Charles Bowers Momsen (1896 - 1967), also known as Swede Momsen, was born on June 21, 1896 in Flushing, New York. He was an American pioneer in Navy Diving and submarine rescue. The contributions he made during his career were numerous and included but were not limited to; the invention of the Momsen Lung, initial designer of the McCann rescue chamber, directed the rescue of the crew of the USS SQUALUS (SS-192) and assisted in the development of HEO2 breathing for Navy Divers.
Momsen entered the United States Naval Academy in 1914, and graduated in 1919. During his early career, Momsen served on the USS OKLAHOMA (BB-37), O-15 (SS-76), and S-1 (SS-105). An incident while serving on S-1 would cause Momsen's attention to be riveted on the urgent need for some sort of rescue for downed submariners. On 25 September 1925, a sister sub, S-51(SS-162) collided with the City of Rome (a cargo ship), sinking her in 130 feet of water (Note: You will see more detail about this in next weeks Diving History email). 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. No method existed for the trapped sailors to escape. The incident reminded many why submarine duty was dubbed the "Coffin Service" in its early years.
THE MOMSEN LUNG
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 it with oxygen. Besides providing oxygen for the ascent, it also allowed a submariner to rise slowly to the surface, thus avoiding decompression sickness ("the bends"). Momsen received the Distinguished Service Medal for personally testing the device at a depth of 200 feet. The Lung saved its first lives in October 1944, when eight submariners used it to reach the surface after Tang (SS-306) sank in 180 feet of water in the East China Sea.
SUBMARINE RESCUE CHAMBER / SQUALUS RESCUE
Between 1929 and 1939, 700 U.S. sailors were lost in 20 submarine accidents. This motivated Momsen to begin looking for other/safer ways to rescue submariners. He conceived a diving bell, which could be lowered to a submarine in distress and opened to allow trapped submariners to climb in and be brought safely to the surface. Momsen diagrammed his idea and sent it up the chain of command. The idea was quickly disapproved as impractical. He stated his case again, but to no avail. Soon thereafter, another submarine, S-4 (SS-109), sank off Cape Cod. Forty men died. Six crewmen survived for three days in the torpedo room, but the sailors had no way to escape the submarine. Fierce public outcry forced the Navy to take another look at its submarine rescue capability or lack there of.
Momsen returned to his diving bell idea in 1930, built a prototype and tested it off Key West, Florida. Momsen stated that the diving bell was unstable, tipped and leaked. He had several changes in mind to correct these problems, but was ordered to teach submariners how to use the Momsen Lung before he could implement the changes. LCDR Allan McCann was put in charge of the revisions on the 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.
On 24 May 1939, Momsen directed the rescue and recovery of crewmembers from the SQUALUS (SS-192). Working from the salvage ship USS FALCON (ASR-2), Momsen instructed the team of divers as they dove 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 all 33 surviving crewmen safely to the surface. All 33 surviving crewmen were rescued. Commander Momsen personally received a Letter of Commendation from Franklin D. Roosevelt for his efforts during the rescue.
HEO2 DIVING / SQUALUS SALVAGE
Prior to the SQUALUS rescue; Momsen led an experimental deep-sea diving unit at the Washington Navy Yard and achieved a major breakthrough in diving. At great depths, the mixture of oxygen and nitrogen in air have toxic/narcotic effects on the human body. This effectively renders a diver useless at depth at best, or can even result in injury or 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 upon depth. This new breathing medium (HEO2) was first utilized during the salvage of the SQUALUS with great success. Momsen led the salvage of the SQUALUS immediately following the recovery operation, bringing her to the surface in 113 days (she would later be recommisioned USS SAILFISH). Today Navy Divers routinely use HEO2 to operate safely deeper than 300 feet.
- During the Second World War, Momsen served as Commander, Submarine Squadron 2 and Submarine Squadron 4. While at Squadron 2, the submarine skippers kept reporting that their torpedoes were not behaving correctly. He took torpedoes to the shallow waters and sheer cliffs of the Hawaiian Island of Kahoolawe and fired until he got a dud. Then, risking his own life, he dove into the water to find and recover the unexploded torpedo. It was discovered that a small problem with the pin inside the primer cap was causing the problems.
- Earned the Navy Cross as commander of a submarine attack group in Japanese-controlled waters of the East China Sea. Using an attack pattern he developed, the submarines sank five Japanese ships and damaged eight others.
- Commanded the battleship USS SOUTH DAKOTA from December 1944 to August 1945. Awarded The Legion of Merit with Combat "V (Gold Star in lieu of a third award).
- 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, Formosa, and islands in the Pacific.
- 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 Cemetery.
(Note: It would be near impossible to list his every honor on this email, these are only a few notables.) 1. The 42nd Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, USS MOMSEN (DDG-92) was commissioned in his honor on Saturday, Aug. 28, 2004, at NDSTC in Panama City, Fla.
2. On the 20th anniversary of NDSTC, the worlds premier Diving and Salvage School was dedicated to VADM "Swede" Momsen.
3. Momsen Hall, the 75-man BOQ at the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC), Andros Island, Bahamas, was named in his honor in 1969.
1. The Rescuer by Peter Maas
2. The Terrible Hours by Peter Maas
3. Portrayed by Sam Neill (main character from Jurrasic Park) in the made for TV movie "Submerged" (2001)