A Whale of a story created by World War II photo
Without sophisticated equipment, image of U-Boat-that-wasn't raised hackles
Even when you know what is in the picture, when the item is out of context with what one expects to see, an object can be very hard to recognize. In this photograph (above) taken during World War II, probably in 1943, there is a submarine in the Little Harbor waters that are between Rye and New Castle. The Wentworth by-the-Sea is in the background above and beyond the submarine. The person who took all of the photographs was standing just up from the beach that is either part of the Wentworth by-the-Sea golf course or where Odiorne State Park is today. So imagine how hard it would be to identify something that is floating in the ocean a few hundred yards from the shore when all one has to look at the item with is one’s own eyes and a pair of binoculars.
Most people who have seen this photograph think of the Squalus, but it is not the boat seen in Little Harbor. The Squalus, you might recall, during a practice dive on May 23, 1939, sank in 243 feet of water trapping her crew. The 26 men in the aft compartment were killed while 33 others in the forward compartment managed to survive. The McCann rescue chamber was employed on May 25 and the surviving members of the crew were brought to the surface. The Squalus was subsequently raised from the bottom of the sea after numerous attempts and restored at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. It was then decommissioned as the Squalus and recommissioned as the Sailfish on May 15, 1940. If you visit the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, you will find the sail of the Squalus/Sailfish has been preserved at the yard.
The submarine in Little Harbor was the S-48. She arrived off the coast of New Hampshire during a fierce winter storm and was grounded off of Jaffery Point on January 29, 1925, as she tried to negotiate the heads to the harbor. She managed to pull herself off the rocks, but in the storm the Captain became confused and pulled into Little Harbor. Early in February the S-48 was freed from the bottom of Little Harbor and towed to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, but lacking funds for repairs the ship was decommissioned on July 7, 1925. It was not until 1928 that funds were made available and the S-48 was repaired and modernized. She was recommissioned on December 8, 1928.
During WWII we lacked (besides good pairs of binoculars) some of the technology that we have today. We lacked, for instance, sophisticated Radio Detecting And Ranging (RADAR) equipment to protect our shores from invasion from the sea. What we had were manned stations along the ocean road (Route 1-A) where soldiers and sailors kept lookout. But there were limitations as to how well one could see, how far to sea one could make out what was being seen, and how good was the detail of seen objects. Standing off the shoreline today, when conditions are right, one can see the Isles of Shoals, but picking out details is still sketchy at best. Sometime the buildings stand out well and other times they are almost out of sight.
Perhaps it is hard to imagine today the scope of the excitement that was created by the steel gray shape of something long and lying low in the water just a little over a half a mile off the coast of New Hampshire over 60 years ago. At the shore local people gathered to discuss what the thing they were seeing really was. Most people guessed they were looking at the hull of a damaged German U-Boat turned upside down as it was slowly being brought ashore by the incoming tides. The military was baffled just as much as were the residents as they watched whatever it was coming closer and closer with each incoming high tide. The Wallis Sands beach area was the nearest land to the object, but the high bluffs overseeing the beach were not high enough to allow anyone to clearly peer down onto the thing that was coming ashore.
Only when the object was a few hundred feet from the coast did the truth come out. What had excited everyone turned out to be the carcass of a dead whale! Once it came ashore, the problem was what to do with it. As seen in these photographs (above), besides discussing what they should do with this unwanted beast, the local residents (and others?) were cutting it up into smaller pieces. Thanks to the buildings in the background (behind the whale) we can recognize some of the cottages that still are at Wallis Sands which allows us to identify where the whale came ashore.
(Photos were the property of the late Harold C. Sweetser, who died in 1988. He was great uncle of the author's wife, Constance.)
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