Retrotechtacular: There’s More Than One Way To Escape A Submarine

And this 1953 United States Navy training film describes two ways to do so: collective escape via rescue chamber, and individual escape using SEAs.

The film first follows a fellow named [Baxter] and his men in the aft torpedo room.  His sub has failed to surface as scheduled. There are no officers present at the time of distress, so [Baxter, Torpedoman First] is in charge. His first directive is that [Johnson] extinguish his Chesterfield. There’ll be time enough for smoking on the rescue ship, [Johnson].

[Baxter] releases a marker buoy because it is daytime and the weather is fair. Had other conditions prevailed, [Baxter] would send up flares and bang on the hull to provide a sonic beacon for rescuers. Next, he checks the forward compartments. If they are clear, he leaves the hatches open to give his men more air. He checks the air purity and engages [Brooklyn] to pull down some COabsorbent.

[Baxter] and his men will be okay for a while. They have plenty of drinking water, food, juice, supplemental oxygen, and COabsorbent. Their best move is to take it easy and wait for the rescue chamber. That way, they’ll avoid drowning, exposure, and COpoisoning.

Elsewhere in the forward torpedo chamber, there’s a chlorine leak and it can’t be stopped. These nameless sailors have to work quickly to escape the noxious gas. First, they pass around the SEAs and turn them into respirators. Soda lime will filter out the chlorine gas from their lungs and eyes. They too will release a marker buoy, but the first order of business is to move to the escape trunk.

Communicating through gestures, the lead man assigns three men to break out the life raft. The men move to the trunk with the buoy, raft, ascending line, and a divers’ knife. They also take a battle lantern, hand tools, and spare SEAs, but leave their shoes behind. After equalizing the pressure in the trunk, they can get going on their escape. They open the hatch, float the buoy, and tie it off. Now the raft can be floated up the buoy line. Since they are 100 feet down, they send a man every ten seconds up the buoy line and he is to move approximately one foot per second. First man to surface inflates the raft, and Bob’s your uncle. Now, they just have to prevent sunburn and tell stories until the rescue ship finds them.

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

29 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: There’s More Than One Way To Escape A Submarine

    1. As a Canadian, I approve of this comment!

      Note: Canadians use the word chesterfield for couch a lot, and have for decades. Not sure on how prevalent this term usage is in other countries, though it would seem it does occur.

    1. And thank you for your service. As it happens when that film was made, we were transitioning off of diesel electrics toward the nuclear ones, so the rescue methods were well out of date. The Thresher disaster confirmed how badly we were fixed for that one….

    1. And thank you for your service. As it happens when that film was made, we were transitioning off of diesel electrics toward the nuclear ones, so the rescue methods were well out of date. The Thresher disaster confirmed how badly we were fixed for that one…. And I can well imagine.

    1. The inside of the sub is probably at something not far from sea level air pressure.
      So the virtual effect would be similar to a person ‘fairly rapidly’ dropping to 100 feet below sea level, and then rising back up to sea level over approx 2 minutes.
      So, probably not enough time to get the symptoms of the bends.
      When you do a dive requiring decompression, the longer that you are down; the longer you have to spend at the decompression level.

    2. Having never suffered from the bends I may be completely off base, but the bends is not nearly as bad as drowning or suffocation. Also, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, risk of decompression-related problems is reduced because escapes are only subjected to high pressure for a short period of time.

    3. The escaping men are only under pressure while in the trunk. Little or no Nitrogen will dissolve into their blood during the short time they are there.

      Additionally, the bends is not generally fatal while other circumstances may be of higher concern.

    1. Actually the assumption that the sub is perfectly level and the need for clear vision at various steps makes this seem a bit ‘level 1’ training followed by a few more challenging scenarios I would expect.
      At hundred meters deep and possibly at night and with the use of flashlights you might have a little trouble doing a lot of this stuff. Imagine for instance having to dive to that hatch to secure that piece of line for the life raft in the dark, you can’t see where you are going and can’t see the line of the buoy, which by the way had to be tied to a ring the first guy could not see.. it’s all a bit more tricky.

  1. Not sure about current training, but in the early 80s on a new Los Angeles class sub we were taught a different set of rules, and the technology had changed. S.E.A.s were replaced by Emergency Air Breathing equipment. Called EABs, they were similar to full-face gas masks, with a regulator and a feed line. EAB manifolds were positioned every few yards, and it was not an unusual drill to have to traverse the length of the ship on EABs, sometimes even to stand entire watches. At least one submarine in the past 30 years has had to do a tedious surface transit while the entire crew wore EABs due to a poisonous gas leak. A powered CO2 scrubber removed that gas, and a monitoring unit similar to that used on the space shuttle continuously checked for contaminants, but we also had CO2 canisters as in the film and manual contaminant detectors (Draeger tubes.) Special pipes went from specific compartments to the hull, and could be used to supply air, water, soup, even hot dogs to a trapped crew. The SEAs were also not used for escape. We had another device whos name escapes me that was a loosely fitting hood that went over the head. LA class subs have two escape trunks, forward and aft, and they are vertical. Compressed air was used to quickly pressurize the trunk, and burst eardrums were expected at great depth. Bends are not an issue as there is not enough time for the Nitrogen to dissolve into the blood, you blow and go. The ascent was free of buoy and line, and instead of whistling we were told to put our arms in front of us like superman and go “ho-ho-ho” all the way up. There was still a hydraulic system for closing the outer hatch from inside the compartment. And for Gods sake the one thing they repeatedly told us was that the life raft goes up with the LAST party, because if it was accidentally triggered in the trunk it would block escape. I was a nuke (stationed in the nuclear engine room) so didn’t attend escape training, they assumed we were smart enough to follow instructions. Realistically in the event of a disaster anything over a few hundred feet would probably not be escapable, and the external rescue systems only work if the sub is very nearly vertical. Watching the coverage of the Kursk was particularly painful.

    1. I was on a Los Angeles class sub in the early nineties, and your info was still current then. They did not use the escape trainer at all. As I understood it when I was stationed in Connecticut, the escape trainer tower was condemned. It was still standing, because they would have to drain the water to tear it down. But, they couldn’t drain the water because if they drained it, the tower would collapse!
      The tower is gone now, but the tower is still on the New London base’s logo (

  2. As a fellow submariner as well I would have to agree about the comment that if you go down your pretty much fucked. This is a great old time video if you are in the Atlantic where seabed isn’t too far from the surface…typically. I have never seen anyone act this calmly in an actual casualty. The running joke on our boat was that this procedure was just to say something to mom about how if your sub goes down we have ways to escape if need be. I’m not really sure how many people on on onboard a boat are actually proficient with this procedure due to people having died in the trainers from the bends and whatnot and them not training it anymore. But I do have to say that modern day and even these old diesel boats are great pieces of engineering marvel. Just don’t be in one when it decides to go to the ocean bottom, because you’re probably fucked.

    1. The chance that this happens in shallow water is probably rather slim, except maybe in the arctic ocean (Kursk). But there you’ll probably freeze to death before anyone finds you. Crush depth is 600-800m while the average ocean is 3000m deep. So,in most cases if the sub sinks, it will be crushed before it lands on the bottom of the ocean and you’re done anyhow.

  3. I’m not usually claustrophobic but…there’s enclosed spaces, and then there’s enclosed spaces under hundreds of feet of water enclosed in a gigantic angry war-dildo, possibly carrying the fourth or fifth largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Apoca-dildo.

    I don’t think I could handle submarine life, especially not on a “boomer.”

      1. I’d rather be on a boomer then a fast attack any day… they only down side when comparing a boomer to a fast attack is that the boomer has 3 month patrols every other 3 months or so. Fast attacks are a lot smaller and out to see way more often then boomers in my oppinion(no actual factual data on that besides working with some boomer guys). All I know is that when we got a guy coming from a SSBN to SSN they always hated life more then they did when they were on their cruise liner.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.