Naval operations require careful planning, discipline, and a familiarity with the technology. This makes the difference between a successful voyage and total disaster. Those who can master the sea, the ship, and a crew often become respected leaders in the navy. Perhaps one of the most respected from the era of the world wars was Admiral Charles Cooke, an Arkansas native. His leadership and dedication not only helped the navy win important battles but saved the lives of many men under his command.
Charles Maynard Cooke, Jr., was born in Fort Smith in December 1886. His father was a farmer and a noted local attorney. He was one of three sons. Cooke came from a distinguished family of public servants. His father, Charles Cooke, Sr., was later the mayor of Fort Smith and a United States Attorney. His mother’s uncle, Adm. Stephen Luce, was the founder of the Naval War College.
Cooke was exceedingly intelligent and a hard worker. He graduated high school in 1903 and enrolled at the University of Arkansas. He raced through a bachelors degree, completing it in only two years. He then entered the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1906. His fellow cadets were impressed by his study habits and keen intellect and quickly nicknamed him “Savvy.” He graduated second in his class in 1910.
His first assignments after graduation were service on battleships, then the backbone of the American fleet. By 1913, he was assigned to an experimental new area of the navy, the submarine service. The navy had experimented with submarines for decades, but with nations such as Germany perfecting submarine technology, the United States was attempting to catch up. He was given his first command as a lieutenant, a sub called simply the E-2, in 1914. The sub was made part of an experimental effort to replace hydrogen batteries with nickel batteries for power. In 1916, the sub was in dry dock at the New York Navy Yard when hydrogen gas from the experimental batteries inside the sub ignited, causing a flash fire. Four men were killed. Cooke raced on board from the nearby sub tender he was on to pull as many men as possible to safety.
After the incident on the E-2, Cooke spent the next two years at the ship yards at Quincy, Massachusetts, to help oversee submarine construction. At the end of World War I, he oversaw the construction of a new sub, the R-2, which was commissioned into service by his mother slamming the traditional bottle of champagne against its hull. Cooke was given command and head out to the high seas again. In part because of his efforts, American sub tactics were improving.
However, there were still problems. In 1920, he was given command of the new S-5. In September, the sub was performing a series of experimental dives off the coast of New England when disaster struck. An air duct had come open and flooded. Water poured into the sub. The crew reacted quickly to seal off all compartments, but more than 80 tons of water had gotten into the small submarine, too much extra weight for the 231-foot craft to maneuver. The forward torpedo room was beyond hope. Attempts to pump the water off the sub failed, and the crew did not have the means to repair it.
The submarine sank. With 180 feet of water above their heads and no type of rescue technology in existence anywhere, it looked grim for Cooke and his men. But as the crew assessed their situation, they realized that physics may yet save them. If they could redistribute the water, they reasoned, the sub might have sufficient buoyancy that they could rise again, at least partially. The crew worked quickly, shifting the water forward, sealing off the forward compartments. The tail began to lift while the nose stayed downward. The water was shallow enough that 17 feet of the sub was able to stick out of the water. Now they tried to cut through the thick steel of the aft section, but their welding equipment could only cut through part of it.
A passing ship, an old wooden steamer, passed by and happened to notice the odd mass of steel rising out of the sea. Contact was soon established, a hose pumped fresh air into the sub, and a rescue ship soon arrived. Two days after the accident, the entire crew left the S-5. There were no fatalities. Later attempts to recover the S-5 were unsuccessful, and the sub was declared a loss. It was the second submarine lost in American naval history.
Cooke’s level-headedness in a crisis saved the lives of his crew. It was that same resolve that would prove invaluable as the navy faced World War II in the coming years.