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Amsterdam sailor's rescue retold in book

By Bob Cudmore
Monday, July 30, 2012

A gripping account of the rescue of Amsterdam sailor Donato Persico is found in a 1940 book called “Blow All Ballast: the Story of the Squalus” by Nat A. Burrows.

Burrows was allowed on board the rescue ship “Falcon,” which sent divers down to the stricken submarine. The sub sank during practice dives off Portsmouth, N.H., on May 23, 1939.

Seaman Persico was one of 36 survivors rescued from the ocean floor 243 feet below the water’s surface. As the submarine sank, 29 other sailors drowned.

The survivors were saved using the McCann Submarine Rescue Chamber, a diving bell that could be used at depths beyond lethal limits. The rescue was under the command of Charles “Swede” Momsen.

The first three trips of the diving bell to and from the Squalus were flawless. But as the captain, Persico and six other sailors entered the diving bell for the final ascent, divers determined that one of its cables had become frayed.

Burrows described how Persico entered the submarine’s escape hatch, crawling up a steel ladder as his hands were too chilled to grasp the ladder’s rungs. Once inside the escape chamber, Persico placed his ear to the steel ceiling, which enabled him to hear the diver who was standing on the submarine in the water outside.

Burrows said Persico could hear the diver because of “a trick of underwater physics,” the same technique used by two divers working on the bottom who can converse by putting their helmets together.

Burrows wrote, “Persico could have pushed up an arm and touched [the diver’s] foot but for the steel wall between them. Then he heard the diver report to the surface, ‘I’ve lost my hold on the down-haul cable. It’s gone free and I can’t reach it.’ For the first time in the hatch, Persico felt the cold rush at him with a gnawing bite.”

All was not lost, however. The final rescue took many hours but the diving bell was slowly raised on a frayed cable.

This information was provided by Francis R. Hanlon of Ballston Spa. Hanlon’s uncle, Chief Warrant Officer Francis H. O’Keefe, was one of the divers who helped rescue the men of the Squalus.

SUITS OF ARMOR

Emil Suda of Amsterdam has contributed more memories of Matthews, advertised in the 1960s as the city’s most exclusive men’s store. Matthews was operated by Matt Orante, who had been a pattern maker for the State Thruway. The shop was located in 1952 at 30 Market St., then relocated to 40 E. Main St. in 1964.

Suda said the East Main Street shop with its heavy, dark wooden door was unlike any other men’s store, “A block patterned plush off white carpet with accents of red and brown was noticed upon entering, along with the unusual atmosphere of the store itself, much like a museum rather than a haberdashery.”

Suda recalled three suits of armor that he was told were obtained from Europe’s Baltic region around Lithuania. Orante was the son of Lithuanian immigrants. There was one small suit of armor, and Suda was told that suit was for a young boy so he could be like his father, a knight.

Suda said items for sale included trench coats with an English look, heavy ivory cuff links, silver-headed walking sticks and amber stick pins.

Dave Northrup, Orante’s nephew, said his uncle considered himself not only a haberdasher, but also an artist, crowding the small store with his paintings and wood carvings. The rear section of the second floor was devoted to a small art gallery and Orante’s wife Isabelle’s interior decorating business, Eljoor.

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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