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US Navy's Submarine Rescue Team

Dateline: 08/17/00

As hopes fade for the rescue of the 118 sailors trapped aboard the sunken Russian nuclear submarine Kursk, you might wonder what sort of systems the United States has of rescuing sailors trapped on submarines of our Navy. First, a brief look at the history of submarine rescue -- and tragedy.

Swede Momsen Saves the Squalus
In 1939 the US Navy and almost everybody who knew anything about submarines agreed that if a sub went down, the crew simply could not be rescued. Almost everybody, that is, except for a US Navy submariner named Swede Momsen.

On May 23, 1939, the US Navy submarine Squalus, then America's newest sub, sank in 250 feet of water during a test dive of the New England coast. Over the next 39 gut-wrenching hours, Swede Momsen utilized a pear-shaped diving bell of his own design to save all 33 crew members of the Squalus. To this day, Momsen's feat remains the greatest undersea rescue ever carried out.

Though Momsen's pioneering efforts in development of deep-sea rescue methods resulted in his being remembered as the greatest submariner of all time, he had to battle Navy bureaucratic red tape and resistance every step of the way. In fact, not until shaken by two modern disasters, did the Navy commit fully to a submarine rescue program. 

The Thresher - 1963
On the morning of April 10, 1963, the US nuclear submarine Thresher (SSN-593) suffered what her crew first informed surface ships was "minor difficulties, have positive up-angle, attempting to blow,” but moments later broke apart and sank 200 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. All 129 hands on board were lost.

The loss of the Thresher and her crew seemed unimaginable to Navy officials. She had been the most advanced submarine ever built, capable of diving deeper and staying down longer than any sub before her. After determining that a minor water leak in a joint had lead to the loss of Thresher, the Navy instituted new standards for the design, construction and operation of submarines that seemed to be working well until May 22, 1968.

The Scorpion - 1968
On that morning, the US nuclear submarine Scorpion (SSN-589) sank in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean only 97 days after being overhauled and refitted. All 99 crewmembers were lost. Despite two investigations, the Navy still has no conclusive evidence of what sank Scorpion.

Thresher and Scorpion were the only two U.S. nuclear submarines ever lost, and over the years since they went down, vast improvements in sub design and construction, and in the training of submarine crews have been made. Even so, the Navy, being aware that the sea will always win and ships will always sink, began to develop advanced deep-sea rescue units worthy of praise even from Swede Momsen.

Deep Submergence Unit - US Navy
In 1989, the Navy established the Deep Submergence Unit (DSU) as an expansion to its existing Submarine Rescue Unit. Today, the DSU is home to a fleet of advanced deep submergence vehicles, deep submergence rescue vehicles, remotely operated unmanned submergence vehicles and support surface ships and crew standing ready in the event of a submarine disaster anywhere in the world.

Stationed in San Diego, CA, and always on a high status of readiness, the equipment and crew of the DSU can be loaded onto transport aircraft and be on station anywhere in the world within hours.

While the assigned mission of the DSU is submarine rescue for the United States and its allies, they also assist with deep ocean search and recovery and scientific research operations for a variety of agencies, both military and civilian.

In the case of the Kursk rescue efforts, the Russian Navy turned down the United States' offer of assistance citing technical incompatibilities between Russian hardware and that of the U.S. Navy's DSU team.

A total six nuclear submarines have been lost at sea: The Thresher and Scorpion of the U.S. Navy and now four Russian vessels. U.S. and Russian naval experts estimate that since 1961, over 500 people have died in accidents aboard submarines, most the result of fires.

The Final Patrol

Lord, this departed shipmate with dolphins on his chest
is part of an outfit known as the best.
Make him welcome and take him by the hand.
You'll find without a doubt he was the best in all the land.
So, heavenly Father add his name to the roll
of our departed shipmates still on patrol.
Let them know that we who survive
Will always keep their memories alive.

[US Navy Submarine Centennial]

Reference Links

My Hero - Swede Momsen
Read about the story of the greatest submariner ever. From the All Hands - The Magazine of the US Navy.

Silent Defense - 100 Years of Submarine Service
2000 marks the 100th year of the US Navy submarine service. Read about it in All Hands - The Magazine of the US Navy.

US Navy Submarine Centennial Memorial
A tribute to the men and ships of the US submarine service. Read more about the Thresher and Scorpion tragedies. From the US Navy.

Broken Arrows to Faded Giants
The Russian government says the nuclear submarine Kursk carried no atomic weapons. Yet, her reactor and radioactive fuel remain at the bottom of the sea. Learn how the US Department of Defense informs the public of similar nuclear accidents.

Grey Lady Down -- Rescue of the Kursk
Russian Culture Guide Linda DeLaine covers the sinking of the Kursk and efforts to rescue the Russian sub's crew. 

The Russian Navy
Stories and Web sites full of history and information on the Russian Navy from Russian Culture Guide Linda DeLaine.

Nuclear Spring
Total number of U.S. nuclear bombs lost in accidents and never recovered: 11 -- This an more nuclear remembrances from your About Guide.

US Navy Submarine Photos
Pictures of U.S. Navy Submarines in Action. From US Military Guide Rod Powers.

US Navy Fact File: Attack Submarines
Information on hardware of the U.S. Navy from US Military Guide Rod Powers.

  Historic Confederate Sub Hunley Raised
The wreck of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley has been recovered intact under the direction of a National Parks Service team. The Hunley became the first submarine in history to sink an enemy ship during battle 136 years ago. From your About Guide.

Directive 5230.16, "Nuclear Accident and Incident Public Affairs (PA) Guidance"
Text of the DoD document on dealing with nuclear accidents.

Nuclear Weapons: Pay Up to Cleanup
The U.S. spends about $96 million a day on nuclear weapons. The DOE estimates that from $151 billion to $195 billion will be needed through 2070 for cleanup and closure of nuclear weapons facilities. From your About Guide.

Cold War: Costs of Victory
The Berlin Wall and communism fell, but now the U.S. is spending $475.5 million to help the former Soviet Union dismantle and store its excess nuclear weapons. From your About Guide.

US - Russia Agree to Destroy Plutonium
Meeting in Moscow, President Clinton and Russian President Putin have agreed that both nations should destroy their stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium and work together on missile warning systems. From your About Guide.

Nuke 'em?! - The problem
Las Vegas Guide Robert Romano looks at the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage issue from the viewpoint of a next-door neighbor.

Nuclear Waste in the US
Links to articles and sites dealing with United States nuclear waste issues. From Environment Guide Patricia Michaels.

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