September of 1925 had been a bad month for our Navy. Early in the month, a Navy flying boat carrying CDR John Rodgers on the first trans-Pacific solo flight from California to Hawaii disappeared. With Rodgers still missing, the Navy’s impressively massive airship SHENANDOAH (ZR-1) crashed in a storm over Ohio killing her commander, LCDR Zachary Lansdowne, and 13 others. Thirty-two more sailors died on 25 September when S-51 (SS-162) accidentally collided with a commercial freighter off Block Island and sank. Public dismay in the face of these disasters demanded action, and though the technology of the day was inadequate to the task, an effort to recover S-51 and her entombed crewmen was begun.
CDR Edward Ellsberg headed the salvage team, but the mass of the sub and the 130-foot depth to which she had sunken was beyond the capacity of crane derricks to lift. So, Ellsberg hatched the idea of running steel cables under the sub to form a sling, then lifting it with six air-filled pontoons. To sling the cables, hardhat divers would have to tunnel under the sub as she lay on the hard blue-clay bottom. The tunneling operation was laboriously slow as the divers were encumbered by bulky suits, heavy gloves, murky water and a weak fire hose for digging. Divers worked in pairs, one headlong in the tunnel, the other assisting outside. By early May a twelve-foot tunnel only large enough to admit a prone diver coursed under the sub’s port side. The morning of May 10th found seaman Francis Smith twenty minutes into his hour-long digging shift, deep out of sight in the dark tunnel.
“I’m in a very bad position, Mr. Ellsberg,” came a message over Smith’s phone to the surface. “Should I turn off the [fire hose]?” queried his line tenders. “For God’s sake keep it going!” yelled Smith, “The tunnel has caved in behind me!” Diver Joseph Eiben, working aft, was directed to assist, but it had taken weeks of digging to advance the tunnel to Smith’s location. Now he lay buried beyond any conceivable rescue! A pang of dread gripped everyone. Minutes slipped by. All stood helpless. Smith’s labored breathing could be heard over his telephone.
A second hose was hastily rigged and dropped to Eiben. Then unexpectedly, Smith signaled from the mouth of the tunnel. Entrapped in a coffin-sized shaft, Smith had managed to manipulate his hose in between his legs. Inching his way feet-first and backward, Smith had excavated his own escape! “I’m all right now, Joe. You go on back to your own job,” Smith was heard to say to his partner. He sat a few minutes near the sub catching his breath, then picked up his hose and turned to the black hole from which moments before he had escaped only by the grace of God.
Sometimes heroism occurs in quiet solitude. No act of bravery in the heat of battle outshines Smith’s deliberate return to his task this day, in the face of death, deep in the cold Atlantic.