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The Ballad of the Squalus


THis is among the most powerful ballads ever to come from the New Hampshire Seacoast. The story of the Squalus is both tragedy and heroic success. Singer/ songwriter John Perrault reconstructed the tale of the 1939 submarine sinking off the Isles of Shoals from an eye witness account.




READ: The Making of the Squalus Movie and see photos

It is the onlysuccessful submarine rescue in US history. Thirty-free men were saved in 1939 off the Isles of Shoals by the experimental diving bell created by "Swede" Momson. But there were 59 men aboard the experimental submarine USS SQUALUS when it sank just outside Portsmouth Harbor. The story has been told in a book, The Terrible Hours by Peter Maas. It has been made into a TV movie. But this hautning ballad by John Perrault tells the story best and is destined to become a local classic. Since we first published the lyrics, Perrault has been the city's Poet Laureate and the ballad has been re-released on a CD that comes with his newest book of verse, The Ballad of Louis Wagner and Other New England Stories. The photo above shows the fin of the Squalus during one of the recovery attempts after the dramatic rescue.

SEE ALSO: Ballad of Louis Wagner

Ballad of the Squalus

By John Perrault

I ran into an old time sailor, up on Market Street;
We had a cup of coffee, his last name was McLees;
He fought in the Pacific, on Portsmouth submarines;
I asked about the Squalus, this is what he told me.

"Squalus was a diesel sub, built at Portsmouth Yard;
Gearing up for WWII, our crew was pressing hard;
Running her through sea trials, May 23rd, 1939.
In a whipping wind we went out again, with 59 men inside."

Yes my friend, 59 men, only 33 survived;
How many thousands broke their backs
just to make this ship a prize?
I could tell you of the Stickleback,
and how the Thresher died;
Two hundred years we built the boats,
Portsmouth paid the price;
Ah, the Porstmouth Yard;
Down at Portsmouth Yard.

Just outside the Isles of Shoals, Ollie Naquin in command;
I see him now up on the bridge, 'Stand by to dive all hands;'
Bow planes swing out from the hull, klaxons wail and whine;
Tanks for ballast open up Squalus makes her dive.

Battery engines take us down, intake valves are closed
Board lights green means everything is steady as she goes;
Now this jolt! A yeoman jumps, happens all on a sudden;
Rips his earphones off and cries: 'The engine room is flooding!'

'Blow the ballast! Blow the tanks! Blow the bow and turn her!'
The bow comes up just a little way, but there's too much weight asternship;
She tips back on an angle, tilting ten degrees to forty;
Slipping down, she's going down, shorting out the batteries.

'Dog down the doors!' Naquin shouts, and a seaman grabs the bulkhead;
'For God's sake wait!' a sailor cries, and seven men scramble forward;
There's water up around our knees, before the bulkhead closes;
Twenty-six men on the other side I can still hear their voices.

Refrain: Yes my friend...

Silence at the bottom of 240 feet of water;
Darkness cold and icy calm Naquin gives the order:
'Men, still yourselves, try to rest, save the oxygen;
We'll float a marker up to spot us, but for now the wait begins.'

'Listen -- I hear something, like a rumble in a fog;
Men take hammers bang the hull, bang like hell by God;
They're up there looking for us, I know It in my bones;
Those guys will risk their lives to get us out and bring us home.'

Searchers grab the orange buoy, now they're dragging grapnel;
A diver's boots land on the hatch, they're lowering down the life Bell;
33 men brought up above, after 39 hours of dying:
Four months later 25 men towed in for identifying.*

September 15 1939 people lined up at the gates;
Waiting for those shiny hearses, carrying their mates;
Wives and lovers, sons and daughters, standing in the Kittery rain;
They've stood out there like this before, and they'll be standing out here again.

Refrain: Yes my friend...

McLees he sipped his coffee, stared out at the rain;
"I don't get out so much today" he said, "this town has really changed;
guess I just lost touch of time, 'bout that time to go;
Why 26 men, and not 59? That I'll never know.

Squalus sat in drydock rebuilt and recommissioned;
Engine room they called the tomb, well that's all superstition;
They rechristened her the Sailfish, but she's the Squalus in my dreams;
Every night I go back down, inside that submarine.

Refrain: Yes my friend...

*(one man lost at sea)

BUY Books and Music by John Perrault online
Originally from "Country Matters" CD
Rock Weed Recordings
c 1995 John Perrault
Published by Rock Weed Music (ASCAP)
All rights reserved.

CONTINUE for info on author JOHN PERRAULT

The Ballad of the Barrister

Thoreau would be proud. John Perrault is simplifying his life. After more than 20 years of press clippings touting the "singing lawyer," attorney Perrault's poetic persona is suing for divorce. With four former folk albums, more than 50 published poems, a term as Portsmouth's official poet laureate, and a newly released book of ballads in the stores, the scales are tipping in the artistic direction.

John PerraultIt's bound to be a contentious split. He has lately been more selective in his legal work , taking on fewer cases, but he loves the law. "Mostly I want to represent juveniles now," says Perrault, who taught high school English in nearby Kittery before he joined the bar. "I like that best." He says this from behind a desk as big as Maine in his book-lined Portsmouth, NH office with its to-die-for tugboat view. Hard world to leave behind.

Swiping a phrase from his own album, the two Perraults are "tenants in common." The bard and the barrister both want to see justice done, to tell the whole truth, to make a difference. As balladeer, his gritty voice rings with authority and passion. His lyrics are descriptive and precise. His subject matter leans toward tragedy and crime, from the sinking of the seacoast submarine Squalus, to murder off the Isles of Shoals. He tells the tales of sailors, Indian warriors, housewives, shipyard workers, soldiers. His "Ballad of Billy Ockham" turns the life of a juvenile delinquent from Biddeford, Maine into an heroic odyssey through the murky waters of public education. His songs, like courtroom days, are crafted from hard research and dramatically delivered.

More ballads and fewer briefs, Perrault promises himself. He hauls his country boots up on the acre of polished mahogany, leans back and eyes the ancient harbor below. Simplify, he tells himself, while a thousand ghosts petition him to tell their tale.
-- J. Dennis Robinson
originally published 1997. Revised 2005.


John Perrault was raised in Maine and graduated from Providence College in 1965 . He holds an MA in Political Science from the University of New Hampshire. After 10 years as a school teacher, with a degree from Franklin Pierce Law Center, he joined John Ahlgren in 1982 to form Ahlgren & Perrault, PA. He has performed in concert throughout New England earning high praise for his ballads that focus largely on Seacoast themes and for his love songs. His poems have been published in numerous periodicals including The Christian Science Monitor, Commonwealth, Poet Lore, and Key West Review. He lives in a 200 year old farmhouse in NH while his twin daughters roam the world.

John Perrault Discography

Thief in the Night (LP) 1977
New Hampshire (LP, Cas) 1981
Tenants in Common (LP, Cas) 1984
Country Matters (Cas) 1988
Country Matters (CD) 1995
PLM: Before You Go (CD ) Cas 1997
John Perrault, Barbara London, Jim MacDougall
The Ballad of Louise Wagner (CD & book) 2004




CD icon

From: Ballad of the Squalus
WAV file 372k

Real Audio

Rock Weed Recordings
c 1995 John Perrault
Rock Weed Music (ASCAP)

CD icon

Poem: Rueben Dario's 2nd Song
WAV file 605k

Real Audio

Rock Weed Recordings
c 1995 John Perrault
Rock Weed Music (ASCAP)

CD icon

From: St. Peter

WAV file 295k

Real Audio

(with Barbara London and Jim MacDougall) Rock Weed Recordings
c 1997 John Perrault
Rock Weed Music (ASCAP)


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