Story of the Accident

S-51 submarine in the water with crew members on deck.

Above: S-51 at sea with crew on deck.

Middle: S-51 in dry dock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Bottom: Commander Edward Ellsberg holding the S-51 bell. The inscription reads "USS S-51 1921".

S-51 submarine in dry dock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Commander Edward Ellsberg holding the S-51 bell.

On September 25, 1925, the U. S. submarine S-51 left the New London base for sea exercises, carrying a crew of regular and student officers under the command of Lieutenant Rodney H. Dobson. That night, while off the coast of Block Island, the approaching steamship, City of Rome, spotted the lights of the submarine, about five miles away. However, the City of Rome continued its course.

Inside the S-51, most of the crew were already in their bunks in the battery room. Lieutenant Dobson was in the control room when the watchman on the S-51's bridge spotted the lights of the steamship. The submarine had the right of way under the International Rules of the Road at Sea; therefore the S-51 was required to maintain its course and speed. Since the submarine's stern light was plainly visible to the approaching ship, they felt no alarm; the steamer would change its course and pass them, so they thought.

They watched as the City of Rome drew closer until it looked as if it would run them over in spite of the rules. The submarine turned its rudder a hard right. Just when it seemed that the steamer was turning away from them, to their horror, it changed direction and headed for their right side. In an instant, the City of Rome had struck the battery room filled with the sleeping men.

Through a huge hole, about 30 inches wide, water rushed into the submarine. The steamer ran over the submarine, forcing her underwater, and kept going. It all happened so quickly that there was no time to close the watertight doors. The S-51 sank in less than one minute.

A few men who had been on watch on the bridge and two or three from inside the sub managed to get out. Swimming was difficult in the cold, choppy water, and the few men who had escaped tried to rid themselves of their clothing, which was pulling them down. One by one, they vanished except for three men clothed in only their underwear; they had been sleeping when they were thrown from their bunks. These three swam for nearly an hour. Finally, a small boat picked them up and took them aboard the City of Rome. The S-51 and her crew had disappeared in some 132 feet of water about fourteen miles east of Block Island, New York.

Salvage efforts went on for many months. Divers risked their lives in the icy waters at depths that could crush them. The sub was finally raised in the summer of 1926 and was towed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. There it stayed on display for some time until it was later sold for scrap. Court rulings found both the City of Rome and the S-51 at fault for not following the rules of the road at sea.

City of Rome Captain, John H. Diehl, in uniform.

City of Rome Captain, John H. Diehl.

City of Rome steamship that sank the S-51 submarine in harbor.

City of Rome steamship that sank the S-51 submarine.