Cleburne Native Was Key Player in Historic Rescue

By David S. Sowell III, M.D.


Something was terribly wrong with the United States Navy Submarine USS Squalus as it descended into the North Atlantic off Portsmouth, New Hampshire on May 23, 1939 for a practice dive. The submarine's control panel showed incorrectly that the main induction outlet had closed, but instead it remained open and Squalus quickly plunged past its intended depth of 63 feet, all the way to the ocean floor, 243 feet below the surface. Twenty-six submariners drowned immediately in their now flooded compartments. Thirty-three others managed to secure themselves in watertight areas but faced inevitable slow death in the cold dark silence as their limited supply of oxygen dwindled. These thirty-three had little hope of rescue. No rescue from such depths had ever before occurred but an unprecedented operation returned these fortunate submariners to the surface alive and in good condition.

Cleburne native, Dr. Thomas Loid Willmon, was a key participant in this remarkable rescue. Weeks later, Dr. Willmon gave a first person account and narrated home movies of the event for a group of old friends gathered at his home in Cleburne. These unforgettable images and narration would live in the minds of these friends long after the story of the Squalus was overwhelmed in an avalanche of World War II news.

The story of the Squalus was covered widely by newspapers as it occurred. The Cleburne Times-Review featured extensive news stories, pictures, and illustrations of the rescue in the final days of May, 1939. A cartoon titled "Peace Hath Her Heroes" was published in The Times-Review on May 31, 1939. The cartoon showed the hand of Uncle Sam with "Decoration Day 1939" (now called Memorial Day), on his sleeve tossing a memorial wreath into a sea labeled "Submarine Disaster Victims." The Squalus itself was retrieved from the ocean floor on September 13, 1939 to little fanfare from a press by then consumed with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 and its dramatic and terrible sequellae.

The Squalus incident was finally re-introduced to the nation by the book: The Terrible Hours-The Greatest Submarine Rescue in History by Peter Maas and the NBC movie Submerged, based on Maas's book. The Terrible Hours was published in 1999 by Harper Collins and was a New York Times number 1 bestseller. Submerged aired in May, 2001. The Terrible Hours and Submerged reminded one of those present at that long ago evening in Cleburne of the dramatic story of the Squalus. It told the rest of the nation many details that Dr. Willmon's friends had learned first-hand.

Cleburne resident, Dave Sowell, Jr. and his wife Esther were among the Cleburne friends who heard Dr. Willmon's account and saw his home movies. Mr. Sowell recently read The Terrible Hours with great interest and recalled the long ago evening with Dr. Willmon and his movies. Dr. Willmon had been a boyhood friend. The two had grown up together at the Central Church of Christ and had made numerous camping trips together before Dr. Willmon left Cleburne for the college and medical school education that led to his career as a navy physician.

Dr. Willmon's role in the operation is remembered on page 207 of The Terrible Hours which reports his treatment of diver Walter Squire who developed a severe case of "the bends" after accidentally rising to the rescue ship Falcon too quickly from the sunken submarine:

"On the Falcon with his helmet off, Squire was out cold, his face blue. His limp body, suit and all, was rushed into the recompression chamber where Dr. Willmon and Chief Pharmacist's Mate Harold David accompanied him on a wild ride into higher pressure. When the needle on the chamber gauge registered seventy-five pounds, Squire showed signs of coming to. As he did, his eyes still glazed, he began to thrash around furiously, crying out in terrible pain."

The hard work of Dr. Willmon and Chief David paid off. Squire recovered completely over the next few hours and was awarded a three-day shore pass!

Dr. Willmon worked under the direction of Commander Charles Bowers "Swede" Momsen, to whose memory The Terrible Hours is dedicated. The dedication reads: "In memory of an extraordinary man, Swede Momsen, whose likeness rarely passes our way." Momsen personally supervised the rescue of the Squalus's crewmembers via a unique diving bell of his own development. He then remained on the scene for the hard job of raising the damaged submarine from the ocean floor.

Momsen, a career naval officer and submariner, became passionate about the tragic plight of trapped submariners after the sinking of the USS S-4 in 1927. Forty-two crewmen of the S-4 were lost, including six who survived the initial sinking and might have been rescued had the methods later used for the Squalus been available. The S-4 incident spurred Momsen and his naval colleagues in the development of technologies to aid sunken submariners. These new devices included the diving bell used to transport the Squalus survivors to the surface, the "Momsen lung," by which individual submariners might reach the surface from a stricken submarine, and telephone buoys which connected a telephone floating on the surface with submariners trapped below.

Dr. Willmon's friends who gathered in Cleburne knew this rescue and salvage were unprecedented. They could not have known that such a successful rescue of submariners would never be repeated in spite of many developments in rescue techniques. Submarines sunk in World War II battles were beyond rescue due to wartime conditions. Since World War II, a number of American and Russian submarines have sunk in extremely deep water, not accessible to rescue efforts. Two-hundred Russian submariners died in the Kursk at a depth of 450 feet in the Barents Sea in August, 2000. They could have used the skills of Commander Momsen, Dr. Willmon and their coworkers!

Following the rescue of the surviving crew and the salvage of the Squalus, it was renamed the USS Sailfish and returned to duty. Sailfish served throughout World War II with distinction. After the war the boat was scrapped but its conning tower was preserved as a monument at the Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Navy Yard.

Dr. Willmon's niece, Gail Craghead Jackson of San Antonio and his nephew, Dr. John Craghead of Llano report that Dr. Willmon's naval career continued after the Squalus rescue. Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, Dr. Willmon was ordered to Pearl Harbor to aid in the rescue of seamen trapped in the ships sunk by the Japanese attack. After his retirement from naval service, he was on the faculty of UCLA and later worked as the medical director for the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. His final residence was in Alpine, Texas where he died about ten years ago.

Copyright 2001 David S. Sowell, III, M.D.

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