A new destroyer will bear Charles Momsen’s name

BATH – Carl Bryson was one of the lucky ones when the USS Squalus sank during a test dive 64 years ago off Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

Twenty-six sailors were dead by the time the stricken sub settled on the ocean floor. Bryson and 32 other survivors spent the next 36 hours shivering from the cold, breathing fouled air and wondering if they’d escape alive.

Charles “Swede” Momsen, the officer who led the daring rescue, will be honored Saturday with the christening of a destroyer bearing his name.

“Swede was a wonderful person and we owe our lives to him,” said Bryson, 85, of Groton, Conn., one of four Squalus survivors alive today.

The Squalus disaster was a defining moment for Momsen, who had spent 14 years pioneering lifesaving techniques after two sub sinkings in which all hands were lost, the S-51 in 1925 and the S-4 in 1927.

Momsen dedicated himself to finding a way to save sailors at a time when others thought deep-sea rescues were impossible.

“Creativity was the thing that characterized him. If he went into some other field, he would have made his mark there. He was always asking, ‘How could things be made better?”‘ said his grandson, Christopher Hailey.

Saturday’s ceremony at Bath Iron Works, where the $1 billion warship is being built, will be a family affair for descendants of Momsen, who retired with the rank of vice admiral and died in 1967.

Momsen’s daughter, Evelyn Momsen Hailey, 82, of Williamsburg, Va., will christen the vessel with champagne. Her son, Christopher, 54, will deliver an address to dignitaries, sailors and shipbuilders.

A great-grandson of Momsen’s, Fire Controlman 2nd Class Andrew Hailey, 29, will serve aboard the ship, maintaining the weapon systems’ central computer system.

Also on hand will be submariners including Bryson and another Squalus survivor, Gerald McLees, 88, of Portsmouth, N.H.

Born in 1896 in Flushing, N.Y., Momsen was always full of ideas from an early age. Today he would likely be described as “thinking outside the box.” Back then, his ideas didn’t always endear himself with the Navy brass.

He learned the hard way when his proposal for a diving bell languished on a desk at the Navy Bureau of Construction and Repair that getting things done sometimes meant circumventing official channels.

Without official sanction, he created a temporary breathing device, the Momsen lung, out of rubber scavenged from old inner tubes. A pickle barrel served as a makeshift diving bell utilized in his early descents.

He conducted a dramatic test in 110 feet of water in the Potomac River. He rose to the surface using his emergency air supply and held up a pebble he had snatched to show he reached the river’s murky bottom.

Navy brass learned about his test like everyone else: they read about it in the Washington Star. Despite rankling his superiors, he had proved his point and the lung became standard issue aboard U.S. Navy submarines.

Later, Momsen returned to development of a rescue bell that could be lowered to a disabled submarine to retrieve crew members.

It was used to rescue Bryson, McLees and 31 survivors from the Squalus about 65 miles from Bath near the Isle of Shoals, where the sub was undergoing sea trials off Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

In those days, deep-sea diving was dangerous work. But Christopher Hailey said he didn’t view his grandfather as reckless.

“I don’t know if I’d call him a risk taker. I think he calculated what those risks were,” he said. “If he believed in what he was doing, he would willingly take the first step before asking someone else to do it.”

Beyond his natural curiosity and creativity, Momsen was known for his sense of humor and other talents, including playing the ukelele. “Some of the songs weren’t appropriate for young ears,” Christopher Hailey noted.

He got the nickname “Swede” at the Naval Academy even though he was of Danish descent. Some called him the “lucky Swede” because of his success at cards.

He could cook, too. His recipe for a steak marinade is part of the U.S. Navy Submarine Cookbook. As usual, a major ingredient was a dose of humor.

“He said one ounce of bourbon in the steak sauce and three in the cook. And by the time the steak was finished the cook was just right,” his daughter said.

Christopher Hailey said his grandfather didn’t talk much about the Squalus rescue or his other accomplishments like leading the Navy’s first three-submarine wolf pack in World War II, serving as skipper of the battleship USS South Dakota, or commanding the U.S. Pacific Fleet submarine force.

Instead, Momsen focused on the present and the future.

His great-grandson, Andrew Hailey, will carry on the tradition. Hailey quit his job as manager of a movie theater in South Carolina and joined the Navy with the goal of serving aboard the Momsen.

Among his other responsibilities, Hailey will serve as the warship’s unofficial historian. He’ll also lead a class on his great-grandfather’s life and career for newcomers aboard the ship.

Hailey said there were many qualities he admires about his great-grandfather: his tenacity, his creativity, his kindness.

“In general, I like how he was always trying,” he said. “He sees something that needs to be done, and he’ll give it a try.”


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