Sunday, October 25, 2009

Submarine Disaster in San Pedro Harbor, Two Men Drowned

On September 26, 1921, the USS R-6 submarine sank in San Pedro Harbor due to a malfunction in one of her torpedo tubes. According to news articles and naval reports, two crew members lost their lives: Seaman John Edwin Dreffein of San Pedro and electrician Frank Spaulsburg (or Spalsburg) of Powers Lake, North Dakota.

The USS R-6 (Submarine No. 83) was a 569-ton, 186 ft. long R-1 class submarine built by the Fore River Shipbuilding Company (Bethlehem Shipbuilding Company) between 1917-1919 in Quincy, Massachusetts. The crew consisted of two officers, three chief petty officers and twenty-four men. Armament consisted of one 8-inch, .50 caliber gun. The R-6 held four torpedo tubes and carried eight torpedoes.

She was launched on March 1, 1919 and commissioned at Boston on May 1, 1919. After reporting to Submarine Division 9 of the Atlantic fleet at New London, Ct. in September 1919, the R-6 engaged in exercises in the Gulf of Mexico and in Atlantic Coast waters. The R-6 was ordered to the Pacific in April 1921, arriving in San Pedro, California on June 30, 1921. Lieutenant I.R. Chambers commanded the R-6 when the accident occurred a few months later.

The sub sank on September 26, 1921 in two minutes, and rested on the bottom of Los Angeles Harbor in thirty-five feet of water. Its conning tower was about eight feet below the surface. Reports vary, but according to Rear Admiral H.O. Stickney, Commander of the Pacific fleet train (and Medal of Honor recipient), Spaulsberg and Dreffein were on night watch and were the only ones aboard the R-6 at the time of the accident.

Early in the evening, a heavy groundswell rolled into the harbor and caught the R-6 which was lashed side by side with six other submarines and the mother ship Camden. Water rushed down an open torpedo tube on the R-6 (an outboard shutter was apparently left open which affected the inner tube door, and an interlocking device failed). A seaman on a neighboring sub hastily released the stern and bow lines of the R-6, and a sudden rush of water entered the torpedo tube which such force that it shot a geyser up through the conning tower.

Spaulsberg was believed to have been shot high into the air with the geyser of water, landing in the sea and sinking immediately. Dreffein was reported to have reached the deck through the conning tower when a rush of water washed him overboard. A sailor from the Camden tried to save Dreffein him but lost his grip on him.

Controversy erupted after both of their bodies were recovered on October 7. After services were conducted at the San Pedro submarine base, the bodies were transported along the railroad tracks through the freight yards to the Fourteenth Street wharf -- the smelly fish dock as it was described -- where Japanese fishermen were busy at work.

Some of the fish merchants tossed one flag-draped casket on top of the other, to the great ire of the naval officers. After an argument, the caskets were placed side-by-side, a squad fired three volleys, and the train carrying the bodies and several tons of smelly fish rolled out of the yards. The officers were indignant, but if they had waited for another train the transcontinental rail connections in Los Angeles would have been missed.

The R-6 was raised three weeks later and repaired. In February and March of 1923, the sub was used in the motion picture “The Eleventh Hour” which starred Alan Hale and B-Western movie star Buck Jones. Although the R-6 was decommissioned from 1931 through November 1940, she served through September 27, 1945 and was sold for scrap in 1946. During her service, the R-6 was assigned various duties such as anti-U-boat patrol and for training destroyers and destroyer escorts in anti-submarine warfare techniques.

1 comment:

Charles R. Hinman said...

Thank you for the account of the R-6 sinking. We are searching for photos of John Edward Dreffein and Frank Amzi Spalsbury for their personal memorial pages on our site, "On Eternal Patrol" (