Daily Event for June 2

June 2, 1919 the Chilean submarine Rucumilla, while on a training exercise in the Bay of Talcahuano off Concepcion sank when a valve for the battery ventilator was left open and allowed the boat to flood. Since this was a training exercise it can be assumed that the crew was very inexperienced in the operation of the boat. There was one man who was experienced, maybe not in submarines but, with seamen, Aristides del Solar, the captain.

As soon as he became aware of the problem he ordered the ballast tanks to be blown and the boat rose to the surface for a brief moment. She soon sank under the strain of the still in rushing water. Now on the bottom there was little hope the 25 man crew would survive. What del Solar did not know was his submarine had been seen by a passing cargo ship, the ship's captain had observed the submarine surface and suddenly slip beneath the waves. To him the action looked suspicious so he contacted the authorities. With lightning speed the Chilean Navy reacted by sending three heavy lift cranes and other salvage ships to the scene.

In 1919 submarine rescue was still a very difficult proposition for the major navies of the world and one would think that a small navy like Chile's would be even more unprepared for such a disaster but, they were ready. Within two hours the boat had been located, cables were attached and the submarine was on it's way to the surface. Under the strain one of the cables broke and the rescue operation, which had been a great success up to this point, was in danger of failure. The submarine, now teetering on the brink of disaster if a second cable broke, was lowered to the bottom until stronger cables could be attached.

Inside the submarine the young crew was near panic. The batteries had been submerged in salt water and chlorine gas was beginning to fill the boat, short circuits caused small fires and the boat was in complete darkness. Only the cool deliberate actions of captain del Solar kept the men calm. He lead them to the forward torpedo room, where he believed the rescue would come from and used compressed air, in prudent quantities, to keep the air nearly breathable.

Under deteriorating weather conditions the rescue efforts continued. The  largest crane was moved into position and heavier cables were attached to  the boat, slowly the Rucumilla and her twenty five survivors began to rise. The cables, while under great strain, held and seven hours after she had  gone down, the Rucumilla broke the surface. The operation had been a complete success recovering the twenty five men alive and the boat as well.

The first South American submarine to sink, turned out not to be a disaster for the crew, or for the navy. The small navy of Chile had shown the rest of the world that a well  coordinated effort could in fact save a submarine crew. The actions of the rescuers and captain  Aristides del Solar must be commended. It was determined that the cause of the near disaster, the valve, had been of a rare left hand thread type and this caused confusion among the crew.

© 2006 Michael W. Pocock