The next time you think you're having a tough time getting an idea approved, consider the story of Charles "Swede" Momsen. As detailed in Peter Maas' gripping The Terrible Hours (1999, HarperCollins), Momsen spent a career in the U.S. Navy preparing for what his superiors considered an impossible task: the rescue of trapped submariners from the ocean floor. After 14 years of hard work, skepticism, ridicule, and waiting, the opportunity to prove his ideas -- and to save 33 submariners -- finally came on May 23, 1939. On that date Squalus, the newest submarine in the U.S. Navy, sank without warning off the country's East Coast, coming to rest some 240 ft below the surface. But unlike numerous other sinkings in the early days of submarines, Squalus had a chance. (The U.S. had lost the crews of the S-51 and the S-4 in 1925 and 1927, respectively, in less than 150 ft of water, because there was no way to get to the men.) Momsen was haunted by those losses, all the more because the sub under his command -- the S-1-discovered the S-51 and because he later saw, as Maas writes, "the flesh-shredded fingers of those in the S-51 who had not drowned immediately, who instead spent the final minutes of their lives trying to claw their way out of a steel coffin." Within weeks of the S-51 tragedy, Momsen had a solution: a steel rescue chamber that could be lowered from a surface ship to a special escape hatch built into a submarine. He submitted his proposal to the Navy's Bureau of Construction and Repair and waited. After almost a year, he was transferred to the bureau. Late in his first day there he found his proposal, still sitting in his predecessor's in-basket. Disappointed but undaunted, he began arguing anew the next day for its adoption. His superiors were outraged by his impertinence in suggesting a solution they hadn't considered. His plan was rejected anonymously with this note: "Impractical from the standpoint of seamanship." A few weeks later, the S-4 sunk. Her crew tapped desperately from the bottom of the sea: "Please hurry." But there was nothing to hurry with. Incredibly enough, Momsen was ordered by his superiors to respond to every letter that arrived asking why the Navy could not save the S-4's crew. Determined as ever, Momsen came up with another solution, a portable air supply -- eventually dubbed the Momsen Lung -- that submariners could use to get to the surface. This time, however, Momsen didn't ask for permission. He developed the Lung without his superiors suspecting a thing until its first successful deep-water test in the Potomac River, reported in The Washington Star. "Young man," Maas reports the Chief of Naval Operations saying to Momsen, "what the hell have you been up to?" Funding for more testing and development followed. And when a presidential board on submarine safety requested an explanation of the Lung, Momsen obliged by detailing his original steel rescue chamber plan as well. Asked why this plan hadn't been proposed before, Momsen said simply, "It was." He got more funding. And though his impertinence cost him the credit for the rescue chamber -- the Navy brass made sure it was named for someone else -- his persistence ended up saving 33 men doomed to drown 240 ft below the surface. Not to mention thousands of others, military and nonmilitary, who benefited from his years of stubborn research into diving and rescue techniques. Momsen was smart enough not to listen to what "everybody knew" about submarine survival. He was committed enough that he refused to quit, even during years of official rejection and skepticism. And he was comfortable enough in his own skin to let his achievements speak for themselves, no matter to whom the Navy gave credit. "My worst moment was when the S-4 went down," he told Maas, "and I had to answer all the mail explaining why her crew wasn't saved. I almost quit then. But there was that other moment when the first survivor from the Squalus came out of the rescue chamber and that made it all worthwhile."
John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is now editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive and dotCEO magazines.