Remembering “Swede” Momsen

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Remembering “Swede” Momsen  

The book “The Terrible Hours” by Peter Maas is the story about rescuing 33 crew members of the USS Squalus (SS-192) and subsequently salvaging the boat itself in 1939.

It’s a story about Swede Momsen and the role he played in the rescue and salvage operation.  

What I remembered about Swede Momsen was:  
He was the responsible for the development of the Momsen lung, a Lt Cmdr at the time of its certification and acceptance.  

He was the brain behind the development of the McCann Rescue Chamber (the diving bell).   He was in charge of the Squalus rescue operation which saved 33 crew members utilizing the diving bell and ultimately salvaged the sub itself. His promotion to Commander occurred during this time.  

What I didn’t know about Swede Momsen was:  
According to author Peter Maas, Momsen, in pursuing his goals for development of the lung and rescue chamber, had “stepped on too many toes, embarrassed too many superiors and bypassed too many bureaucratic regulations”. The Navy wanted to call the lung the Submarine Escape Appliance, but the press dubbed it the Momsen lung. The Navy brass in retaliation to this “renegade” was not going to name the rescue chamber after Momsen and referred to it as the McCann Rescue Chamber after Lt. Cmdr Allen McCann who was Momsen’s chief assistant.    

While reporting to Adm Lockwood at Pearl, it was Momsen’s idea to fire torpedoes at the sheer cliffs of Kahoolawe Island near Pearl to ascertain why 90 degree torpedo hits weren’t detonating. Momsen headed up the test firing of torpedoes from the submarine Muskellunge, subsequently found the problem with the firing pin and redesigned same. For this, Momsen was awarded the Legion of Merit.  

Momsen was a certified Navy diver.  

Momsen was involved in defining the tactics and strategies for the US version of the Nazi U-Boat wolf pack. He commanded the first such pack of 3 boats in Oct 1943 which was extremely successful.

As author Maas states, Momsen was hailed as a “master of submarine warfare” and for developing “a doctrine of attack whereby submarines could be organized into an attack group capable of operating deep in enemy-controlled waters while maintaining full striking power.” For his contribution Swede Momsen received the Navy Cross.  

Momsen, a Captain by this time, was CO of the Battleship South Dakota when a turret explosion occurred on board during the loading of ammunition. Momsen did his own investigation and concluded the silk powder bags had a tendency to build up a static electricity charge. Navy brass didn’t believe him so Swede devised a test whereby he proved his point and silk power bags were discontinued with no further discussion.  

Momsen was the driving force in the development of the Albacore hull. While then Captain Rickover was busy with nuclear power and the Nautilus, Momsen envisioned the marriage of nuclear power with a sleek hull submarine built for underwater speed. He was sure he couldn’t get funding for the design of an advanced hull on its own merits, so with the Navy being dominated with carrier brass, he received funding with no resistance under the guise of developing an underwater “target” for submarine hunter-killer groups, i.e., carrier led task forces.

The result was USS Albacore (SS-569) which as a target outran and outmaneuvered anything that went after her  

Momsen retired in 1955 as a Vice Admiral and died of cancer in 1967.    

By:     Don Messner Western Lake Superior Base USSVI