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Charles Bowers Momsen (21 June 1896 - 25 May 1967), also known as Swede Momsen, was born in Flushing, New York. He was an American pioneer in submarine rescue and invented the underwater escape device called the Momsen Lung, for which he received the Distinguished Service Medal in 1929. In May 1939, he directed the rescue of the crew of the Squalus .

Early Navy years

Momsen entered the United States Naval Academymarker in 1914, and was ejected due to a widespread cheating scandal during the spring of his plebe, or freshman, year. But Momsen doggedly pursued another appointment to the Academy, repeated his plebe year, and graduated in 1919 — a year early, due to the beginning of World War I.

From 1919 to 1921, Momsen served on the battleship Oklahoma . In 1921, he went to the United States Navy Submarine School in New London, Connecticutmarker, graduating in January 1922. A year and a half later, he took command of O-15 , an aging submarine. A few years after that, he was given command of S-1 , the newest of United States Navy-designed boats.

Diving and rescue

Early interest

It was on board S-1 that Momsen's attention became riveted on the urgent need for a way to rescue downed submariners.

On 25 September 1925, a sister sub, S-51,collided with the City of Rome, a cargo ship, and went down in of water. Momsen was ordered to take S-1 out to search for the crippled submarine. S-1 found the oil slick marking the spot where the submarine sunk, but without sonar, there was no way to locate the desperate crew on the bottom. Nor was there a way for trapped sailors to escape. The incident showed why submarine duty was dubbed the "Coffin Service"; between 1929 and 1939, 700 U.S. sailors were lost in 20 submarines.

Momsen began to look for ways to rescue submariners. He conceived a diving bell, which could be lowered to a submarine in distress, secured by bolts over an escape hatch and opened to allow trapped submariners to climb in. A watertight seal to the submarine could be achieved by placing a rubber gasket around the diving bell's bottom and reducing the air pressure once the bell was over the escape hatch. Then, the hatch could be opened, and the trapped submariners could climb aboard.

Momsen diagrammed his idea and sent it up the chain of command. He waited more than a year for a response, heard nothing, and concluded that there must have been something technically wrong with the concept.

Momsen's next tour of duty took him to the Submarine Division of the Bureau of Construction and Repair. Shortly after he reported aboard, he came across his diving bell drawings. They had been disapproved as impractical. He stated his case again, but to no avail.

Shortly thereafter, in December 1927, another submarine, S-4 , sank off Cape Codmarker. Forty men died. Six crewmen survived for three days in the torpedo room, but the sailors had no way to escape the submarine.

Momsen Lung

A Momsen lung in use during training
While serving with the Submarine Safety Test Unit, Momsen began working on a device to help such sailors surface. Officially called the Submarine Escape Lung, it consisted of an oblong rubber bag that recycled exhaled air. The press enthusiastically received the device and dubbed it the Momsen Lung, a name that stuck.

The Lung contained a canister of soda lime, which removed poisonous carbon dioxide from exhaled air and then replenished the air with oxygen. Two tubes led from the bag to a mouthpiece: one to inhale oxygen and the other to exhale carbon dioxide. The device hung around the neck and strapped around the waist. Besides providing oxygen for the ascent, it also allowed a submariner to rise slowly to the surface, thus avoiding decompression sickness ("the bends").

Between June 1929 and September 1932, then-Lt. Momsen developed the lung with Chief Gunner's Mate Clarence L. Tibbals and Frank M. Hobson, a civilian employee of the Bureau of Ships. In 1929, Momsen received the Distinguished Service Medal for personally testing the device at a depth of .

The Lung saved its first lives in October 1944, when eight submariners used it to reach the surface after Tang (SS-306) sank in of water in the East China Seamarker.

The Lung was eventually supplemented by the Steinke hood and free-ascent techniques.

Diving bell

Momsen returned to his diving bell idea in 1930, built a prototype, constructed from a water-tight aircraft hangar that was used to test deploying aircraft from the submarine S-1 , and tested it off Key West, Floridamarker. Momsen stated that the Momsen/McCann bell was unstable, tipped and leaked, and had several changes in mind for the bell, but was sent to the Bureau of Construction and Repair to teach submariners how to use the Momsen Lung before he could make the changes. Lieutenant Commander Allan Rockwell McCann was put in charge of the revisions on the Momsen/McCann diving bell. When the redesigned bell was completed in late 1930, it was introduced as the McCann Submarine Rescue Chamber. Momsen stated that the redesign was a significant improvement over the prototype. The design incorporated a floor bulkhead, a pneumatic winch, and a pressure seal that would allow direct transfer of survivors to the bell in a dry environment.

Gas mixtures

From 1937 to 1939, Momsen led an experimental deep-sea diving unit at the Washington Navy Yardmarker which achieved a major breakthrough in the physiology of the human lung's gas mixtures under high pressure. At depths greater then 50 m, oxygen turns toxic. At , nitrogen enters the blood, then tissue, causing the giddiness called "nitrogen narcosis". Also, divers who ascend too rapidly can get decompression sickness, commonly known as "the bends," which happens when nitrogen in the blood forms bubbles. These bubbles can block blood flow and cause intense pain, even death.

In experiments often performed by Momsen himself, the team replaced the nitrogen with nontoxic helium and mixed it with varying levels of oxygen depending on the depth. Today's divers use the knowledge to operate safely deeper than .

The Squalus rescue

Momsen, already famous for his Lung, achieved even more fame for directing the rescue and recovery of the 33 crewmen of the Squalus , which sank in May 1939 in of water off Isles of Shoalsmarker, New Hampshiremarker. Working from the salvage ship Falcon , Momsen instructed the team of divers as they dived to the submarine and attached cables to the rescue chamber. Commander McCann supervised the rescue chamber's operators as they made four trips to bring the submariners to the surface and a final trip to check the flooded aft section for survivors. The final trip to rescue survivors was marred by a cable jam, and the chamber had to be hauled to the surface by hand over hand pulling by all on board. All 33 surviving crewmen were rescued.

Momsen led the salvage of the Squalus, which took 113 days to bring it to dry dock at the Portsmouth Navy Yardmarker.

Along with Commander McCann, Momsen received a Letter of Commendation from President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Squalus effort.

World War II

During the Second World War, Momsen served as Commander, Submarine Squadron 2 and Commander, Submarine Squadron 4. While Momsen was Squadron 2 in the Pacific Fleet, the submarine skippers kept reporting that their torpedoes were not behaving correctly. When fired from the prescribed perpendicular angle, the torpedoes did not always explode. When fired from non-perpendicular angles, the torpedoes exploded. When Momsen's own squadron complained, he decided to find out why. He took torpedoes to the shallow waters and sheer cliffs of the Hawaiianmarker Island of Kahoolawemarker and fired until he got a dud. Then, risking his own life, he dove into the water to find the unexploded torpedo. With help, he recovered the dangerous live torpedo and brought it on board. A small problem with the pin inside the primer cap was causing the problems.

Momsen earned a Navy Cross as commander of a submarine attack group in the Japanese-controlled waters of the East China Seamarker. Using an attack pattern he developed, the submarines sank five Japanese ships and damaged eight others. Momsen also received the Legion of Merit for commanding the United States Navy's first wolf pack in enemy waters from February 1943 to June 1944. The US's version of the wolfpack consisted of three submarines traveling together. When they approached an enemy convoy, one sub would attack from starboard, one from port and the last from the stern.

Momsen commanded the battleship USS South Dakota from December 1944 to August 1945. For his distinguished service in command, Momsen was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a third awarding of the Legion of Merit with Combat "V".

In addition to the Navy Cross and Legion of Merit with two Gold Stars (to show repeat awards of this decoration), he earned a Navy Distinguished Service Medal and a Navy Commendation Medal.

Later years

In November 1945, he directed a fleet of nearly 200 surplus Army and Navy ships, manned by Japanese crews, that evacuated the first of nearly six million Japanese from Manchuria, Formosamarker, and islands in the Pacific.

Momsen served on the Navy General Board from June 1947 until May 1948. He served as Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Undersea Warfare from 1948 to 1951, then became Commander of the Submarine Force's Pacific Fleet.

Vice Admiral Charles B. Momsen died of cancer on May 25, 1967. He was buried at Arlington National Cemeterymarker.


The 42nd Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, USS Momsen is named in his honor.

Momsen Hall, the 75-man BOQ at the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC), Andros Islandmarker, Bahamasmarker, was named in his honor in 1969.

On 10 November 2009, the U.S. Navy's newest trainer, the Submarine Escape Trainer, was named in honor of Admiral Monsen in ceremonies at the New London Submarine Basemarker.

See also


Additional references

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