Veteran submariner shares memories
in tour of Naval Diving Center
PENSACOLA NEWS HERALD
Sunday, October 21, 2001
By Mohammad A. Faruqui
News Herald Writer
The Navy Experimental Dive Unit at the Coastal System Station uses high-tech facilities to try out new dive technology. Retired Lt. Cmdr. Floyd Mathews remembers when tests were done in YMCA swimming pools. At 98, he is the oldest surviving submariner in Florida.
During part of his 30-year service, Mathews helped with landmark submarine escape experiments under Lt. Cmdr. Charles "Swede" Momsen, who later became vice admiral of the Navy. "Momsen was a genius, but he had a lot of opposition," Mathews said. "All those old, die-hard nay-sayers" who thought submarine escapes were impossible were proved wrong.
Matthews recently learned that the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center at the Coastal Systems Station was dedicated to Momsen last year. He contacted the base and got an invitation to tour the school Friday. The dive school and the experimental dive unit owe their existence to Momsen's early experiments. "We still get much of our money from the (submarine command) in Washington, D.C.," said Cmdr. Jon Kurtz, commanding officer of the dive school, who personally gave Mathews the tour. "We give dive training to all Navy divers except the SEALS, all Army divers except Special Forces, all Marine divers, all Coast Guard divers and all Air Force divers, except special operations," Kurtz told Mathews. "We now give scuba training to law enforcement groups, including the FBI."
It all started when the USS S-4 submarine sank near Honolulu in December 1927 with no survivors. The tragedy prompted Momsen to design an escape chamber - but initially his idea was rejected. Within a year, the brass were listening, and Momsen in 1928 established a submarine experimental unit at New London, Conn.
Mathews transferred from the USS S-12 to the unit. He found some divers already testing the "Momsen lung." The scuba-like canvas and rubber contraption was Momsen's first approved submarine escape device. Soda lime in the large bag trapped carbon dioxide, allowing divers to breathe recycled air. Soon, with the help of Cmdr. Allan McCann, Momsen developed an 18,000-pound dive bell. The chamber could be attached to a submarine's escape hatch. That way, a trapped crew could be rescued without flooding the submarine. The salvaged S-4 was retrofitted for the "McCann bell" experiments.
"We tested the devices in shallow water near New London," Mathews said. "And then we sank the S-4 at 100 feet near Key West for deep-water tests."
Pensacola News Journal
Submarine Veteran Marks 100th Birthday
By Kimberly Blair
Floyd Matthews entered the world in 1903, the year the Wright Brothers took flight. And of all the technological wonders since, he is most in awe of the evolution of Navy submarines.
There is a world of difference now, said Matthews, who spent 15 years serving on submarines before World War II. We didn't have air conditioning, not even a blower. It got pretty hot when we shut them down to dive, especially when we operated around Panama, he said. We couldn't stay down long because we were operating off batteries. Now they have these nuclear-powered submarines.
Matthews is one of Florida's oldest submarine veterans. He spent Sunday celebrating his 100th birthday, one day early, with a special recognition during services at Warrington United Methodist Church. Afterward, he and wife, Vena, joined family for a lunch celebration at Hall's Seafood on Gregory Street.
Today, Drum Base, the local chapter of the U.S. Submarine Veterans Association, is honoring him with another luncheon at Halls. Jim Rolle, a Drum Base member, said Floyd is a rarity. We only have five veterans in our organization that qualified (as submariners) before 1920, Rolle of Milton said. It¹s a hard life and it takes a toll on your body. Matthews says he¹s glad he made it to 100. “I didn't want to disappoint everyone”, he said.
That's because he has been treated to two early centennial celebrations, one at a family reunion last year in his hometown of Loretto, Tenn., and another last October in Pensacola during a reunion of surviving crew members of the USS Chickasaw, a salvage vessel he commanded at the end of his career.
Matthews credits his good health and sharp mind to, exercise and taking care of his health. “Why don't you tell them what you tell me”, son John Matthews chimed in. Don't travel alone and stay out of dark alleys. Such sage advice doesn't mean this centenarian spent his life on the side of caution.
He joined the Navy in 1919 at age 16, at the close of World War I, his son said. During his 30-year career, he participated in landmark submarine escape experiments under the legendary submariner Adm. Charles ‘Swede’ Momsen. In 1939 he helped with the rescue of 27 sailors from the submarine USS Squalus off Portsmouth, N.H. The details of that remarkable rescue were captured in The Terrible Hours, by Peter Maas, said John Matthews.
Matthews retired as a lieutenant commander in 1949. Then at age 65 he married Vena, his second wife, and purchased a 40-foot cruiser. “We took a honeymoon cruise down the Tennessee River, Ohio River, Mississippi and all the way around the Florida coast to the Keys and to Jacksonville”, said Matthews, who has lived in Warrington since 1976.
Just weeks before the Peace Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, Matthews was on his way to boot camp at Naval Training Station, Gulfport, Miss. Originally enlisting for four years, his career spanned three decades and involved submarine escape experiments, the command of his own ship, a world-record tow and atomic bomb testing in the Pacific Ocean.
Though his memory has clouded in recent months, Matthews said he will never forget the first time he saw the ocean.
"It was an amazing sight," Matthews recalled. "I had no idea what a horizon meant. You get out there and look over the ocean, there's a horizon out there somewhere. But on land, you don't experience that."
Once he got his sea legs on a cruiser and battleship, Matthews had enough of the surface and volunteered for a different kind of duty in 1923.
His graduation from submarine school later that year would enter him into a brotherhood of fellow submariners. Today, he is thought to be the second-oldest submariner in the U.S., Rubin said.
His time as a submariner would also involve him in landmark submarine escape experiments under the direction of Lt. Cmdr. Charles "Swede" Momsen, inventor of the Momsen lung, an underwater breathing device used in rescue operations.
Another Momsen invention, the "diving bell," saved the crew of the USS Squalus in May 1939, when their sub sank in 240 feet of water off Portsmouth, N.H. Matthews supported the rescue effort using the watertight chamber to bring trapped sailors to the surface.
Later in his career, Matthews served in World War II on the USS Diver where he and his crew patrolled and removed stranded vessels from the D-Day landing beaches.
In 1946, Matthews witnessed some of the first atomic bomb tests in the Pacific Ocean. Known as Operation Crossroads, Matthews' ship, the USS Chickasaw, served as a security vessel for the operation that paved the way for the end of the second world war.
Matthews' room at Regency Villa in Florence is decorated in a nautical theme, complete with a "Welcome Aboard" life ring that hangs above his bed. He still eats a hearty breakfast every morning. His harmonica, which he still plays, is never far away.
"It's just amazing that he's still a walker and a talker," said George Boyle, a friend of Matthews and fellow submariner. "And he still likes his beer."
Matthews' sons, Bill, 69, and John, 65, a Montgomery resident, said their father is constant inspiration.
"I learned my attitude from him," Bill Matthews said. "He says, 'Do the best with what you have.'"
Without the long hours his father and mother, Nora, put in to help him recover from polio, John Matthews wouldn't be able to walk today, he said.
"He's just been a great role model," he said. "He's honest and (has) just a great strength in character."
Floyd Matthews credits clean living and "staying out of dark alleys" as what has gotten him through the years since he ran away that night in 1919.
"Set yourself a routine and follow it," he said. "That's the best thing I think a person can do is find what's right for themselves and set a goal to do it."
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Floyd Matthews, 102nd Birthday
From Pensacola Herald
Near the end of World War I, a young Floyd Matthews decided he'd had enough of rural Loretto, Tenn., and he ran off to join the Navy. It didn't matter that he was only 16 years old or that he would end up thousands of miles away from home as a submariner.
Floyd Matthews blows out the candles on his 102nd birthday cake Thursday at Westpointe Retirement Community in Pensacola. Matthews is believed to be the oldest surviving submariner in the United States.
"To me, it was doing a service to the country and at the same time enjoying an adventure," Matthews said. The adventure added another chapter Thursday as Matthews marked his 102nd birthday at Westpointe Retirement Community.
Matthews, who qualified as a submariner in January 1925 and served on seven subs before World War II, is one of the oldest surviving submariners in the United States.
Members of the U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II and the U.S. Submarine Veterans Inc. gave the birthday party Thursday, celebrating his longevity and years of service. Matthews received proclamations, certificates, a chocolate cake and a dolphin sculpture that captured his attention.
"Ooh, look at this," he said, holding the small sculpture in his hand. "That's beautiful." John Matthews, Floyd Matthews' son, traveled from his home in Montgomery, Ala., for the celebration. He said his father deserves the attention. "He's my hero," John Matthews said.
It takes a certain type of person to be a submariner, said Lamar Seader of Pensacola, who served on several submarine crews during the 1960s. "He's an absolute team player," Seader said. "He thinks of his crew. He's extremely dedicated to his ship. (In the ocean) there's nothing but the crew and your ship. Whatever the problem is, you fix it."
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