3 September, Lieutenant Commander Cooke became the last member of S-5's crew to leave the submarine. Her crew had suffered no deaths or serious injuries.

Later that morning, the battleship USS Ohio secured a towline to the stern of S-5 and proceeded to tow her to shallower water. The towline, however, parted and the loose submarine bobbed, then plunged to the bottom about 15 nmi (28 km; 17 mi) off Cape May, New Jersey.[6] The Navy began an unsuccessful attempt to raise S-5, but called it off in November 1920. A second effort in 1921 also was unsuccessful, and S-5 was struck from the Naval Vessel Register that year. She was the fourth submarine lost in U.S. Navy history.

Discovery of wreck[edit]

The exact location of the wreck of S-5 remained unknown until July 2001, when the Office of Ocean Exploration at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) asked the NOAA survey ship NOAAS Whiting to search for it. Whiting, which had just completed a summer in port at Norfolk, Virginia, and was bound for Boston, Massachusetts, to conduct hydrographic survey operations in New England, paused off Cape May in late July 2001 to search for the wreck.[7]

Whiting's survey department approached the project as it would any typical hydrographic survey. Information on snags – obstructions on the ocean bottom that snarl fishing nets and gear – that local recreational fishermen had reported and reports of possible locations of the wreck from divers that had visited it provided Whiting with possible targets for her search. After her crew had prepared a plan for a systematic search, Whiting moved from target cluster to target cluster, mapping the ocean bottom using sidescan sonar. After eight hours of searching, Whiting found the wreck of S-5 directly over one of the suspected targets, made a sonar image of the wreck, and recorded its exact location. Whiting then made several more passes over the wreck to acquire additional images of it at various angles before leaving the scene.[7]

Museum holdings and displays[edit]

The portion of S-5's hull plating that General G. W. Goethals removed to permit S-5's crew to escape from the submarine is on exhibit in the National Museum of the United States Navy in the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.

NOAA donated the sonar data NOAAS Whiting gathered in 2001 during her discovery of the wreck of S-5 to the Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut, for archiving and display.[7]


  1. ^ Blair, Clay, Jr. Silent Victory (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1975), p.1017.
  2. ^ ", S-5 incident". Archived from the original on 2015-03-25. Retrieved 2015-07-21.
  3. ^ a b "Submarine Casualties Booklet". U.S. Naval Submarine School. 1966. Archived from the original on September 11, 2009. Retrieved 2009-09-08.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  4. ^ OnlineLibrary, S-5
  5. ^ OnlineLibrary, Alanthus
  6. ^ Rear, Laura, "History of the USS S-Five Submarine,", undated.
  7. ^ a b c Weirich, Jeremy B., LTJG, "How the NOAA Ship Whiting Found the USS S-Five,", undated.
  • Hill, A.J. Under Pressure: The Final Voyage of Submarine S-Five. Free Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-7432-3677-5

This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. The entry can be found here.

External links[edit]