The Terrible Hours
May 1939 held a nasty threat of war and while some hoped it would not happen, the men of the Portsmouth Naval Yard saw the clouds. On the 23rd the Navy's newest submarine, the Squalus, went to sea for final trials before she was to be sent into the Atlantic to eventually hunt U-boats. What happened to the Squalus and her crew over the next days and nights is the story of courage, grace and ultimately redemption that drives this book through its 300 pages. Tom Clancy fantasies aside, this is the story of real men and a real boat that sank off Portsmouth, and the sailors who risked their own lives to rescue her crew.

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The Squalus
The Squalus was undergoing trials, testing her water tightness and allowing her skeleton crew to get a feel for the boat. Off Portsmouth that day, a water intake valve used to flood the ballast tanks for diving refused to close, driving the sub to the bottom with far too much water and weight in her tanks. She had insufficient power to dig herself out, bloated, from the soft bottom. The crew was too deep to survive an escape to the surface, and she lacked, in 1939, the modern communication devices to signal for help. The crew settled in for a cold, long, dark wait.

This book tells the story of their rescue from two points of view: the captain and his crew trapped aboard, and Charles “Swede” Momsen, the Navy's pioneer in deep diving and submarine rescue. Momsen, as the Squalus went down, had already established a name for himself as the inventor of the “Momsen Lung”, an escape hood that allowed trapped submariners to rise to the surface as the device compensated for the pressure changes and prevented the “bends”. Momsen also did some of the Navy's initial research on blending helium and oxygen to create an air mix for deep water divers and, as the story unfolds, was finishing testing on a diving bell that could be used to rescue submariners too deep for an ascent with only the “Lung.”

Breathing Under Water
This book equips the reader with a basic course in breathing under pressure to prepare you to understand the risks and challenges Momsen had to overcome to save the crew. The basics are simple—the deeper you go underwater, the more the weight of the water compresses the air in your lungs. As you ascend, that air expands. The expansion can be violent, killing a man, or controlled such that he reaches the surface alive. A second factor adds to the danger, the forcing of gases into the diver's bones. If he breathes the right mixture and descends/ascends slowly enough, this need be only a minor inconvenience. Let him ascend too quickly, and the trapped gases will expand inside his joints, causing the “bends” and crippling the man.

I'm not spoiling the ending for you when I write that most of the crew made it out alive, as the author almost from page one quotes the survivors such that the reader understands that most made it out alive. What makes this a great read is that even though you know the ending from the first pages, it is still a dramatic story of courage. Remember, this is 1939 technology, with limited electronics, unproven technologies and ships and planes ill-equipped to operate under the sea conditions nature forced on the Squalus.

Who is this book for?
If you enjoy a) a good adventure story and/or b) reading about early submarine technology and/or c) technical details on breathing underwater and/or d) learning about real ships, you will enjoy this book.

While there are no photos or drawings you can use in modeling, after reading this book I have a hard time not imaging the lives of men inside those gray and black hulls we model.

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