Terrible Hours: The Man Behind the Greatest Submarine Rescue in History

Terrible Hours: The Man Behind the Greatest Submarine Rescue in History

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On the eve of World War II, America's newest submarine plunged helplessly to the North Atlantic bottom during a test dive. Miraculously, thirty-three crew members still survived. While their wives and girlfriends waited in nearly unbearable tension on shore, their ultimate fate would depend on one man.

In this thrilling true narrative of terror, heroism and courage in the depths of a malevolent ocean, prizewinning author Peter Maas brings us in vivid detail a blow-by-blow account of the disaster and its uncertain outcome. The sub was the Squalus. The man was a U.S. Navy officer, Charles "Swede" Momsen, an extraordinary combination of visionary, scientist and man of action. Until his advent, it was accepted that if a submarine went down, her crew was doomed. But Momsen, in the face of an indifferent, often sneering naval bureaucracy, battling red tape and disbelieving naysayers every step of the way, risked his own life again and again against the unknown in his efforts to invent and pioneer every escape and rescue device, every deep-sea diving technique, to save an entombed crew. With the crippled, partially flooded Squalus lost on the North Atlantic floor, Momsen faced his personal moment of truth: Could he actually pluck those men from a watery grave? Had all his work been in vain?

The legacy of his death-defying probes into our inner space remains with us today, and in this depiction of the perseverance and triumph of the human spirit, Swede Momsen is given his rightful place in the pantheon of true American heroes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780694522101
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/01/1999
Edition description: Abridged, 4 Cassettes
Product dimensions: 4.12(w) x 7.13(h) x 1.16(d)

About the Author

Peter Maas's is the author of the number one New York Times bestseller Underboss. His other notable bestsellers include The Valachi Papers, Serpico, Manhunt, and In a Child's Name. He lives in New York City.

Kevin Conway has starred on stage in The Elephant Man and Other People's Money and in such films as Gettysburg, The Confession, and Ramblin' Rose.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

It was a Tuesday, May 23, 1939.

In New York City, Bloomingdale's department store was promoting a new electronic wonder for American homes called television.

With great fanfare, United Airlines began advertising a nonstop flight from New York to Chicago that would take only four hours and thirty-five minutes.

In baseball, a young center fielder for the New York Yankees named Joe DiMaggio was headed for his first major league batting title.

The film adaptation of the novel Wuthering Heights, starring the English actor Laurence Olivier in his first hit movie, was in its sixth smash week.

Another novel destined to become an American classic, Nathanael West's portrait of Hollywood, The Day of the Locust, was dismissed in the New York Times as "cheap" and "vulgar."

In Canada, the visiting British monarchs, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, met the Dionne quintuplets for the first time.

In London, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy advised an association of English tailors that they would never gain a foothold in the American market unless they stopped making trouser waistlines too high and shirttails too long.

In Berlin, as Europe teetered on the brink of war, Hitler and Mussolini formally signed a military alliance between Germany and Italy with a vow to "remake" the continent. In Asia, meanwhile, Japan had finished another week of wholesale carnage in China.


That Tuesday morning, in the picture-postcard seacoast town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with Federal architecture and cobblestone streets dating back to the late eighteenth century, Rear Admiral Cyrus W. Cole,commandant of the Portsmouth Navy Yard, the nation's oldest, received a group of visiting dignitaries. Cole was a peppery little man with an imposing head and a piercing gaze that made him seem larger than he actually was. Although not a submariner himself, he had a particular affinity for the men who manned the Navy's "pigboats." His only son served on one, and before coming to the Portsmouth yard, which specialized in submarine construction, Cole had commanded the Navy's underseas fleet. Now he liked to wisecrack, "They sent me back to see how they're built."

When one of his visitors asked the admiral if he thought the United States might be drawn into the looming conflict in Europe, he said he hoped not. If it proved otherwise, though, any enemy would rue the day.

You hear a lot about those German U-boats, he declared, but they couldn't compare with the submarines that the Portsmouth yard was sending down the ways. This very afternoon the newest addition to the fleet, the Squalus, would return to her berth after a series of test dives. He promised a tour, so they could see her for themselves.

"Squalus? What kind of name is that?"

Cole confessed that he'd had to look it up. "It's a species of shark. A small one. But with a big bite," he added, smiling.

Then Cole passed his visitors over to Captain Halford Greenlee, the yard's industrial manager. Their arrival, arranged at the last minute, had forced Greenlee to cancel plans to go down to the overnight anchorage of the Squalus and board her that morning. Greenlee had been especially looking forward to it. His son-in-law, Ensign Joseph Patterson, was the sub's youngest officer.

"Sorry you couldn't go out with her today," Cole said.

"It's not the end of the world," Greenlee replied. "I can always catch her another time."


Two reporters for the Portsmouth Herald at the yard on assignment for other matters were the first outsiders to hear the news. After frantically gathering whatever scraps of information were available, they raced back to the paper.

Minutes later, just past two p.m., the first stark, bell-ringing bulletin clattered over Associated Press teletypes to newspapers and radio stations throughout the country:
The Terrible Hours. Copyright © by Peter Maas. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Tom Brokaw

Peter Maas has given us a suspenseful tale of terror, courage, heroism and American military genius. I couldn't put it down.

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The Terrible Hours : The Man Behind the Greatest Submarine Rescue in History 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a scuba diving instructor.I started reading The Terrible Hours because some one told me that it had some references on mixed gas diving. What they didn't tell me was that I would not be able to put it down until I had read it from cover to cover.The writer portrays the main character, Swede Momsen , in a way that the reader can relate to.I had no idea that this one man had made such an impact on the sport that we divers take for granted
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There was a time in which, if you were in a submarine; having a malfunction was a death sentence. Stuck in the watery coffin you would be forced to live your last moments in utter fear, and desperation. Many sailors perished, and many more would have if it weren¿t for a fellow named Charles ¿Swede¿ Momsen. The Terrible Hours by Peter Maas follows Momsen as he works to find a way to save unfortunate submariners stuck at the bottom of the ocean, even if he has to put his own life in danger to test these methods; and finally in which he uses this technology in hope of saving those aboard The Squalus. A submarine which suffers from a devastating mishap; causing it to sink to the bottom of the ocean floor. Leaving the men inside stranded. By reading this book you will see that by perseverance, you can accomplish anything. Knowing that you can accomplish that goal of yours through determination; even when others are doubtful you can. The Terrible Hours is a well written book that has quite a few moments that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. The writer has a way of portraying the events of this book, that make you feel as if you are there experiencing these moments for yourself. The book itself although nonfiction, can sometimes feel like a fiction book especially when you hit some of the most. However; although a greatly written book it suffers from a bit of mechanical jargon. After the spectacular opening the book serves it slows down a bit, which may cause you to become a bit bored. This book is best for those interested in the navy, or the history of it. Being extremely informative it¿s also nice for those who just enjoy feasting themselves on a bit of history. For younger readers this may not be the best choice, requiring a good attention span, and at least a moderate interest in such a topic. If you have read this and enjoyed it there are many other works written by Peter Maas that will certainly satisfy your thirst for more. Such as The Valachi Papers, and King of the Gypsies. Overall the book gets an 8/10 from this reviewer. However as I would like to stress, this book is not for those who do not hold any interest in the subject, so if this book doesn¿t sound like something you would want to read, it might not be the best for you.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this audio book. I learned alot and enjoyed the account of heroism in the NAVY. I was inspired by the excellent well researched account of a true american hero. I hope they don't make a film about this story, because I know they won't do this book justice, because it is too full of interesting details to shorten it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Reading THE TERRIBLE HOURS is a spellbinding, heartbreaking and hopeful experience. It explains technicalities in everyday language and makes the reader hang onto every word through the developing scenarios. It reveals human determination to overcome impossible odds and retain hope for the survivors as well as the inventor. Had to read it through to the end before putting it down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Peter Maas has produced a masterful story about a miraculous rescue that was all but forgotten. Having served on a U.S. Navy submarine rescue vessel, I remember what it was like to train for rescues on pitching decks while deploying unwieldy diving bells and deep water equipment. 'Swede is a legendary figure among submarine rescue sailors and this book gives him credit that he so richly deserves.This is a 'must read' for anyone who enjoys action adventure stories that really happened.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Spellbinding, cover to cover, page turner. Absolutely must read for anyone who likes real stand up and cheer heroics. This is one that Ron Howard should look into with an eye to making a great movie. On a par with Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A great, spellbinding, tension filled, educational adventure. A must read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
An outstanding book that brings to light a hero America may have never have heard of. I only picked it up to flip through the first few pages, and put it down the next day when I was done. Highly recommended!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although the naval community may be familar with the innovations of Charles 'Swede' Momsen, it is a shame his accomplishments may have eluded the rest of the American population. The Terrible Hours not only chronicles a horrific moment in submarine history, it introduces the reader to a genius ahead of his time. Not only was I inspired by how Momsen led the rescue mission, I was also intrigued by the loyalty he earned from those who knew him. Kudos to Peter Maas for sharing the story of this incredible man.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In addition to inventing the Momsen Lung for deep sea rescue, Swede Momsen perfected the diving bell for sbmarine rescue while fighting Naval Department bureaucracy which resisted his efforts in improving submarine warfare throughout his career. He was known as the man 'who could get things done'; including---fixing defective torpedo firing pins in the South Pacific, perfecting breathing air mixtures for extreme depths, pushing for nuclear subs and their reconfiguration for prolonged undersea duty, and undoing the mail snafu in the Navy Dept during WWII.