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Amsterdam man escaped sub disaster

By Bob Cudmore
Monday, July 9, 2012

Donato Persico of Amsterdam’s South Side was one of 36 survivors rescued from the submarine USS Squalus, which sank during practice dives off Portsmouth, N.H., on May 23, 1939.

Persico was almost crushed by a torpedo as the vessel bottomed out at 243 feet below the surface.
Twenty-nine sailors drowned in the submarine’s aft section.

Amsterdam city historian Robert von Hasseln said the survivors were saved using the McCann Submarine Rescue Chamber, a diving bell that could be used at depths beyond lethal limits.

The first three trips rescuing men from the Squalus were flawless. But as the captain, Persico and six other sailors got into the diving bell for the final ascent, divers determined its cable had become frayed. The final rescue took many hours as the diving bell was slowly raised.

Persico’s story is one of many in this year’s history booklet, “Amsterdam’s South Side,” published by Historic Amsterdam League.

Persico stayed in the Navy through the Korean War, rising to the rank of chief torpedoman. His medals included the Bronze Star and Submarine Combat Patrol Badge.

In 2000 Persico was one of two Squalus survivors attending when a Navy destroyer was named for the man who organized the Squalus rescue, Charles “Swede” Momsen.

Persico died Jan. 26, 2001. Persico Square at the intersection of Bridge Street and Florida Avenue is named in his honor, and a stone marking his Navy service is at Fifth Ward Veterans Park.

MATINEE RACES

Louis “Sam” Hildebrandt Jr. has compiled a picture book on the Sanford Stud Farm, originally named Hurricana Farm because of the stiff winds at its location, off the present Route 30 in the town of Amsterdam. The book is “Hurricana: Thoroughbred Dynasty, Amsterdam Landmark.” Hildebrandt is part of the Friends of the Sanford Stud Farm that is restoring two buildings at the farm.

Carpet mill owner Stephen Sanford started buying farm property in the 1870s. A doctor had advised the industrialist that a farm might ease his stomach ulcer. Sanford purchased seven farms to create Hurricana, a total of 1,086 acres. At first, Sanford bought work horses for the farm but, encouraged by his sons, he began breeding racehorses.

The horse racing season at Saratoga Springs, where Sanford’s horses were a major fixture, historically takes place in August. As early as 1881, Sanford held races in the fall at Hurricana in Amsterdam, called an Exhibition of Horsemanship, according to a program in Hildebrandt’s book.

From 1903 through 1907, the Sanfords invited the people of Amsterdam to the Matinee Races at Hurricana on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July. Ten thousand to 15,000 people from local factories and farms attended each year.

The New York Press reported that six races were held on Matinee Race day with three horses entered in each race. Stephen Sanford acted as judge and his son John was the starter.

The Press reported, “The races were for blood, too. The horses had the colors up and they knew that meant business.”

According to the newspaper, there was once a slight error in the 5,000 programs printed one year. Sanford had another 5,000 corrected programs printed. He ran out of these and, before delivering the programs with the error in them, he apologized to the crowd.

Sam Hildebrandt’s father was Sanford jockey or contract rider Louis F. Hildebrandt Sr. The elder Hildebrandt’s father was Louis H. Hildebrandt, who made money at the Matinee Races.

Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact Bob Cudmore at 346-6657 or bobcudmore@yahoo.com.

 
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