Even before the United States entered World War I, the submarine was recognized for its deadly role in warfare as German U-boats torpedoed and sank British shipping in the Atlantic. How deadly it was became all too apparent on Thursday, March 25, 1915, when the U.S. submarine Skate, with a crew of twenty-one men, exploded and sank in fifty fathoms of water three-quarters of a mile off of Honolulu harbor. There had been other submarine fatalities and accidents in world history, but this was the first submarine disaster in U.S. naval history.
A flotilla of four subs had arrived earlier in the Islands and anchored at Honolulu harbor. On a bright Hawaiian Thursday morning, the Skate sailed out of the harbor on a practice run. Soon after, oil bubbles rising to the ocean’s surface brought the first inkling of horror. Throngs of Honoluluans gathered at the waterfront for news. There were desperate round-the-clock attempts to make contact with the submerged vessel. It was lodged three hundred feet below the surface, and divers could not reach it. The parent of a crew member was heard to cry, “My boy is on that boat.” The Skate became a 350-ton coffin for the twenty-one men. Five months passed before it could be hauled to the surface. The Navy did not forget. In 1957, a modern, more successful Skate was commissioned—the first production model of a nuclear-powered submarine to make a completely submerged trans-Atlantic crossing (1958) and the first to surface at the North Pole (1959).
By Helen G. Chapin