Four "4th Group" S-boats were constructed. The 4th Group S-boats were the largest of the fifty-one S-boats contracted to be built for the United States Navy. These S-boats had six water-tight compartments to enhance internal integrity. S-48 thru S-51 were authorized in FY1920 and laid down 1919-20 at Lake Torpedo Company, Bridgeport CT. They were modified "S" class boats which added an aft torpedo tube which resulted in 27 tons additional displacement. All four commissioned in 1922.
The S-48 Class submarines were 240' in length overall; had an extreme beam of 21'10"; had a normal surface displacement of 903 tons, and, when on the surface in that condition, had a mean draft of 13'6". The submarines displaced 1,230 tons when submerged. The designed compliment was 4 officers and 34 enlisted men. The S-boat was equipped with two periscopes. She had a double hull in the center portion of the boat; a single hull at each end of the ship. This S-boat could completely submerge in one minute to periscope depth. Maximum operating (test) depth was 200'.
The submarine was armed with five 21-inch torpedo tubes (four in the bow and one in the stern). Fourteen torpedoes were carried. One 4-inch/50-caliber gun was mounted on the main deck forward of the conning tower fairwater.
Stowage was provided for 44,350 gallons of diesel oil by utilizing some of the ballast tanks as fuel oil tanks. This gave the boat a maximum operating radius of 8,000 miles at ten knots when transiting on the surface. The normal fuel oil load was 23,411 gallons. Two 6-M-85 six-cylinder 900 brake horsepower (at 410 rotations per minute) diesel engines, that had a total output of 1,800 horsepower, that were made by the Busch-Sulzer Brothers Diesel Engine Company at Saint Louis, Missouri, could drive the boat at 14.4 knots when operating on the surface.
Submerged propulsion electrical power was provided by the 120 cell main storage battery which was manufactured by the Gould Storage Battery Company at Trenton ("Trenton makes, the world takes"), New Jersey, which powered two 750 B.H.P. electric motors, with a total output of 1,500 designed brake horsepower, that were manufactured by the Ridgeway Dynamo and Electric Company at Ridgeway, Pennsylvania which turned propeller shafts which turned propellers which drove the submarine at 11 knots, for a short period of time, when submerged.
Two of the four boats would suffer battery explosions and decommissioned in 1927 and a third would be lost when rammed by a merchant ship. The lead ship of the class grounded off New Hampshire during a storm and her crew was evacuated. The resulting repairs and modernization would keep her out of commission for over three years.
In February 1924, S-50 (SS-161) suffered a battery explosion which resulted in exhaustive engineering testing and her early decommissioned in August 1927. On 29 January 1925, S-48 (SS-159) grounded off the New Hampshire coast and her crew was evacuated during a storm. She would be salvaged and modernized, returning to commission in December 1928. S-51 (SS-162) was rammed and sunk by the merchant SS City of Rome off Block Island RI on 25 September 1925. She was raised in 1926 and sold for scrap in 1930. On 20 April 1926 S-49 (SS-160) suffered a battery explosion and was decommissioned in August 1927.
S-48’s hard luck started 10 months after launching, when the yet-to-be-commissioned sub conducted her first test dive in New York Sound off of Penfield Reef on December 7, 1921. According to press reports, the 240-foot boat “was hardly under water before the shouted reports came from the aft part of the vessel: ‘Engine room flooding! Motor room flooding!’” Emergency procedures kicked in. The men in the aft compartments stumbled forward and the forward compartment doors were shut. “A moment later the stern softly bumped on the bottom. The electric lights went out.” Flashlights in hand, the sub’s Commander, Lt. Francis Smith, ordered the ballast tanks blown, but “the weight of the water in the stern compartments was too much…her nose tilting up a little but that was all.” Two hundred pounds of pig lead ballast bars were jettisoned through an air lock and four dummy torpedoes were shot out, on which the crew had painted “HELP” and “SUBMARINE SUNK HERE” along with numerous milk bottles “in which messages were enclosed giving notice of the plight of the vessel.”
Slowly the bow began to rise like an inverse pendulum, but the stern stuck to the bottom. The upward tilt shifted the stern water. “Port batteries flooding!” yelled a crewman. The New York Evening News described the dramatic moment: “Breathing stopped. A flooded battery means chlorine [gas].” Cmdr. Smith and three crewmen immediately began bailing “to get seawater below the level of the [battery containers]…their hands were burned and every moment or two a whiff [of chlorine gas] drifted across their faces,” making them cough and choke. No sooner had they gotten the water off the port side batteries that the starboard batteries started flooding. At the same time, the boat’s bow continued to tilt upward as more material weight was jettisoned. At 30 degrees, the ships executive officers were certain the bow was above the surface “more than sixty feet from the bottom.”
One member of the crew, while being pushed from behind, wriggled and worked his way out of the sub through a torpedo tube, which was about four feet higher than the ocean surface. A rope was passed up the tube, and the remaining crew of 50 were pulled out one by one. Hot coffee and blankets were also hauled up as the men huddled in the freezing weather. One Sailor’s wet underclothing “was frozen into a solid casing about his shoulders and legs.”
Some of the men went back down into the sub through the torpedo tube and “hauled out mattresses [which]…one by one were burned at the tip of the upstanding bow…the men sitting around their flaming signal…[warming themselves from] a stiff wind…[and] rough waters.” They were finally rescued at 10:30 PM by a passing tug. The ordeal had lasted 14 hours, 10 of which were spent exposed to the frigid elements. Three men were briefly hospitalized for minor chlorine gas inhalation. Most of the men were employees of the Lake Torpedo Boat Co. of Bridgeport, Conn.
Initial reports by the Associated Press claimed that the sub had been hit by a tug boat, but it was later learned that somebody left open one of the airtight “manholes.” Divers were able to secure the hatch and refloat the vessel.
By the following August (1922), the S-48 began its second series of tests on Long Island Sound, diving to a depth of 100 feet and firing torpedoes and “other such trials.” She was accepted and commissioned by the U.S. Navy in October of 1922. Over the next three years, she was in and out of New London, Conn. for repairs. She ran aground twice in 1926 during a violent storm once taking on water, which again caused chlorine gas to form. She was then returned to New London for the fifth time. Due to a lack of repair funds, the submarine was decommissioned. Funds became available in 1927 and repairs commenced, which included a hull extension of 25½ feet. In December 1928, she was recommissioned. Within seven months, she was back at New London undergoing repairs before resuming operations in June 1929.
It was a year later that Rickover joined the crew. By then, S-48 was the only remaining S-class submarine from the four-boat Group IV consisting of S-48 to S-51. S-49 and S-50 experienced battery explosions and S-51 sank due to a collision with a passenger ship. By the time Rickover reported aboard the S-48, her two surviving sister ships, themselves mechanical and electrical nightmares, had been decommissioned.
In his biography, “Rickover: The Struggle for Excellence,” Francis Duncan reports on a myriad of mechanical and electrical problems confronted by the young engineering officer on his first cruise aboard the S-48. He relates that the pneumatic control valves used to submerge the ship never “synchronized [properly and thus when diving] she [always] lurched to one side or the other…to as much as twelve degrees.” Rickover wrote about his first cruise in July of 1930. Less than an hour into the cruise, a malfunctioning electrical controller forced the sub to stop. Once fixed, the gyro compass repeater then “went haywire…[making it] impossible to steer a correct course,” he reported. About an hour later, an exhaust valve stem cracked, forcing another stop. It was repaired and “then three…cylinder jackets of the port engine developed leaks… [Rickover, fearing the Captain] would become disgusted [with his performance] took the chance and ran with the leaky cylinder jackets…” If that wasn’t enough, several hours later “the electrician reported…something wrong with one of the main motors.” Crawling into the bilges to check out a “jangling in the bow,” he discovered the anchor chain was loose, “the control panel for the anchor windlass had become grounded.”
Two months later, smoke belched from a ventilator fan; a main battery had caught fire. According to Thomas Rockwell in his book, “The Rickover Effect,” the skipper, fearing an explosion, “ordered all men on deck, prepared to jump overboard if the expected hydrogen explosion occurred.” Believing the problem was his responsibility, Rickover volunteered to re-enter the sub and fix the problem. Rickover wrote, “the smoke was coming from the battery compartment…when it was opened black smoke billowed forth… Wearing a gas mask and trailing a lifeline [Rickover ventured through the hatch].” Finding no fire, he rigged a ventilating system and lime was placed in the compartment to absorb carbon dioxide. A later examination revealed that the fire had started by sparking battery connections. Three hours later, a short circuit in the “charred battery connections” started yet another fire, which he unsuccessfully attempted to put out with a carbon tetrachloride fire extinguisher. In desperation, he successfully sprinkled lime on the flames. It worked. The cause of the second fire was old and deteriorating insulation. Rockwell also relates that Rickover was confronted with propulsion motors that “were a continual source of trouble.” Showing his hands-on approach to problem solving, “he redesigned and rebuilt them [after which] they caused no further trouble.”
In July 1931, Rickover was promoted to Executive Officer. In November, the S-48 had another mishap. She started a dive for a practice torpedo run and immediately “she took a twelve-degree list and a sharp downward angle. At seventy feet…she was out of control…blowing the tanks…brought her up… [A later] investigation showed a vent valve had failed to open.” In February of 1932, after several diving mishaps, a group of officers “nervous and tired, had drawn up a message…for all to sign, stating the ship was unsafe and could not complete her assignment.” According to Duncan, “Rickover argued them out of it…it would be bad for the reputations of all concerned and [told them] that he could work out a new diving procedure.” His diving protocol meant diving took longer, but it worked.
Despite her frequent mechanical and electrical mishaps, sinkings, and groundings, the Lake Torpedo Boat Co. built S-48 was finally deactivated in 1935 and berthed at League Island, N.Y. At the beginning of WWII, she was reactivated and used for training at New London. “Overhaul and repair periods [during the war] were frequent,” history records. The hard luck S-48 was decommissioned in 1945 and scrapped the following year after 25 years of service, three of which inspired one of the Navy’s most respected and honored seamen.
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