Book Review: Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster


by Joseph A. Williams

Chicago: Chicago Review Press / Independent Publishers Group, 2015. Pp. x, 292. Illus., diagr., notes, biblio, index. $26.95. ISBN: 1613731388

A Tragic Submarine Disaster

Maritime historian and sometime librarian of the New York Maritime College, Williams gives us a comprehensive, often moving account of the disaster that befell submarine S-4 (SS 109). Accidentally rammed while surfacing on Dec. 17, 1927 by a Coast Guard Cutter on anti-smuggling patrol off Cape Cod, the boat settled on the bottom at nearly 250 feet. Rescue efforts began almost immediately, and six of the boat’s 40 crew were found to be trapped in an air pocket.

Williams goes into considerable detailed on the technically complex, if ultimately unsuccessful effort to save these men. He weaves through often arcane technical details of submarine operations and life, the techniques and risks of diving, ship handling, seamanship, and the highly difficult and life threatening conditions under which submariners and salvagers performed their duties. He also looks into how families were struck by the horrific tragedy, and the sensational – and often fabricated – press reports.

Williams often cuts back and forth between divers, men in the salvage vessels, the doomed survivors, and others, to convey the events of life through to its ultimately tragic end, and gives us some insights into some of the men involved, notably then Captain Ernest J. King and salvage expert Commander Edward Ellsberg, as well the heroic rescue of diver Fred Michels, who became entangled in the wreckage while trying to pass an air hose into the sunken boat by Chief Gunner's Mate Thomas Eadie, who was awarded a Medal of Honor. Williams also sets the loss of the S-4 within the framework of other submarine disasters, and shows how the boat’s loss led to major improvements in submarine safety and in rescue salvage operations.

This is a dramatic tale of a desperate effort, well told.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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