|As stated earlier, in 1925 with the
modernization of the fleet, the Vestal was converted from coal to oil-fired
boilers. Needless to say it was a joyous time for the entire ship's company
particularly the Engineering Division and Black Gang... an archaic era
had passed into naval history. Following the conversion and shakedown she
returned to Guantanamo Bay for duty.
The sinking of S-51
Meanwhile, several thousand miles to
the north on the fateful night of September 25, 1925 the Submarine
S-51 was rammed by the steam ship, City of Rome and sank in
132 feet of water 14 miles east of Block Island. She sank in less than
a minute. The next day; divers from a Newport dive boat examined the submarine.
It had been struck in the battery compartment, opening a huge gash in the
hull. After receiving no response from "tapping" on the hull and hatches,
it was preliminarily assumed there were no survivors, yet the operation
remained in the rescue mode.
The Navy immediately contracted for
two huge derricks from private companies to raise the S-51. The massive
machines were mounted on barges to be towed to the site. However with heavy
seas, they proved less than seaworthy and had to return to port. After
several days the weather calmed and the derricks were finally towed to
Careful calculations by salvage officers
indicated that if there were certain forward compartments that had not
flooded, the derricks had the capacity to lift the submarine to the surface,
- otherwise, the weight would be beyond their lifting capacity. The
derricks were unable to move the S-51 off the bottom.
Realizing the submarine was totally
flooded and there could be no survivors the mission was then changed to
a salvage mode. Thirty-three men lost their lives. Miraculously three sailors
survived the collision, being picked from the frigid waters by rescue boats
from the steam ship.
Twelve days after the sinking the Navy
decided to attempt the salvage with its own resources. On the seventh of
October 1925 the Vestal in Cuba was ordered "all haste" to New York. She
would provide on site command facilities, berthing and support for divers,
salvage crews, repair/shop facilities and boat services.
Other ships involved were the USS Falcon
(A minesweeper converted to a dive ship complete with dive-gear, compressors,
recompression chamber, etc.) plus the following seagoing tugs: USS Sagamore,
Luka, Bagaduce and Penobscot. The Submarine S-50, the sister of the S-51
was put in dry-dock in New York to use as a model for the divers and salvage
crews to study and use for reference during the recovery operation. Commander
Edward Ellsberg was assigned as Salvage Officer.
With the onset of winter, frequent storms,
lack of experience and divers hampered by such hazardous conditions, salvage
operations were reluctantly suspended on the sixth of December to resume
the following April. All ships were ordered to, "Proceed to their usual
Father recalled how cold, miserable
and unrelenting the weather was during those two months off Block Island.
Being anchored in the open sea the ships were under constant pounding from
the elements. It took its toll on equipment, crews and divers.
Liberty In New York
To prepare for resumption of salvage
operations, the Vestal returned to New York from the Caribbean the
first of April 1926. The crew, having been deployed since December, had
build up quite a thirst. They anxiously awaited liberty in the Big Apple
and to frolic at their favorite watering-holes.
As so many sea-stories go... one beer
led to another, and yet another. Words were exchanged between the crew
and crusty local bar patrons as to the legitimacy of their birth and of
copulating with their mothers and sisters. This, as expected, turned into
an all out pugilistic melee.
The Marcus of Queensbury rules were
waived. It was the Black Gang against the Bums of Brooklyn, followed by
the Billy-clubs of New York's finest. In the final round, Father and his
shipmates were jailed for several days as the pub had sustained severe
damage as well as injuries among the locals. The Vestal's mighty welterweight
had suffered a humiliating TKO.
Father reached his twenty-first birthday
as a guest of the City of New York. He received his honorable discharge
the end of April 1926.