Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews

The Terrible Hours

The Man Behind the Greatest Submarine Rescue in History

Maas, Peter

1999, Harpercollins
ISBN 0060194804
Hardcover, 259 pages

Type. General History

This is a minute-by-minute account of the events surrounding the accident that brought the Squalus to rest on the ocean floor off the New England coast in 1939, combined with an overview of the work of Charles Bowers Momsen (generally known as Swede Momsen) in developing submarine crew rescue technology.

A substantial part of the book is devoted to describing Momsen's experiments and testing of diving accident rescue gear. Momsen himself was on O-15 when she became temporarily stuck in the mud of the sea floor, and spent years perfecting rescue techniques and attempting to convince the US Navy that they should be implemented. The sinking of the Squalus marked the first occasion on which Momsen's devices and procedures were used in a disaster.

The author mentions other peacetime submarine disasters which occurred in US waters before 1939, and provides some detailed information on the physics and chemistry of diving, breathing mixtures, nitrogen narcosis, and similar topics.

The book is good, as far as it goes, but it's a bit lightweight in terms of supporting information. It has no bibliography, no index, no maps, no photos, and no diagrams, any or all of which would have been valuable additions. In the last two pages the author mentions that he had access to Momsen's personal papers and conducted interviews with Squalus survivors, but does not list any of the other sources he must have turned to in writing the book.

The book also seems to end a bit abruptly, with a brief overview of the restored sub's wartime career under the name Sailfish up until the curious coincidence of 1943 in which Sailfish sank the Japanese carrier transporting the crew of her sister sub Sculpin. The epilogue that follows recounts the remainder of Momsen's career until his death, but does not mention what Sailfish did during the last two years of the war, nor her final fate.

This book is fast-paced and reads like a novel, with lots of dialogue and purple prose. Depending on the reader's personal preferences, this can be either a good thing or a bad thing. Overall it is an interesting read, especially in regards to Momsen's work in developing rescue methods. A good complement to this book would be Back from the Deep, which spends perhaps less detail on the accident and raising itself, but provides more historical background and deals with Sculpin as well.

Review written by Tonya Allen.

Published on 25 Nov 2000.

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