The Real Truth About the Wilkins Polar Sub (Jan, 1932)

It does not sound like this trip was very fun.

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The Real Truth About the Wilkins Polar Sub

The real story of the submarine Nautilus, which set out on a fantastic Jules Verne expedition to travel under ice to the North Pole, and which now lies abandoned in a European harbor after an amazing succession of catastrophes, is here told you for the first time by a member of the expedition. Fascinating, thrilling— an “inside” story—scientific adventure in the raw!

by ALFRED ALBELLI who interviewed Arthur O. Blumburg, Chief Electrician’s Mate of the Nautilus

ARTHUR O. BLUMBURG Mr. Blumburg has been for 15 years in the United States Navy submarine service, and was granted a leave of absence to lend his expert services to the Wilkins Polar Submarine Expedition. That Mr. Blumburg was one of the most valued members of the crew, is testified to by the following sentences taken from a letter written to the Secretary of the Navy by Commander Sloan Danenhower of the Nautilus: “Arthur O. Blumburg had charge of recommissioning the electrical department, the installation of the storage batteries and special gyro compass, the automatic pilot, and other electrical equipment. He accomplished this work with great dispatch and efficiency, and has been a faithful, zealous, and efficient head of the electrical department throughout the entire voyage.”

ALL the world has heard about the expedition to the North Pole in a submarine sponsored by Sir Hubert Wilkins, the famous explorer—all the world has read about the elaborate scientific equipment carried on the submarine Nautilus, about the mid-ocean breakdown of its motors, about the purpose of the venture in proving the feasibility of submarine navigation of the Arctic, and in collecting scientific data.

But the “inside” story of the expedition the world does not know. It has appeared in no newspaper, for reasons which will soon make themselves clear. To secure this story, Modern Mechanics and Inventions sent me to interview members of the expedition. I talked with several of them; they talked frankly to me. And I came away with the feeling that I had listened to the most amazing true story ever conceived by man, in which science and mechanics, as represented by a battered submarine, came off a bad second in its ambitious bout with the Ice King.

Briefly, Sir Hubert Wilkins’ plan, scoffed at by submarine experts as foredoomed to failure even before it started, was to take the Nautilus to the far north, to dive under thick polar ice, to collect scientific data supposedly unobtainable in any other way, and perhaps to dive under the Pole and cross the top of the world. So far did the Nautilus fall short of achieving these ends that many critics considered the venture a carefully ballyhooed newspaper publicity stunt with the scientific aspect played up to give a reasonable purpose to the affair. There is no question that the Nautilus, aptly termed a “floating coffin”, proved itself woefully unfitted for the purpose.

As a matter of fact, the expedition seemed marked for disaster even before it started. Considerable difficulty was experienced in securing a submarine—underwater boats are unobtainable on the open market, all being the property of national governments. Finally an obsolete, condemned submarine was obtained from the U. S. Navy and revamped for polar work. During tests in New York harbor a member of the expedition, Willard Grimmer, quartermaster of the crew, was washed overboard and drowned. Late in getting started, the Nautilus crept across the Atlantic until one of its engines went out of commission, and was finally escorted into a European harbor where repairs were made. Then, late in the season—so late that the short summer season of the Arctic was almost over—the submarine crept north to keep its rendezvous with the icebergs.

An unforgettable climax, which will haunt the members of that Nautilus voyage to their last days, occurred when they returned to Spitzbergen after having spent from Aug. 3 to Sept. 10 in the Arctic. Sir Hubert Wilkins, the master mind of the undertaking, paid off his men at that point, though not in full, and then announced in a tone of desperation, “The expedition is broke!”

However, it was imperative that the Nautilus be returned to this country, as per his agreement with the United States Navy, from whom it was borrowed. A $20,000 bond had been posted to assure its return.

Thereupon Sir Hubert pleaded with his men to make the return voyage with him via Iceland and Nova Scotia. An open break then followed with Lieut. Commander Sloan Danenhower, commanding the Nautilus.

Commander Danenhower, one of the ablest authorities on submarine navigation in the world, prevailed upon Wilkins to abandon the idea as foolhardy and suicidal. The Nautilus could never stand up under the buffeting of the mammoth waves. Mutiny would have been the answer if Wilkins persisted, according to one member.

Some of the most amazing revelations of the Nautilus journey have come from Arthur O. Blumburg, chief electrician’s mate on the submarine and one of the top-notch men in that branch of the service in the United States Navy. He was granted a year’s leave of absence to go with the Nautilus.

“Our worst plight was encountered during the Atlantic crossing,” Mr. Blumburg told me. “We never expected to reach the other side alive. We had actually abandoned all hope.

“My job was to watch the huge gyro compass, which indicated the exact direction in which the Nautilus was heading. Well, after we left Provincetown on June 4, it seemed more like I was assigned to keep an eye on my ghost. I shall never forget the horrors of that voyage.

“I am going to tell you for the first time that every one on that boat was suffering from attacks of ptomaine poisoning. It was from the lead which got into the water. Only one or two escaped that illness. I was in bed myself for three days. I lost twelve pounds on that journey across.

“Not only were we poisoned by the lead in the water which was from the tanks, but we also suffered poisoning effects from the tinned foods.

“Foremost, however, we had to put up with a handicap which might have been overcome at the start. Our ship was in a dilapidated condition. The Nautilus soon proved that it was no match for the high seas, to say nothing about the expectations hoped for in the Arctic.

“True enough we were never in precise peril of going to the bottom, but that might be attributed to the grace of God more than any ingenious foresight. As far as I could see, Wilkins knew nothing about manning a submarine. I had never known him to have been in a submarine in any official capacity prior to the Nautilus expedition.

“A good storm might have sent us down to Davy Jones or a leak would have meant quick dispatch to the never-never lands. And it wouldn’t have taken anything very solid or bulky to have smacked us to end it all during that Atlantic cross. It was the frailest and most vulnerable craft I have ever been on.

“Above all I do not want to appear as unduly critical. It is far from my intention to censure unfairly. As one who has been in the United States Navy submarine service for fifteen years, I simply desire to enumerate my observations on that journey for the benefit of future expeditions. My views are strictly impersonal.”

“You say the Nautilus was dilapidated. Just what mechanical troubles arose out of this condition?” I asked Mr. Blumburg.

“Our chief difficulties encountered during the crossing of the ocean dealt with electrical faults and mechanical defects,” he explained. “The electrical trouble set in when the port motor went out of commission. On the mechanical side, the starboard motor went blooey. These failures caused her to pitch and roll dangerously.

“When we got to London these deficiencies were corrected. But there was another obstacle with which we had to contend helplessly. It might have meant the sacrifice of our lives. The ventilation system was outrageous. Why we didn’t all perish from suffocation will remain a mystery to me forever. Somehow or other no one had thought of an adequate ventilation scheme, or at least they failed to foresee the uselessness of the one we had. “The superlative touch of irony came, however, in the midst of our ocean crossing when our fates were in the hands of Neptune. I can’t say just who was responsible for this monumental folly, but I do know and am convinced that its object was nothing more than publicity—headlines for the daily press which was capitalizing on our freak adventure.

“Here is the inside on the funniest piece of newspaper exploitation I have ever come upon: All of a sudden the radio message went out with the laconic but portentous tidings, ‘Batteries Dead!’

“Such a notice signified only one thing—Disaster, for ship and everybody on her.

“As a matter of fact the batteries had not gone dead. This phase brought ill-feeling between the directors of the expedition and the Exide Battery Company. There were 60 tons of submarine batteries aboard, consisting of 120 cells. It was the first time that a submarine storage battery had been operated under temperatures that this one had been, and proved so successful. The battery temperature was often at 34 degrees.”

Recalling the article by Lew Holt in the June issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions, in which the opinions of submarine experts were quoted to the effect that the ice-cutting drills with which the Nautilus was provided were unworkable and that most of the scientific equipment was fantastic, I asked Mr. Blumburg to enlighten readers of this magazine on those points.

“I would like to say something about the absurd appurtenances and stupid apparatus we carried on our boat,” said Mr. Blumburg. “First of all, that specially-constructed diving compartment which they said was the invention of Simon Lake, the famous submarine inventor, might just as well have been a bouquet of roses for all the diving service it rendered the expedition.

“Frank Crilley, a very expert diver, just donned his regalia when pictures had to be taken for future commercial transactions. He never went down in that diving chamber in the Arctic, not so far as I could see.

“They found another use for that diving compartment. A Plankton machine was dropped down through it, to grasp samples at the bottom, a distance of three miles. Here 50,000-watt lamps were used. It brought up a bluish mud.”

These samples of mud, incidentally, were by all reports regarded very highly by the scientists of the Nautilus. The absurdity of equipping an expedition with a costly submarine and of sending it thousands of miles into the Arctic to bring back a can of blue mud undoubtedly had its humorous appeal for those who are still chuckling at the scientific pretensions of the expedition. Is it any wonder that the nation’s humorists found the Nautilus an ideal target for much good-natured fun? One of the best-remembered “wisecracks” is that of Will Rogers, who remarked in his syndicated feature that what the Nautilus needed was a good tow rope—this following the mid-ocean breakdown of the motors.

There were, it is true, other scientific observations made, as Mr. Blumburg pointed out to me.

“You ask me how much actual diving we did up there? Well, the reports vary a little on that, I notice. It is my frank and honest opinion that the Nautilus at no time ever was submerged for more than 52 feet in the Arctic, and that was in 2,300 fathoms of water, about 13,800 feet.

“As to actually penetrating underneath the ice—don’t let your fancy run away with your reason. The only time we really went under was once when motion pictures and still photos were planned and made.

“Just as soon as the cameras were poised on the surrounding ice-stands of vantage, the Nautilus went under ice seventeen feet thick, but for only a momentary period. It came right out and up again. At no point were we submerged for any length of time during our stay in the Arctic. It was always a matter of minutes.

“We had to go under for that brief time because too many would have scoffed at the whole business otherwise. The reason we couldn’t stay under long was because of the abnormal temperatures up there which had not been anticipated. The reaction of the temperature on the ship and its component parts had not been calculated. It would have meant ruin to have attempted any protracted stays under the ice or the water itself.

“Of course, the diving feature for the submarine was caught short early in our entrance into the Arctic zone when our diving rudder was lost. That “was the only occasion when I saw Frank Crilley do any diving. He was sent down to see whether the missing rudder might not have done some extra damage to that part of the boat.

“The diving rudder was lost in 80 degrees latitude on the second week we hit the Arctic. A chunk of ice had lopped it off. No attempt was made to repair it. It would have been futile.

As regards the diving rudder, it may be pointed out that this exact accident had been predicted in the pages of this magazine months before.

“Another fantastic idea that went floppo,” continued Mr. Blumburg, “was the notion that the Nautilus and the Graf Zeppelin might keep a date in the Arctic and that there even might be an exchange of passengers. As a matter of fact we were ten weeks late and when we got up there there was no Zeppelin to greet us. It had already waited too long, I have been told.

“Finally, William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher who was one of the chief sponsors of the expedition, sent a radio to the Nautilus calling off activities and summoning Sir Hubert home. Any delay might have meant wiping out the entire party and I think Mr. Hearst acted with commendable sagacity.”

Yet, despite the failure of the Nautilus to accomplish her goal, Sir Hubert Wilkins has demonstrated that his idea of polar submarine navigation is not impossible. Rudimentary facts have been learned, and a submarine of the latest type—not a reconditioned junked ship like the Nautilus— could carry out such a daring project successfully. Credit for the idea must always belong to Sir Hubert Wilkins, and to him alone.

  1. Stannous says: February 24, 20079:28 am

    It would take 37 years before the nuclear powered USS Nautilus maade its trans-polar dive.

    It’s kind of amazing that these guys even made it back!

  2. jean lintner says: June 23, 200812:05 pm

    My Dad Ray Meyers was on that trip…Radio Man.. Is it possible to get a copy of this article…Jean

  3. Charlie says: June 23, 200812:27 pm

    Jean: Do you mean a the actual magazine issue? Or do you just want a print out? If you click on each of the large page images above it will take you to a high-resolution version of the page that you can be printed.

  4. James Kreuzer says: October 30, 20087:05 am

    Hi Jean,

    My name is James Kreuzer and my wife and I are Curator & Librarian for the AWA (Antique Wireless Association).

    We have in our collection, a rare wireless telegraph key that was given by your father, Ray Meyers to Louise Moreau, a telegraph historian in 1970. He told her it was the telegraph key that was used on board the Nautilus, and was the actual key that sent all the messages including the SOS in the Atlantic.

    I have found the original letter that your father wrote to Louise back in 1970 describing the key & the fact that the key had traveled 100, 000 miles with him and that he had sent millions of words using it!

    Louise Moreau died in 1994 and donated her collection of telegraph apparatus & ephemera to the AWA.

    Jean, do you remember this key? If so, did your father ever mention any stories related to it?
    Would you like a photo of the letter & the key?

    My email address is [email protected]

    My wife and I are both Amateur Radio Operators.

    Thanking you very much in advance,

    James and Felicia Kreuzer N2GHD KA2GXL

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