- In 1958, the USS Stickleback was lost off the coast of Hawaii.
- A sudden power failure left the submarine in the path of another Navy warship with no way to escape.
- Although the sub sank, all crew were safely rescued and transferred to other ships.
One of the rarest accidents involving submarines was a collision between a sub and a surface ship off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii. In 1958, the USS Stickleback suffered a power failure and suddenly surfaced directly in the path of the destroyer escort USS Silverstein. Although Stickleback was mortally wounded in the collision, nearby ships rescued her entire crew, leaving the U.S. Navy down just one old, World War II-era submarine.
After World War II, the U.S. Navy was left with a glut of submarines. In the span of one year, the Navy went from 232 submarines in 1945 to just 85 in 1946; many were cast aside, mothballed, and eventually turned into razor blades. In other cases, the service gave subs away to foreign navies. (Two such subs, USS Tusk and USS Cutlass, were transferred to Taiwan, where they are reportedly still on active duty.)
One submarine that went into mothballs was USS Stickleback, a Balao-class submarine commissioned in 1945—but quickly decommissioned in 1946. In 1950, after the U.S. entered the Korean War and war with the Soviet Union became a possibility, the Navy brought back a number of submarines from retirement, including Stickleback. It was one of 50 older submarines that entered the Greater Underwater Propulsive Power (GUPPY) conversion program. GUPPY involved giving older, World War II-era diesel submarines a more streamlined hull, greater battery capacity for underwater operation, and the BQR-2 sonar system.
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On May 28, 1958, USS Stickleback was participating in anti-submarine warfare off the coast of Oahu. Stickleback had just finished a simulated torpedo attack on the destroyer escort USS Silverstein when the sub lost all power and began an uncontrolled dive. According to the Lost 52 Project, Stickleback reached a depth of 800 feet, twice the sub’s maximum test depth of 400 feet. This put the boat in serious danger of being crushed by the pressures of the sea—a catastrophic event that would have resulted in total loss of the submarine and crew.
Stickleback was plunging to its doom, and something had to be done fast. The submarine blew its ballast tanks, an act that triggered a rapid ascent to the surface. This was undoubtedly a relief to the crew, but it turned out the sub had ascended from the frying pan into the fire: Stickleback emerged on the surface of the ocean directly in the path of USS Silverstein. Silverstein’s quick-thinking skipper threw his ship into full reverse and steered the ship hard left, but it still ended up colliding with the submarine, putting a hole in her left side.
Stickleback was now in danger of sinking, and her 82 crew was evacuated to a nearby torpedo retrieval ship. Silverstein, the destroyer escort Sturtevant, the submarine Sabalo, and the submarine rescue ship USS Greenlet all tied themselves to the damaged submarine. Unfortunately, as the official U.S. Navy history of the sub explains, “compartment after compartment flooded and, at 1857 hours on 29 May 1958, Stickleback sank in 1,800 fathoms of water.”
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In 2020, the Lost 52 Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to finding the remains of all 52 sunken U.S. World War II submarines, announced it had found the wreck of the Stickleback. The submarine was found in 10,944 feet of water, and although it was in one piece when it sank, it broke into two pieces on the way down. The Lost 52 project produced both video of the submarine, taken with remotely operated vehicles, and sonar scans.
Stickleback was one of just four U.S. Navy submarines lost between the end of World War II and the present day, and hers was the only loss that did not result in fatalities among passengers and crew. Quick thinking not only saved the submarine from a crushing end, it also saved it from sinking immediately, and taking its crew with it, upon collision with a much larger ship.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he’s generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News, and others. He lives in San Francisco.