John Perreault Poems >>
The Ballad of the Squalus

I ran into an old time sailor, up on Market Street;
We had a cup of coffee, his last name was McLees;
He fought in the Pacific, on Portsmouth submarines;
I asked about the Squalus, this is what he told me.

'Squalus was a diesel sub, built at Portsmouth Yard;
Gearing up for WWII, our crew was pressing hard;
Running her through sea trials, May 23rd, 1939.
In a whipping wind we went out again, with 59 men inside.'

Yes my friend, 59 men, only 33 survived;
How many thousands broke their backs
just to make this ship a prize?
I could tell you of the Stickleback,
and how the Thresher died;
Two hundred years we built the boats,
Portsmouth paid the price;
Ah, the Porstmouth Yard;
Down at Portsmouth Yard.

Just outside the Isles of Shoals, Ollie Naquin in command;
I see him now up on the bridge, 'Stand by to dive all hands;'
Bow planes swing out from the hull, klaxons wail and whine;
Tanks for ballast open up Squalus makes her dive.

Battery engines take us down, intake valves are closed
Board lights green means everything is steady as she goes;
Now this jolt! A yeoman jumps, happens all on a sudden;
Rips his earphones off and cries: 'The engine room is flooding!'

'Blow the ballast! Blow the tanks! Blow the bow and turn her!'
The bow comes up just a little way, but there's too much weight asternship;
She tips back on an angle, tilting ten degrees to forty;
Slipping down, she's going down, shorting out the batteries.

'Dog down the doors!' Naquin shouts, and a seaman grabs the bulkhead;
'For God's sake wait!' a sailor cries, and seven men scramble forward;
There's water up around our knees, before the bulkhead closes;
Twenty-six men on the other side I can still hear their voices.

Silence at the bottom of 240 feet of water;
Darkness cold and icy calm Naquin gives the order:
'Men, still yourselves, try to rest, save the oxygen;
We'll float a marker up to spot us, but for now the wait begins.'

'Listen -- I hear something, like a rumble in a fog;
Men take hammers bang the hull, bang like hell by God;
They're up there looking for us, I know It in my bones;
Those guys will risk their lives to get us out and bring us home.'

Searchers grab the orange buoy, now they're dragging grapnel;
A diver's boots land on the hatch, they're lowering down the life Bell;
33 men brought up above, after 39 hours of dying:
Four months later 25 men towed in for identifying.*

September 15 1939 people lined up at the gates;
Waiting for those shiny hearses, carrying their mates;
Wives and lovers, sons and daughters, standing in the Kittery rain;
They've stood out there like this before, and they'll be standing out here again.

McLees he sipped his coffee, stared out at the rain;
'I don't get out so much today' he said, 'this town has really changed;
guess I just lost touch of time, 'bout that time to go;
Why 26 men, and not 59? That I'll never know.

Squalus sat in drydock rebuilt and recommissioned;
Engine room they called the tomb, well that's all superstition;
They rechristened her the Sailfish, but she's the Squalus in my dreams;
Every night I go back down, inside that submarine.