The Letdown: The Near Sinking of the USS Irex

By Walter Henley EM2(SS), 1945

The tall, lean and lanky sailor stood watch on the port panel of the Maneuvering Room of the practically new submarine. The “Great War” was over now. Sailors were shipping out. The new submarine had been one of the many boats being built right up to the end of the “War to Make the World Safe for Democracy”. It had arrived at Panama Canal Zone and was loading supplies and fuel on August 14, 1945, to depart for the Pacific, when the “Ship's Whistle” blew to signify the end of the war.

The boat was launched on 26 January, 1945. She was commissioned on 14 May, 1945. She made her first dive on 3 June, 1945, in the shade of the scene of the sinking of the USS Squalus. She had put out to sea from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, biding her time while being used as a target for the Cuties, the new homing devices of the Anti-Submarine Warfare of the United States.

Her crew included a Skipper and Exec who were two of the eight survivors who heroically survived the sinking of the unlucky USS Flier on her second patrol. On her first patrol the newly-commissioned Flier bad been attacked by a friendly merchant ship. She was formed to escape in a rain squall. She ran aground in Midway in a bad storm. Both the Flier and the rescue vessel were grounded on the reef. She was finally removed from the reef, but the rescue vessel slid into the sea. The Flier returned to Pearl Harbor for extensive repairs. One of the crew of the new boat was a former shipmate with one of the lost crew of the Flier. After be learned that the Skipper and Exec were from the lost Flier, he requested a transfer from the new submarine, but the request was denied.

More than one of the crew were apprehensive, to say the least. Submariners are a suspicious lot, and for good reason. Which submariner had seen action and been transferred just before the boat went down? Who had not heard the sea stories of the sailor who wanted to get off before the final patrol and was too chicken to ask? Which one of them had not lost one or more very close shipmates to the silent depths?

But the Great War was over now! The crew had celebrated the end of the war by going ashore in Panama in Sections. At least one whole Section was returned on board by the Shore Patrol after a wild celebration.

The boat was returning to her new assignment in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when the first event sobered the crew to the risks of the daily living in a submarine. On return from Gitmo, the pump room flooded and killed most of the electrical motors in the lower deck of the Control Room. Three electricians worked around the clock for 72 hours with no more than a catnap at the crew's mess table while digesting the meal they had stopped to eat. The boat remained underway and returned to normal operation after every electrical motor was washed and cleaned with carbon tet. The electricians received commendations at Captain's Mast. One of them was promoted to Chief.

It seemed that the crew was changing daily. Returning to Key West after a Navy Day showing at Corpus Christi, TX, the life of the submariner changed. Wives and girlfriends waited ashore while her sailor went to sea, sometimes returning home every night, but certainly most every weekend. Life in the Navy wasn't so bad. Weekly excursions to Miami and the seacoast were weekend delights! One sailor bought a Buick Coupe and hauled a load of weekenders to Miami and the Coast.

But the submarine made its regular forays to sea. Training and exercises were rigorous and thorough. The test depth of this submarine was 412 feet. Regular dives were made to the test depth. Then came the day!

One day off the coast of Key West, a test dive was made routinely. The submarine had slipped slowly to the teat depth. The lanky sailor stood the Port Watch of the controls in the Maneuvering Room control board. The engines had been killed and the boat was on electric power. As the submarine neared 412 feet, the sea pressure built up to 176 pounds per square inch. Things were quiet and still. The lanky sailor had been working on a correspondence course of high school algebra. The Chief Electrician was on the starboard board, keeping a careful eye on the boards and the watch. The phone man was rigged in the headgear of the phones. He watched and asked questions as the dive progressed.

Then, suddenly, there was a high pressure deluge of sea water straying from the top of the hull near the soft patch, inundating the table, soaking the three man crew of the Maneuvering Room. The lights went out. In the dim light of the emergency lanterns, the operators of the board awaited orders, but none came. The phone man went below and discovered that the leak was from the circulating water water system. A test plug had blown out, releasing a 3/4 inch stream of high pressure sea water that followed the curve of the hull, coming down from the top of the rounded hull.

The submarine suddenly nosed over and took on a steep down angle at the already test maximum depth. No orders came from the Control Room. Finally, the nose inched upward and the boat leveled out and began its ascent to the surface. All breathed a sigh of relief as she shakily maneuvered to the surface.

What happened? The three-quarter inch plug in the circulating water system blew out. It was a hollow plug instead of solid core. The stream of water knocked out the AC-DC panel, killing off lighting and electrical indicators. The operators or Officer-in-Charge in the Control Room apparently thought that the main power was gone and shifted to manual power on the planes. The planes were full power and stuck or remained on hard dive, plunging the submarine toward the bottom.

The Skipper came out of the Wardroom and immediately recognized the problem and blew Negative and changed the planes. All was well except that the Maneuvering Room and AC-DC panel was flooded, killing all AC electricity and the lights.

The crew was relieved, but the awareness of the dangers of the submariner's life was reconfirmed.

During the emergency, a signal was sent to the surface. The wives and girlfriends of the sailors were not notified. When it came time to meet the returning sailors, they came to the base and were denied entrance and were told nothing. The boat was 3 or 4 hours late. They only learned of the accident when the sailors returned.

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