May 26, 2009

Squalus and Memorial Day

I spent Memorial Day weekend reading an amazing tale of true grit and heroism.

On May 23, 1939, off the coast of New Hampshire, the then-new USS Squalus (pronounced SQUAY-lus) experienced a failure of a critical induction valve during a dive trial. As a result, it took on water in the after compartments and sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic, its stern partly lodging itself in the mud at a depth of over 240 ft.

What followed was an amazing rescue operation of her crew, and a delicate salvage of the Squalus herself.

The improbable events are told in detail within Peter Maas' book The Terrible Hours: The Greatest Submarine Rescue in History. I, somewhat coincidentally, picked up the book on the 70th anniversary of the event. It had been loaned to me some time ago by my cousin.

I say "improbable" because sub crews were routinely lost completely when their boats went down, even in 50 feet of water. Over a decade before the USS Squalus made its fateful dive, the S-51 foundered off Block Island, never to resurface under its own power. Lost under some 130 feet of ocean, the crew of the S-51 was beyond rescue when the S-1 and her captain Charles "Swede" Momsen were ordered to search for her. The futility of this operation and the loss of the S-51 crew would stay with Momsen through his life and fuel his efforts to create submarine rescue protocols and equipment.

Unwavering in his purpose, lack of support from the Navy did not deter him. Intrepid in his methods, he pushed the envelope of human dive experience using himself as primary test subject. The reward for his efforts comes when, preparing to test an ingenious diving bell, he is called to manage the rescue of the crew of Squalus.

The book is well-written, although Maas effort to be thorough throws many characters at you at once in the beginning of the book. I appreciate the detail, but it does make it difficult to get into the story at first. It is well worth the time, to hear about the history of Charles Momsen's attempts to engineer life-saving methods.

For me, this is the greatest draw of the book. The rescue is quite exciting, but I find Momsen an intriguing and inspiring character who teaches us something not only about self-sacrifice, but of the preservation of life. He teaches of perseverance, creativity, and the rejection of senseless death. While his superiors appeared to judge research into rescue methods as having a high cost, Momsen placed an even higher value on the lives of his compatriots.

This is how I spent my weekend. I'd like to say a word or two about the holier-than-though disapproval that some people dish out over how others spend their Memorial Day. After reading some letters published in the paper and blog posts, I feel the need to speak on this.

I am rather disappointed to see people describing Memorial Day thusly: "Memorial Day used to be a day of solemn remembrance, now people just grill some hamburgers." These scoldings smack of the typically hazy view of the past, but worse they presume to know what we're thinking. The practice of celebrating a spring day away from work may not be somber enough for some, but the scent of grilled hamburgers wafting over the tattoo of marching band drums is perhaps a perfect combination for reflection.

Grilled delights and self-aggrandizing scolding are two of the freedoms we enjoy today. Memorialize Responsibly.

Posted by James at May 26, 2009 2:34 PM
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This is the first year I've seen a significant amount of scolding about barbecues on Memorial Day. It reminds me of the rhetoric from the so-called "War on Christmas." ("War on Memorial Day" doesn't have the right ring to it!)

I think a Memorial Day picnic is far more respectful than, say, an auto sale to commemorate Martin Luther King.

Posted by: Julie at May 26, 2009 4:16 PM

I haven't read any scolding (I haven't read anything), but I guess I can tolerate it if it's coming from Veterans. They unfortunately have come back to us worse for the wear and they can receive bad treatment here. However, if it's just some busybody deciding how people should spend their holiday (which I suspect), then that is, of course, ridiculous.

I spent my holiday doing linear algebra. I'm doing what the president said, so it's patriotic. ;-) (And, as James failed to mention it, enjoying the smell of grilled lighter fluid in the rain wafting from our neighbor's yard.)

Posted by: Maggie at May 27, 2009 7:51 AM

It wasn't from veterans. If it were, I would expect that more on Veteran's day. And I think that how we treat our Veterans is actually more important than whether we are sufficiently solemn all day long on Memorial Day.

People are naturally going to have their own interpretations about how to memorialize and whether it is even appropriate.

If you have personally lost someone, I think you should have remembrances which are more personal, but YMMV. If not, then I have to wonder what the dead require of us.

I think parades and celebrations we have in town at the various monuments are perfectly appropriate and offer a moment for reflection.

Posted by: James at May 27, 2009 9:19 AM

The story of Swede's life and career is amazing from start to finish - he was an amazing leader, critical thinker, and engineer who pioneered diving and submarine technology that is still used today.

I missed doing a Memorial Day post - I was too busy and call it a "down cycle" - but I think you hit the nail on the head. I saw some general "chest thumping" that sounded like "Yeah, I know you're out there and not fact, I'm pretty sure I'm the only one doing it right!"

I don't think the dead demand anything of us. But I think we do ourselves a favor when we take time to remind ourselves - in a non-political way - of the price at which our nation in its current form (for better or worse) was bought. I guess ideally we'd "demand it of ourselves" in some way...if that makes sense.

Posted by: Bull at May 28, 2009 12:43 AM

What is sad is that tyranny never seems to stop. So we pay the price of the blood, bodies, and sanity of our soldiers, and we continue to pay that price as there seems to be an endless stream of little men (very few female tyrants, although I won't excuse Condoleeza Rice) who get control and start the cycle over. The problem isn't, I don't think, that we don't appreciate the sacrifice or even that we don't study history. It's just that we don't seem to be able to recognize when we're making bad history. We are frail humans and we let our frailties make bad decisions.

Posted by: Maggie at May 28, 2009 10:10 AM

The sacrifices that we are privileged to be the beneficiaries of are staggering. It is the least we can do to pause and say "thank you" one day a year. As Bull notes, we're not saying "thank you" because of what the dead require; we require it. The question is "why?"

Why do we require it?

Among other things, we require it because it informs our lives. It tells us something about the decisions we will make in the future. It gives us a context for our actions as members of a society.

These are not reflexive acts, and should not be reduced to such. To turn Memorial Day into a sort of religion, to take the ceremony and elevate it is to kill it. It asks us to sleepwalk through it, to get by simply by wearing a lapel pin, to make knee-jerk statements.

The most important action here is between your ears. And the proof is in how it changes you as a person, and how it changes the decisions you make.

Posted by: James at May 28, 2009 11:26 AM

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