The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson


Rescue of a submarine crew.

By; Will JohnsonS-5 Sunken

In my book “Tale’s from my Grandmother’s Pipe” I have already written about a unique sea saga involving Captain Ernest Alfred Johnson of Saba. This took place just after World War 1.

Captain Freddie was born on Saba on Sunday June 15th, 1884. His father was William James Johnson and his mother was Judith Eleanor Dowling. In 1906 he married Mary Ellen Hassell whose parents were Abram Thomas Hassell and Mary Ellen Darsey.133 - Saba-1956 or 57 - Admiral EA Johnson-03

He lost his father at a young age. His brother John William Johnson “Sonny” told me that he and his father had gone fishing in the cliffs in a place known as the “Vipers Hole” also known as “Wiba Hole”. His father slipped on a rock and the ensuing fall crushed his head on the rocks below. Sonny was a little boy and he scrambled up the cliffs to “Booby Hill” where they lived to bring the sad news. It took hours before a boat could get around the island to retrieve the body.

Captain Freddie went to sea early on as a teenager. When he was old and lived in his home on Booby Hill which he built in 1906 with lumber brought on a Saba schooner from New York he became a celebrity of sorts. Dr. Goslinga who was Inspector of Education at the time interviewed him and put together a manuscript called “21 knot Johnson”. Years later the famous Antillean author, recently deceased, Dr. Frank Martinus Arion fell in love with the manuscript and wanted to publish it. He even came to Saba and made a presentation in the Youth Center in The Bottom and made a plea for the manuscript to be published. But it came to nothing.

Captain Johnson had an eventful career. He even owned a large four master schooner the “T.N. Barnsdell”.

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Capt. E.A. Johnson’s four master schooner the T.N. Barnsdell .

His nephew

William son of his brother William (a.ka. Buck) was a Commander of a large battle ship during the Vietnam War.

The most remarkable event of Captain Freddie’s career though was the rescue of the crew of the submarine S. 5.

During the month of August 1920, the “S.S. Alanthus”, under the command of Captain Freddie, and the S -5 submarine, 231 feet in length were in Boston harbor. At the time the S-5 was the largest submarine in the United States Navy.

As the dawn of that fateful morning broke, the submarine started on her journey to Baltimore. While she was closing in on Delaware’s Cape Henlopen in 170 feet of water, her commander Cooke, decided to dive. The S-5 began to descend to the dark waters below. Slowly she went down to 50 feet, and at 60 feet she tried to level off but was unable to do so. She continued to plunge in the dark depths. An air induction valve, which had been opened, was unable to close.

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My. uncle Capt. Charles Reuben Simmons served once as a mate on his schooner the Barnsdell. Uncle Reuben said he was a very strong man.

In a recent article in Undersea Warfare, the Official Magazine of the U.S. Submarine Force, found by my son Chris on the Internet, additional information was revealed on this historic incident.

“Somewhat after 1900 hours, several men who had found refuge in the motor room – now the top most compartment – reported a startling observation: the sound of waves beating against the hull! The truth dawned: Given S-5, s length, the depth of water where she was marooned, and the angle she made with the horizontal, 20 feet of the boat’s stem was protruding above the surface! However, the after escape hatch was still 30 feet below water, and even if the boat were completely vertical, the hatch would barely break the surface. Cooke immediately realized that there was only one final possibility – to cut their way out.

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The village of Booby Hill where Capt. Johnson was born and lived his last years.

Abaft the motor room was one very small compartment – the tiller room- where the rudder post and steering gear were located. Around 2000 hours, Savvy Cooke made his way upward from the control room, and with several crew members and a manual breast drill, entered the tiller room for an attempt to bore through the three-quarter inch, high-strength steel that separated them from the outside world. Despite the cramped conditions and awkward angle of attack, the men had succeeded within twenty minutes in drilling a quarter inch hole through the hull, which revealed that indeed the stem was well out of water and – not surprisingly – that night had fallen.

With only a selection of drills and miscellaneous hand tools to work with, Cooke decided to proceed by drilling a circle of closely-spaced holes and employing a hammer and chisel to knock out the intervening metal. With perseverance, this would eventually result in a large enough opening for a man to wriggle through, but considering how long it had taken to drill the first hole, it would likely take over three days to finish the job.

Nonetheless, Cooke organized the crew into working parties to take on the back-breaking task, and the drilling began in earnest within an hour.

The crew kept at it all night long, and by sunrise in the morning of Thursday, 2 September, had opened up a slot through which they could scan much of the horizon in the gathering dawn. Two ships appeared, too far away to be of any help. Meanwhile, the atmosphere inside the boat was becoming increasingly foul, and the effects of oxygen-deprivation and carbon dioxide asphyxiation were worsening rapidly. The men panted for breath and could barely summon the energy needed to climb up into the stern and take their turns drilling on the hull. Moreover, as air escaped through the widening hole, the decreasing internal pressure allowed more water to leak into the hull, and the boat began slowly sinking back toward the bottom. The crew’s race against time accelerated.

Capt. Ernest Alfred Johnson

Capt. Johnson was a celebrity and people coming in from off-island were always visiting his home and taking his photograph.

By 1400 Thursday afternoon, 24 hours after S-5 nosed into the bottom, Cooke and his drilling teams had only achieved a triangular hole six by eight inches, and most of his men were either incapacitated or unconscious from lack of oxygen. Then, when all seemed lost, another ship appeared, much closer than the first two, and Savvy and his men searched frantically for a way to attract attention. Ultimately, they found a ten foot copper pipe, fastened a sailor’s tee-shirt to it, thrust it out through the hole in the hull and waved desperately for help.

The ship was a small coastal steamer, SS Alanthus, bound from New York to Newport News under the command of Ernest A. Johnson, a veteran merchant mariner. Although Alanthus was actually moving away from S-5 at the time, by an extraordinary stroke of luck, a man on deck glimpsed the distant outline of the submarine’s stem and its fluttering white flag. Alanthus immediately came around to investigate.

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Capt. Ernest  A. Johnson in front of his home which he built in 1906.

Johnson brought Alanthus as close to the hulk as he dared and had himself rowed over in a small boat to the submarine’s protruding stem. After a shouted exchange with Savvy Cooke, Johnson immediately recognized the urgency of the situation and the need to act quickly. He returned to his ship, maneuvered her against the submarine, and tethered S-5’s stern to Alanthus with a manila hawser, chain slings, and cables. Next, he ordered a wooden platform erected to give working access to the submarine’s stem, and his engineers improvised an air pump to replenish the atmosphere in the stricken boat. With some of the immediate danger relieved, Captain Johnson then turned to the problem of getting Cooke and his men out of the submarine.

Johnson had left Alanthus’s radio operator in New York, so he had no way to call for help. Moreover, he had no drills or cutting tools onboard, so to continue enlarging the escape hole, his men under Chief Engineer Carl Jakobsen had to depend on using the S-5’s own badly worn equipment, passed out through the small opening. By 1700, Jakobsen’s crew had resumed drilling from outside the hull, but progress was agonizingly slow. Luckily, at about the same time, another, much larger ship appeared on the horizon a 4,800-ton passenger steamer, the SS General George W. Goethals, and Johnson succeeded in attracting her attention with an emergency flag hoist. Goethals’ Master, Captain E.O. Swinson, brought his ship to the scene and anchored nearby. Fortunately, Goethals was considerably better equipped than Alanthus, and was able to radio the Navy for assistance. All up and down the eastern seaboard from Philadelphia, Norfolk, New York, and New London, Navy ships prepared to cast off and head for the scene.

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Another view of Capt. Johnson during a heavy dry weather as you can see.

Swinson sent his Chief Engineer, William Grace, and the latter’s first assistant Richard McWilliams, to help with the drilling, and they brought a manual ratchet drill that proved much better suited to the task. Since S-5’s crew was still in considerable danger, and the first Navy rescuers wouldn’t arrive until 0400 Friday morning, the two merchant captains agreed to continue with their own effort, and Grace and McWilliams took over the drilling shortly after 1900. The two engineers attacked the job with a will and Grace – a large powerful man was able to drill a new hole every four or five minutes. By midnight, they had completed an 18 inch circle of holes, and an hour later having chiseled out the remaining metal, drove in the resulting chunk of hull plating with a sledge hammer. After nearly 36 hours trapped in the disabled boat, S-5’s crew was free!

The men made their way out one by one and were ferried to an improvised infirmary in Alanthus’s galley, where two doctors from Goethals provided emergency treatment. Because of the debilitated condition of the crew and the need for each of them to climb much of the length of the submarine to get out, evacuating the 40 men was a difficult and laborious process, only completed after 0330, just as the first Navy ships began to arrive. Savvy Cooke, awake for nearly two days, was last to leave his command.

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Capt. Johnson being visited by old friends from Saba who lived in the United States. To the left Joe Johnson and to the right Emile Johnson.

The last of over a half-dozen Navy ships to reach the scene in the early morning of Friday, 3 September was the battleship USS Ohio (BB-12), which appeared at 0900. By then, Goethals had already left the scene, and Cooke and most of his men were asleep but recovering quickly onboard Alanthus. The small freighter was asked to make a first attempt to salvage the submarine by towing her to shallow water nearer land, but the task was too much for her limited power. Thus, after S-5 was made fast to Ohio and the rescued crew transferred, Alanthus left for Newport News to the cheers of the fleet. Late in the afternoon, Ohio herself attempted to tow the submarine nearer to shore, but after several hours with Ohio at full power and S-5 apparently dragging along the bottom, the towing cable parted. At that time, only four miles had been made good toward land, and operations to save the boat were suspended.


A nice view of Booby Hill in 1964. Photo by Father Boradori. Village where Capt. Freddie was born and after a life of adventures at sea he returned to and is buried there.

Although the Navy gave up their attempt to salvage S-5 in 1921, her hulk was rediscovered in 1989 by civilian sport divers 48 miles southeast of Cape May, New Jersey, and it remains a challenging dive site today.

The circle of plating cut labourisly from S-5’s hull to allow Cooke and his men to escape was preserved and may be seen today in the Navy Museum at the Washington, DC, Navy Yard. It is approximately two feet in diameter and 3/4ths inch thick.

Subsequently, the Secretary of the Navy rewarded Captains Johnson and Swinson, and engineers Jakobsen, Grace and McWilliams for their part in the rescue.

Captain Freddie lived on with his memories at his home on Booby Hill and is buried in a private cemetery above his house on Bobby Hill together with his beloved wife.

That his memory should not be forgotten we record this heroic story for posterity!!


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