Warship Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019: The ‘$2 million Fighting Monster’
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019: The ‘$2 million Fighting Monster’
Here we see the S-class submarine USS S-49 (SS-160), one of the last class of “pig boats” commissioned with letters rather than names, in heavy seas during her brief time in the Navy. Somehow, after a short and unlucky naval career, S-49 was sold to a huckster who turned her into a (sometimes) floating tourist trap that wound up taking his case to the Supreme Court.
The S-class, or “Sugar” boats, were actually three different variants designed by Simon Lake Co, Electric Boat, and the Bureau of Construction and Repair (BuC&R) in the last days of the Great War in which U.S.-made submarines had a poor record. Looking for a better showing in these new boats, of which 65 were planned, and 51 completed in several subgroups. These small 1,000~ ton diesel-electrics took to the sea in the 1920s and they made up the backbone of the U.S. submarine fleet before the larger “fleet” type boats of the 1930s came online.
The hero of our tale, USS S-49, was 231-feet oal, could dive to 200 feet and travel at a blistering 14.5-knots on the surface on her two 900hp diesel engines and two Westinghouse electric motors for 11-knots submerged. Armament was a quartet of 21-inch bow tubes with a dozen fish and a 4″/50 cal popgun on deck for those special moments. Crew? Just 42 officers and men.
Laid down on 22 October 1920 by the Lake Torpedo Boat Co., Bridgeport, Conn., she commissioned on 5 June 1922 and soon joined New London’s experimental unit, Submarine Division Zero, operating in that role in a series of tests and evaluations into 1926.
This made her one of the most well-photographed of these early submarines.
Then, in early 1926, all hell broke loose.
At about 0750 on Tuesday, 20 April, S-49’s engines were started. Seven minutes later, just as a pilot cell cover was removed to test the specific gravity of the electrolyte, the forward battery exploded. The hydrogen gas explosion destroyed the cells in the forward half of the battery and forced up the battery deck. Ten men were injured. Two others were gassed during rescue operations. Four of the twelve died of their injuries.
The battery compartment was sealed and kept shut until mid-afternoon when the outboard battery vent was opened. During the night, the submarine took on a slight list to port and air pressure was used to keep ballast. At about 0515 on the 21st, a second explosion occurred in the battery room when wash from vessels departing for torpedo practice rocked S-49. The compartment was resealed for another few hours, after which the work of clearing the wreckage was begun.
Repaired and operational again by early 1927, S-49 made a cruise to the Florida Keys that Spring for exercises and then, on return to New London, was sent with her twin sister S-50 to red lead row in Philly in March to be placed in mothballs. Decommissioned 2 August 1927, she was stricken in 1931 to help bring down the Navy’s tonnage after the London Naval Conference.
S-49 was subsequently sold to the Boston Iron and Metal Co., Baltimore, Md., on 25 May 1931– but she was not to be scrapped.
You see, a Florida man by the name of “Capt. F.J. Christensen” purchased the gently-used boat as a hulk for a cost of $25,000 (about $400K in today’s dollars) in 1936 and soon put her to work as a privately-owned tourist attraction in the Great Lakes and East Coast, shuffling her between Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, Boston, and New York, among others.
For this purpose, she was disarmed, her engines disabled, most of her bunks pulled out (the class was notoriously cramped), registered as a “yacht” to comply with Canadian regulations on warships on the Lakes, and billed as “The $2,000,000 Fighting Monster.”
Admission to, “See how men live in a Hell Diver!” was 25-cents for adults, 15 for kiddies, with a souvenir book and other trinkets for sale on board for an added fee.
From her souvenir keepsake book:
USS S-49 was only the second U.S. Navy submarine to be privately owned after naval service– with the first being former Warship Wednesday alum, the O-class diesel-electric submarine USS O-12 (SS-73), which was stricken on 29 July 1930 and leased for $1 per year (with a maximum of five years in options) to Simon Lake’s company for use as a private research submarine. Dubbed the Nautilus, O-12 was to explore the Arctic but instead only made it as far as Norway before the venture tanked and she was sunk in deep water on the Navy’s insistence.
As for Christensen, he flew under the radar and continued in his operation for almost four years until he crossed paths with NYPD Police Commissioner Lewis “Nightstick” Valentine who, appointed in 1934 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, ran the agency for over a decade before heading to Post-War Tokyo to take over the Metropolitan Police Department there with MacArthur’s blessing. The fuzz brought the submarine owner’s “sandwich men” on charges in 1940 of distributing illegal handbills (the above advert) in a case that went all the way to the nation’s high court in 1942– with the Supremes backing Valentine.
With a war on and Christensen facing mounting legal bills, after all, you can’t fight city hall, he sold the immobile submarine back to the Navy who dubbed it floating equipment and intended to use it for experimental work at the Naval Mine Warfare Proving Ground, Solomons, Md.
However, she sank on the way in 132-feet of water while under tow off Port Patience in the Patuxent River.
She is an active, though advanced, dive site today.
As for her sisters, though obsolete, several S-boats remained on the Navy List and served the Navy well in both the Atlantic and Pacific (including several lost to accidents) during WWII. A half-dozen were even transferred to the Royal Navy as Lend-Lease including class leader and the former submersible aircraft carrier, USS S-1.
None of these hardy, if somewhat unlucky, craft endure though Pigboats.com keeps their memory alive.
Displacement: 876 tons surfaced; 1,092 tons submerged
Length: 231 feet
Beam: 21 feet 9 inches
Draft: 13 feet 4 inches
Propulsion: 2 × MAN diesels, 900 hp each; 2 × Westinghouse electric motors, 447 kW each; 120-cell Exide battery; two shafts.
Speed: 14.5 knots surfaced; 11 knots submerged
Bunkerage: 148 tons oil fuel
Range: 5,000 nautical miles at 10 knots surfaced
Test depth: 200 ft. (61 m)
Armament (as built): 4 × 21 in (533 mm) torpedo tubes (bow, 12 torpedoes)
1 × 4 inch (102 mm)/50 caliber Mark 9 “wet mount” deck gun
Crew: 42 officers and men
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