The explosion onboard the Russian submarine Kursk in August 2000 prompted an Amsterdam man to open up about his own rescue from a stricken submarine.
Hydrogen peroxide in a torpedo on the Kursk exploded, causing other warheads to detonate, sending the submarine to the bottom of the Barents Sea, north of Russia. All 188 sailors on board died. Their bodies and the submarine were recovered in 2001 by a Dutch underwater team.
Three days after the Kursk explosion, Donato Persico of Amsterdam was interviewed about submarine disasters by reporter Lee Coleman for The Daily Gazette. “Dan” Persico had been aboard the USS Squalus in May 1939 when there was a valve failure and the boat sank 243 feet to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean near Portsmouth, N.H.
“This happened so fast, there was no chance for an alarm,” Persico said. “We lost power and lost lights.” The Amsterdam sailor was almost crushed by a torpedo.”
Persico and other crew members closed watertight doors to prevent the entire submarine from flooding. As the submarine sank, 29 sailors drowned. Survivors donned woolen submarine coats and tried to stay still and use as little oxygen as possible.
“It was cold and dark,” Persico said. “I had goose bumps ... I was scared.” At 20, he was the youngest man on board. Persico was among the last of 33 crew members rescued in multiple trips of a diving bell deployed by the rescue ship Falcon on the surface.
“It was the best ride I had in my life, the ride in that bell,” Persico said.
Persico said when the diving bell was about halfway up, there was a problem with the lifting cables, “They dropped us back to the bottom and pulled it in by hand with only one strand of cable. I was on the last trip and rode up with the captain [Oliver F. Naquin of New Orleans].”
Anne Persico Signoracci of Cohoes, Donato’s sister, said the family was kept informed as the rescue unfolded by Amsterdam police officers who periodically stopped at the family home with updates. Signoracci said the experience gave her brother a new lease on life.
Persico served with distinction aboard two other submarines in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. One of them, USS Batfish, sank three Japanese submarines in a period of 76 hours. Persico retired in 1956 as a chief torpedo man and embarked on a career as a heavy equipment salesman for the L.B. Smith Co., covering the Capital Region.
He married Felicia Puglia of Amsterdam in 1974. They had met during a chance encounter between Persico and another sailor with Puglia and one of her girlfriends at the bar of the former Peter Stuyvesant Hotel in Amsterdam. After that meeting they did not see each other for 10 years. They married when Persico returned to Amsterdam permanently after his mother died. The couple had no children.
“He was my hero,” Felicia Persico said. “A wonderful man, good sailor, a good husband.”
Persico retired in the 1970s and made trips with Felicia to Florida during the winter months. They retained a residence on Broad Street on Amsterdam’s South Side. They were active in a submariner veterans’ organization. In September 2000 Persico was one of two Squalus survivors who shook hands with Navy Secretary Richard Danzig at a ceremony naming a Navy destroyer for the man who organized the Squalus rescue, Charles “Swede” Momsen.
Persico died January 26, 2001. Family and friends lobbied the city of Amsterdam for a memorial to honor the submariner. The intersection of Florida Avenue and Bridge Street was named Persico Square that September.
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