Still Lost Beneath the Waves – A Visual History of the World’s Vanished Submarines

by Owen James Burke

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HMS Thunderbolt, under her second appellation (formerly HMS Thetis), with crew flying their Jolly Roger flag after a patrol of the Mediterranean c. 1942. Photo: Public domain.

Submarines are among the most dangerous vessels on earth to both finance and operate. Unlike boats that aren’t designed to sink, they are built with tanks (ballast and trim), through-hull fittings (which can leak) and valves to coordinate actions which cheat the laws of buoyancy. Of course, each of these components can and do malfunction, and they often prevent a submarine from resurfacing – at which point it is always hoped that the vessel is not resting 20,000 leagues under the sea with a full crew.

The life of a submariner is well associated with risk. Here, we present a brief rundown of some of the men – and vessels that went down to sea, and are still yet to be accounted for.


 The U.S.S. Alligator

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Above: A contemporary artist’s rendering of the USS Alligator, the first submarine purchased by the U.S. Navy.

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The U.S.S. Alligator, according to James Delgado, the director of maritime heritage at NOAA, was the U.S. Navy’s first submarine. Photo: Undersea Warfare 

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Graphics based on Brutus de Villeroi‘s original design. Image: The Navy & Marine Living History Association (NMLHA)

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Caption reads: “[Brutus de] Villeroi‘s submarine boat. Seized by the government at Philadelphia, May 16, 1861. — from a sketch by our special artist.”

Commissioned by the Union to battle ironclad Confederate ships during the Civil War, the Alligator broke free from her portage during a storm in 1863 and is believed to have been washed out to join the countless wrecks that lie off Hatteras, North Carolina, a body of water so tormented it is known colloquially as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Perhaps someday, a hurricane will level out a sandbar along the outer banks and in its wake, the remains of the long lost Alligator will be left standing proud.

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Above: a NOAA chart of the waters off North Carolina’s Outer Banks where the administration believes the graveyard of the USS Alligator to be, a place where many ships before and since have met their fates known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.


The Marine Cigar

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Apart from that it leaked badly at 100 feet, this is about all the knowledge we have of Lodner D. Phillips’ Marine Cigar. Diagram: Texas A&M Nautical Archaeology Dept.

Built in 1850 to conduct wreck salvages, The Marine Cigar “is probably the earliest successful sub built in the U.S,” says Delgado, but then again, her list of achievements is short at best, and is certainly a subject of debate: she sank during an unmanned test dive and was lost to Lake Erie in 1853. Some say its builder, a shoemaker turned (quasi-) engineer named Lodner D. Phillips, was aboard, though Navy records indicate that he continued to submit designs to the Navy for over a decade afterward, and he patented a one-atmosphere diving suit in 1856.

Lodner was something of a submarine fanatic from an early age, and built his first crude submarine at just 15 years old. His family didn’t provide much support, however, and reported that his heart was bigger than his head. The Navy would reject every submarine design that Lodner put in front of them, not citing any design flaw(s) but simply addressing him with a letter, “the boats used by the Navy go on and not under the water!” (Letters to the Secretary of the Navy, Miscellaneous Letters, 1801-1884).

Lodner continued to develop submarines and other undersea patents into his later years, though none were met with terrible excitement.

The search continues for The Marine Cigar, and with low water levels in at least one of the Great Lakes, this spring may provide the chance – though at a presumed depth of over 100 feet, that seems highly unlikely.


Surcouf

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Surcouf, circa 1935. Image: Public domain

Before there was Japan’s I-400, the French submarine Surcouf was the largest submarine ever built. At 110 meters (361 feet) she had 12 torpedo tubes, twin 20-cm (8-inch) guns and an observation float plane in a hangar.

Commissioned in 1934, Surcouf served for France until they fell to Germany, at which point she was relocated to Canada. Fearing that she’d come under the auspices of German spies, Great Britain had her refitted and stationed in Bermuda. In 1942 she was on a supposed voyage through the Panama Canal, but was reported lost at sea. “Some people say she was deliberately sunk by the British or the U.S,” says Delgado. One thing for sure: she hasn’t been seen since, and her discovery would end an age-old mystery.


HMS Thetis

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HMS Thetis, capsized with over 90 souls trapped aboard. Photo: Public domain.

HMS Thetis (later renamed Thunderbolt) is one of the few military vessels in the world that like the CSS Hunley is known to have sunk twice (the Hunley actually sank three times), both times with her entire crew aboard. A Royal Navy submarine that began her sea trials in March 1939, Thetis went down that June in the Irish Sea along with 99 casualties–twice the number she was built to carry (only four personnel abandoned and survived–one of whom was the captain, whose naval faux-pas might have led to the vessel’s future misfortune).

A rescue operation set out the following morning, but their 25-hour recovery effort was mostly in vain. It was too late; all those who were left aboard had succumbed to carbon dioxide poisoning except four men who managed to pull through an escape hatch, one of whom Lieutenant Frederick Woods, the torpedo officer deemed responsible for the tragedy in a report which Winston Churchill censored.

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Thetis, in port. After four months beneath the waves, the recovery begins. Fall 1939. Photo: Public Domain.

The recovery of the bodies was a slow and gruesome process undertaken by divers, who spent months sorting through the wreck. Below is an excerpt from an October 2nd, 1939 publication of the Liverpool Daily Post:

“The body of the 65th victim was brought out of the Thetis engine room on Saturday, the way is now prepared for the last phase of the salvage work, which was started 4 mths ago. The last body in the engine room was found trapped in machinery near the bulkhead.”

Read more about the sinking of the Thetis in THETIS DOWN: The Slow Death of a Submarine by Tony Booth, and watch the documentary, The Loss of HM Submarine Thetis in 1939.

Slowly but surely, Thetis was salvaged, repaired, and renamed Thunderbolt to serve during World War II in the Atlantic and Mediterranean theaters, over the course of which she performed dutifully. Unfortunately, sailing folklore also has it that any boat that’s renamed is bound for trouble.

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HMS Thunderbolt, recommissioned and stationed in harbor, c. 1940. Photo: Public domain.

If the ghosts of nearly a hundred sailors didn’t get the vessel, her new name surely did. In March of 1943, fate came upon her in the form of a series of depth charges which sent Thunderbolt and crew to the very place where she rests today, entombed in some 1300 meters of water off Sicily. Where exactly, remains a mystery.


Japan’s Missing “I-402” Sub

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Japanese submarine I-401 with its catapult and aircraft hangar. Photo: Public Domain.

Japan had three freshly lain aircraft carrying submarines at the end of World War II which they called Sentoku, or “special” class submarines. They were state of the art maritime war machines and at 400 feet long, they were also the largest submarines in the world, until the U.S. Navy sank them.

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Japanese (IJN) Officers aboard I-400, photographed by the U.S. Navy after surrendering at the end of WWII. Photo: Public Domain.

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U.S. Naval personnel inspect a gun of I-400. Photo: Public Domain.

The United States Navy took control of the submarines, translating labels to English and taking notes and the vastly superior technology. Keeping the submarines for their own convoys was one idea, but fearing the Soviet Union might glean information from them too, the US Navy brought them back to Pearl Harbor where nearby, along with about 20 other Japanese submarines, they were charged and detonated.

In 2005, one of the submarines, I-401, was discovered by the Hawaiian Undersea Research Laboratory’s ROV Pisces, and in December of 2013, another one, I-400 was discovered (and just announced this past month).

Watch Pisces survey I-400:

The exact whereabouts of I-402, however, remain a mystery. Some zany conspiracy theorists believe that Russia has her…

Watch the USS Larson sink I-402:


The Mystery of 5 missing Civil War era Confederate subs:

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Rusted iron rests in mud on Bowmans Inlet off Cross Bayou, Louisiana, believed by some to be the remains of one of five lost Confederate submarines. Others say the vessels would be far more intact. Photo: Marty Locshen/USA Today

Some archaeologists and backwater hobbyists believe that somewhere in a Shreveport, Louisiana swamp lie the remains of perhaps four or five early submarines designed by the same machinists and engineers that produced the CSS H.L. Hunley (an early Confederate submarine which famously sank The USS Housatonic–and itself in the process–joust outside of Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.)

Records indicate that many of the machinists and engineers behind the H.L. Hanley were present in Shreveport where Union spies and historians have traced a clandestine sub base.

“On the Venable map there’s an island out there,” Shreveport local historian Marty Locshen tells USA Today, “My theory is if you’re going to have a clandestine sub base, you’re going to put it out there. Look, there are structures out there, near what I found out beached — it has to be.”

Year after year, or whenever the swamps begin to dry up, someone produces a photograph of some barely distinguishable pile of rust tangled in mangrove and barely protruding from some sterile pool of chocolate milk water.

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History professor and author Gary Joiner suggests the missing ‘test’ submarines might look something like the H.L. Hunley (graphic above), but should be more intact, thanks to the preservative qualities of silt, mud and sand. Graphic: Don Foley/National Geographic.

Louisiana State University Shreveport history professor and author Gary Joiner (Locshen’s former professor) disagrees with Locshen, but holds out hope, saying, “If the subs are still around … they would be in perfect condition if they have not been interfered with. Sandy mud is one of the best preservatives,” he said.

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After nearly 150 years beneath the Atlantic Ocean, this is what the H.L. Hunley looks like today. It would be miraculous should we find even one submarine of her contemporary, let alone one designed by the same machinists and engineers, and in remarkably better shape. Photo: CNN Wire.


Required readings and more on subs:

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Monturiol’s Dream: The Extraordinary Story of the Submarine Inventor Who Wanted to Save the World, by Matthew Stewart

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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne

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The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy. (Clancy’s first novel, and one of the first fictional novels ever published by the US Naval Institute Press, still by far their greatest success).


Read about a mad scientist and political radical in Spain crowdfunded one of the world’s first (working) subs to life, and Rome’s 500-year-old secret diving bell. –OJB

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