The U.S. Navy suffered the loss of its first submarine on March 25, 1915. Originally called the USS SKATE (SS-23), this submarine was renamed the USS F-4 (SS-23), and was the fourth ship of the F-class. The submarines of the F-class were considered Holland boats consisting of the submarines F-1, CARP (SS-20); F-2, BARRACUDA (SS-21); F-3, PICKEREL (SS-22); and F-4, SKATE (SS-23). The loss of the F-4 was deemed the greatest Naval catastrophe following the sinking of the Maine in 1898. Twenty-one lives were lost, and although the F-4 was subsequently raised, she was found so badly crushed and battered she was stricken from the list of naval vessels.
Early on the morning of the 25th of March 1915, the submarines F-1, F-3, and F-4 were scheduled to make a routine training run. That morning a conference was held aboard the submarine tender USS ALERT (AS-4) by Lieutenant Charles Smith, commander of Submarine Division One, Pacific Fleet. Present were the captains of the Division's four F-class submarines. Lieutenant Alfred L. Ede, Commanding Officer of the F-4, asked as the meeting was closing permission to make a dive instead of the surface maneuvers planned. His request was granted and returning to his ship LT Ede knew his crew would be pleased with the news.
In the early days of the submarine service a submariner had to make fifteen dives a month to qualify for the extra fifteen dollars diving pay. The entire crew that day, except one, were extremely excited as the F-4 headed out into Honolulu harbor. The one exception was Machinist's Mate James Hogget who had returned too late from a task ashore to board the submarine. By the end of that fateful day Hogget would forget about the extra fifteen dollars.
The F-4 left her moorings at the municipal piers in Honolulu Harbor on March 25, 1915 and put to sea to make a training dive. Lieutenant (junior grade) Alfred L. Ede was in command, assisted by his executive officer, Ensign Timothy A. Parker, and nineteen enlisted men of various ratings.
On that eventful morning, the F-4 was accompanied to sea by the submarines F-1 and F-3. As the submarines passed abeam of the Quarantine Station, having arrived at the diving area, Ede gave the order to dive. Lieutenant Charles Smith watched the F-4 make a fine running dive and then observed her periscope for a time. Satisfied that everything was in order on the F-4, Smith ordered the other two submarines to proceed with their maneuvers. Both the submarines F-1 and F-3 returned to base after their surface runs.
When the F-4 failed to return to port a search was instituted. The following morning, Smith ordered the submarine F-1 to search for the F-4. She was followed by the F-2 and F-3. The F-3 was ordered to follow the the F-4's intended course submerged. From the decks of the surfaced submarines anxious eyes scanned the sea for some sign of the F-4. Later that morning the F-2 spotted an oil slick. All night and into the next day tugs, surface ships, and submarines tried to locate the submarine. With the help of the F-1, the submarines traced the oil six miles to the area where it was believed the slick began.
While the F-class submarine was designed to go no deeper than 200 feet. A depth check showed 55 fathoms. Hope, however, was not completely lost as the submarine F-1 had made a test dive a few years earlier to 280 feet suffering only slight damage. But the depth check indicated that the F-4 was located on the bottom in 305 feet of water. There was still a chance the F-4 was in one piece and her crew alive.
Two divers from the Division volunteered to go as deep as they could in the hope of marking the exact position of the F-4. After several dives each, the men had gone down to a maximum of 190 feet without sighting a trace of the lost submarine. The dives were discontinued due to the extreme pressure associated with such dives.
Upon receipt of notification that the F-4 was on the bottom the Navy Department ordered five deep-sea divers from the New York Navy Yard for duty in connection with rescue and salvage operations. These divers were: George D. Stillson, Frank Crilley, William F. Loughman, F. C. L. Neilson, and S. J. Drellishak. Assistant Surgeon George R. W. French was also ordered along to render medical services. This was the finest salvage crew the Navy could muster; Stillson was a salvage expert who had invented many of the devices then in use. Drellishak held the world's deep-sea diving record of 274 feet. The divers, along with their equipment, were rushed to Honolulu.
In 1915 deep-sea diving was far more an art than science and the equipment that had evolved was cumbersome and difficult to handle. The diver had to get into a rubberized canvas suit that fit tightly at the wrists and ankles. The neckhole of the suit was fitted with a circular brass plate and the heavy metal diving helmet fitted tightly onto that plate. The diving helmet had a large glass plate located in the front and sides. From the top extended an air hose and venting hose. The air hose was attached to rope lifeline which were connected to a pump at the other end, which were manned by the diving tenders. Compressed air was pumped down to the diver through the air hose. To get to the bottom the diver used a weighted belt and shoes.
At this point in the search operation the submarine tender ALERT joined the search. On board the ALERT, an idea was conceived by Ensign Bates and the ship's electrical shop on how to locate the precise location of the F-4. Using two long wires, each with a nail attached to the end, the other end attached to a dry cell battery and a microphone, the ends were lowered in various locations until both nails touched the hull of the F-4, completing the circuit and sounding the microphone.
Meanwhile, the ALERT began dragging operations and was joined later by a Navy tug. Upon arrival of the deep sea divers preparations were made for diving operations but, by this time, hope that survivors would be found aboard had been completely abandoned as all attempts to communicate with the submarine had failed. With hope for saving life gone, work was started for salvage operations the first of its kind in the submarine service.
No one knew whether or not the divers could withstand the pressure at three hundred feet because no one had ever dived that deep before.
With the aid of various ships, an army dredge, three tugs, barges, tackle, and necessary diving and salvage equipment, the four divers swung into action. Crilley was the first diver to go down. Crilley, on that first dive, took down a line and secured it to the hull of the sunken submarine. The submarine was then lifted to 12 feet using donkey engines and winches. Then she was towed toward more shallow water.
It was when the F-4 was resting on the bottom at 275 feet that a serious accident developed. While ascending, Diver Loughman became entangled in lines at a depth of 220 feet, and try as he might he could not extricate himself.
With the line twisted around the cables, time and depth necessitated that a second diver descend down to help him out of this dilemma. Crilley was the diver who made the descend, and after a long struggle, during which Loughman became unconscious, with head, shoulders, and chest bruised and crushed, Crilley succeeded in bringing Loughman back to the surface. For this extraordinary display of heroism beyond the call of duty, Crilley was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Loughman survived his harrowing experience, but it left him a partial cripple. He remained on active duty, however, serving as a torpedo and diving expert.
The progress of lifting and towing the submarine was resumed. This step was repeated several times until finally the submarine rested at 60 feet. At that point, it was found that the hull of the F-4 had become so badly weakened by the salvage operations that it was deemed more expedient to build pontoons and bring her to the surface in that manner.
Eight 60-ton-lift pontoons were built by the Mare Island Navy Yard and delivered to Hawaii aboard the cruiser MARYLAND. Using the pontoons, the F-4 was final brought to the surface, towed to and placed in the dry dock at Pearl Harbor.
When the ship was finally raised on August 29, 1915, the bodies of the F-4's crew were removed and sent home for burial. The exact cause of the disaster has never been definitely established, but it was ascertained that the hull, due to a corroded steel plate, was of insufficient strength to withstand the pressures at the lower levels. It is surmised that sulphuric acid had leaked through the forward battery tank and being highly electrolytic, had corroded and eaten its way through the bottom of the tank. This not only weakened the hull structure in that area but as the plate also formed the top section of the forward ballast tank, it made possible the flooding of the battery and interior of the submarine. As the sea water rushed into the batteries, and as the submarine plunged downward, chlorine gas formed and caused an explosion the chlorine gas probably had asphyxiated the crew, but no definitive conclusions were drawn.
To preclude future accidents of this nature, the Navy Department ordered all submarines to the yards for new plates and battery tanks were double lined with lead so as to catch the acid which may leak or spill out of the battery cells. From this experience, these precautions prevented accidents of a similar nature. Another change brought about by the F-4 incident was the double-hull.
On that fatal dive, it is not improbable that at the time that momentary control was first lost, before matters were able to be corrected, the submarine reached the level at which the hull gave way. It was determined, however, that the crew valiantly endeavored to bring their submarine to the surface by the fact that all the diving apparatus were found set in the rise position. It was also determined that fifteen members of the crew had escaped to the engine room and shut themselves in, but between the gas and the water that followed all were subsequently drowned.
With the investigation over, the F-4 was towed to what was than a breakwater and allowed to return to the bottom of the ocean.
Twenty-five years later, in 1940, when construction of new piers at the submarine base were required, the F-4 was again moved. This time, a trench was dug, the F-4 was rolled in, covered. Today, the F-4 continues to serve as a silent reminder of a day when submarines were in its infancy.
Frank William Crilley
Rank and organization: Chief Gunner's Mate, United States Navy.
Place and date: At sea following sinking of the U.S.S. F-4.
Birth: 13 September 1883, Trenton, N.J.
"For display of extraordinary heroism in the line of his profession above and beyond the call of duty during the diving operations in connection with the sinking in a depth of water 304 feet, of the U.S.S. F-4 with all on board, as a result of loss of depth control, which occurred off Honolulu, Hawaii, on 25 March 1915. On 17 April 1915, William F. Loughman, Chief Gunner's Mate, United States Navy, who had descended to the wreck and had examined one of the wire hawsers attached to it, upon starting his ascent, and when at a depth of 250 feet beneath the surface of water, had his life line and air hose so badly fouled by this hawser that he was unable to free himself; he could neither ascend nor descend. On account of the length of time that Loughman had already been subjected to the great pressure due to the depth of water, and of the uncertainty of the additional time he would have to be subjected to this pressure before he could be brought to the surface, it was imperative that steps be taken at once to clear him. Instantly, realizing the desperate case of his comrade, Crilley volunteered to go to his aid, immediately donned a diving suit and descended. After a lapse of 2 hours and 11 minutes, Crilley was brought to the surface, having by a superb exhibition of skill, coolness, endurance and fortitude, untangled the snarled lines and cleared his imperiled comrade, so that he was brought, still alive, to the surface."