A Submarine Made it Home with a Sail Made of Blankets

Photo Credits: US Naval Historical Center (Left) / U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph NH 102849 (Right)

By today’s standards, a submarine from 1918 is rather basic, but even for a submarine of the time, using sails as a means of propulsion was firmly in the past. Except for the crew of USS R-14, who used bed sheets and blankets as a makeshift sail when their submarine lost power in the ocean over 100 miles from Hawaii.

R-14 was an R-class submarine, a type used by the US Navy from 1918 until the end of WWII. Work on this new type of submarine began soon after the US entered WWI in early 1917. 27 were built in total, but most were completed after WWI had ended, and none of them saw combat.

They replaced the previous O-class of submarines and were the first US type to feature 21 inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes, which is still a standard size around the world today. On their decks, a 76 mm gun was used for anti-aircraft defense and as a general-purpose weapon.

The 640 ton, 186 ft long vessels used a diesel-electric propulsion system, as was common for submarines at the time. Two 600 hp diesel engines powered two 470 hp electric motors, which would run on a large bank of batteries while submerged because the diesel engines’ source of air was cut off. While surfaced, an R-class submarine could reach speeds of 13.5 kn (15.5 mph), and when submerged could reach 10.5 kn (12.1 mph).

USS R-14

USS R-14
Underway, probably during trials in late 1919 or early 1920. Note that her deck gun has not yet been installed. (U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph NH 102849)

Construction of the USS R-14 started in 1918. She was commissioned before the end of 1919. The submarine missed WWI but would be no less busy in peacetime with the Pacific Fleet, as it was used to develop and perfect submarine and anti-submarine warfare tactics. She also helped in search and rescue operations.

The USS R-14 served into WWII, where the submarine spent much of her time as a training vessel and received an overhaul in 1941. The sub was eventually struck from the Naval Vessel Register in May of 1945 and dismantled for scrap in 1946.

The return to wind power

USSUSS R-14 Under Sail Powerl

Seen here are the jury-rigged sails used to bring R-14 back to port in 1921; the mainsail rigged from the radio mast is the topsail in the photograph, and the mizzen made of eight blankets also is visible. R-14’s acting commanding officer, Lieutenant Alexander Dean Douglas, USN, is at the top left, without a hat. (US Naval Historical Center).

In 1921, the USS R-14 was participating in a search and rescue mission for the USS Conestoga, a US Navy ocean-going tug. Conestoga had disappeared while on her way to the South Pacific Ocean, which prompted a major search for the vessel.

In May of 1921, while surfaced and searching for the Conestoga, R-14 ran out of fuel and lost radio communications. The crew was about 100 nautical miles away from Pearl Harbor when the vessel ran out of fuel, a distance too far for her to reach on battery power alone. On top of this, the USS R-14 only carried enough food to last the crew 5 days.

The submarine was dead in the water, without any power and no way of calling for help.

Fortunately, the submarine’s engineering officer Roy Trent Gallemore came up with an unusual but smart plan. Gallemore suggested going back to the basics, and sailing R-14 to Pearl Harbor under wind power.

To do this, the crew tied together several bunk bed frames and attached them to the torpedo-loading crane in front of the conning tower. They then tied a foresail made out of eight hammocks to the bed frame assembly.

With just this one sail, R-14 began to move at a speed of 1.2 mph and gained rudder control. Gallemore’s plan was clearly working, so the crew added another sail made from six blankets to the radio mast, which increased the submarine’s speed by a further 0.58 mph. A third sail comprised of eight blankets added another 0.58 mph to the R-14’s speed.

The submarine was eventually able to start charging its batteries. R-14 and all of its crew arrived at Hawaii 64 hours later, after a long and slow journey.

R-14’s captain, Lieutenant Alexander Dean Douglas received a commendation for his crew’s clever problem solving from Chester W. Nimitz, his Submarine Division Commander.

The USS Conestoga would never be found in the search, or for another 95 years. The tug boat was discovered in 2009 just off the coast of California, and its identity was confirmed in 2015.