May 23, 1939. Television was being advertised for the first time to American consumers. Europe was on the brink of war as Hitler and Mussolini signed an alliance in Berlin. These were the days before sonar and before the discovery of nuclear power revolutionized submarine design. Dependent on battery power, submarines were actually surface ships that "occasionally dipped beneath the waves." If a sub went down, "every man on board was doomed. It was accepted that there would be no deliverance."
Swede Momsen was, according to master storyteller Peter Maas, the "greatest submariner the Navy ever had," and he was determined to beat those odds. Momsen spent his career trying to save the lives of trapped submariners, despite an indifferent Navy bureaucracy that thwarted and belittled his efforts at every turn. Every way of saving a sailor entombed in a sub--"smoke bombs, telephone marker buoys, new deep-sea diving techniques, escape hatches, artificial lungs, a great pear-shaped rescue chamber--was either a direct result of Momsen's inventive derring-do, or of value only because of it." Yet on the day the Squalus sank, none of Momsen's inventions had been used in an actual submarine disaster.
In The Terrible Hours, Maas reconstructs the harrowing 39 hours between the disappearance of the submarine Squalus during a test dive off the New England coast and the eventual rescue of 33 crew members trapped in the vessel 250 feet beneath the sea. It's also the story of Momsen's triumph. Under the worst possible circumstances, Momsen led a successful mission and helped change the future of undersea lifesaving. Not only has Maas written a carefully researched and suspenseful tribute to a true hero, in the process he has salvaged a long-forgotten, riveting piece of American history. --Svenja Soldovieri [via]