THE TERRIBLE HOURS

The Man Behind the Greatest Submarine Rescue in History

By Peter Maas

HarperCollins. 259 pp. $25

By Bill Gifford, a senior editor at Philadelphia magazine.

What's the worst possible way to die? The question is a staple of freshman-dorm bull sessions, but here's a nomination: trapped in a submarine on the ocean floor.

On her maiden dive out of the Navy Yard in Portsmouth, N.H., on May 23, 1939, the submarine Squalus shipped water through her engine intakes and sank to the bottom with 59 men aboard, striking stern-first in the mud more than 240 feet down. U.S. subs had sunk before; not one sailor had ever been retrieved alive. In one case, rescue boats circled helplessly for three days as a trapped crew beat out pitiful pleas for help against their craft's metal hull. Then the tapping stopped.

Lt. Cmdr. Charles "Swede" Momsen, who participated in that particular rescue attempt, had friends aboard the sunken vessel. An Annapolis grad who'd opted for the gritty submarine service rather than the more respectable surface fleet, Momsen made it his life's work to devise a means of rescuing trapped submariners. He is the hero of this often thrilling if at times breathlessly written story of courage and triumph at sea--and in the halls of the ultimate bureaucracy, the U.S. military.

Author of "Serpico" and "Underboss," Peter Maas first wrote about Swede Momsen and the Squalus for the Saturday Evening Post in 1968, when the market for military heroes was not so good. He's since dusted off his notes and freshened them up (interviewing more Squalus survivors, for example) for a public hungry for the next "A Perfect Storm."

Although soon overshadowed by the outbreak of war, the Squalus disaster made headlines across the country in the spring of 1939. Interwoven into Maas's melodramatic retelling of this saga is the much longer and more substantial story of Momsen's effort to develop a reliable way to rescue trapped submarine crews, and then to navigate his idea through the Navy's sea of red tape.

Working out of the Anacostia Naval Station, he experimented with a variety of underwater breathing devices, most of which he tested on himself, courting death in the depths of the Potomac, off Key West and in chilly Long Island Sound. (Scuba equipment and Jacques Cousteau were a long way off.) He even commandeered the hulk of an old sub to try out some of his ideas, sending it to the bottom and then trying to escape.

After years of this harrowing work, Momsen devised a kind of submersible bell that attached to a sub's hull by suction, allowing the crew to climb through specially designed escape hatches and be hoisted to the surface. In a stroke of inspired pettiness, his Navy bosses named Momsen's bell for someone else. "Momsen had stepped on too many toes, reddened too many faces, bypassed too many bureaucratic channels," Maas writes. To his adversaries, Momsen's bell was just another good idea to be stifled, but the Navy bureaucrats proved no match for him and his will.

The Squalus crew at least had the good fortune to sink after Momsen had nursed his creation through the bureaucracy. In painstaking and almost excessive detail, Maas recounts the arrival of the rescue ships, the deployment of the bell, the frustrating attempts to secure it and bring the submarine's 33 haggard survivors to the surface, 39 hours after their craft went down.

There's a lot of cutting back and forth, between the sub and the surface, the present and the past. Once or twice, Maas seems to lose control of things; a long description of the bends, the deep diver's greatest risk, comes far too late in the book to be of any value. More often, he courts cliffhanger fatigue, with a little too much made-for-TV suspense. Maas may have set out to write a heroic sea story, but in the end, "The Terrible Hours" is that rarest of animals, a heroic Washington story.