Amsterdam sailor among last to leave sunken submarine

U.S.S. Squalus sank in 1939
Men were rescued from the U.S.S. Squalus using a diving bell.
Men were rescued from the U.S.S. Squalus using a diving bell.

Donato “Danny” Persico of Broad Street on Amsterdam’s South Side was one of 33 survivors rescued from the newly-constructed submarine U.S.S. Squalus, which sank on May 23, 1939 when valves malfunctioned during a test dive off Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Persico had joined the Navy after working for the family construction company at Sacandaga Reservoir. He became fascinated with stories of life underwater told by divers who were working there too.

On the Squalus, Persico was almost crushed by a torpedo as the vessel bottomed out at 243 feet below the surface.

Twenty-six sailors drowned in the flooded aft section. Survivors donned woolen submarine coats and stayed still, using as little oxygen as possible.

“I had goose bumps. I was scared,” Persico said. At 20, he was the youngest man on board.

Persico was among the last to be rescued in four trips of a diving bell deployed from the rescue ship Falcon.

The first three trips were flawless. Capt. Oliver Naquin, Persico and six other sailors were in the diving bell for the final ascent. About halfway up, there were problems with the lifting cables.

Persico said, “They dropped us back to the bottom and pulled it in by hand with only one strand of cable.” The final rescue took many hours.

Back in Amsterdam, the family received two telegrams from the Navy. The first said Persico was alive on board the sunken Squalus. The second said that he had been rescued.

Persico’s father had died in 1929. The family, including Persico’s mother Carmela Pinto, were kept informed as the rescue unfolded by Amsterdam police who periodically stopped at the family home with updates.

When his mother visited Persico in a hospital in New Hampshire after his rescue, he told her he would continue in the submarine service, adding his shipmates felt the same.

The Navy was able to raise the Squalus. It was recommissioned as the Sailfish and was awarded nine battle stars in World War II.

Persico served aboard two other submarines in the Pacific. One of them sank three Japanese submarines. He earned a Bronze Star.

In 1956 he retired as a chief torpedo man and recruiter and embarked on a civilian career as a heavy equipment salesman for the L.B. Smith Co., covering the Capital Region.

According to Persico’s nephew Anthony E. Signoracci, his uncle “always had a sly smile on his face. I think it was because he cheated certain death.”

Amsterdam historian Hugh Donlon wrote the Recorder story in 1961 when Persico visited the Portsmouth Navy Yard for the first time since 1939. He was there for the launch of the nuclear submarine USS Tinosa.

On hand for a picture were Persico, U.S. Rep. Sam Stratton and John Donlon, Hugh Donlon’s son. John Donlon was executive officer of the Tinosa and later commanded nuclear submarines.

Persico married Felicia Puglia of Amsterdam in 1973. They had met during a chance encounter at the bar of the former Peter Stuyvesant Hotel in Amsterdam. They married years later when Persico returned to Amsterdam permanently after his mother died. The couple had no children. Felicia had served in the Army and Air Force.

“He was my hero,” Felicia said. “A wonderful man, good sailor, a good husband.”

Persico was active in a submariner veterans organization. In September 2000 he was one of two Squalus survivors who shook hands with Navy Secretary Richard Danzig at a ceremony naming a destroyer for the man who organized the Squalus rescue, Charles “Swede” Momsen.

Persico died January 26, 2001. The intersection of Florida Avenue and Bridge Street in Amsterdam was named Persico Square that September.

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected].

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