As night fell on Balboa, Panama Canal Zone, on 24 January 1942, USS S-26 (SS-131) set out for a war patrol in the company of three other submarines—USS S-21 (SS-126), USS S-29 (SS-134), and USS S-44 (SS-155). A sub chaser, USS STURDY (PC-460), was assigned to escort them out of the harbor. In order to avoid the watchful eyes of any passing enemy vessels, the convoy sailed without lights.
STURDY cruised about 1,500 yards in front of the first of the subs, which all ran on the surface. At 2210, STURDY’s job was done and she signaled the boats in her wake: “This ship is 14 miles west of San Jose Light X Submarines proceed on duty assigned X This ship will make wide turn to the right.” Unfortunately, only S-21, the lead sub, received the message. Eleven minutes later, S-26, running about 2,000 yards behind S-21, sighted an unlighted ship coming her way, perpendicular to her course. There was almost no time to react and the few evasive maneuvers attempted by the two vessels failed. STURDY, whose engines failed when full back was ordered, plowed into S-26 amidships on her starboard side. The submarine rolled, tossing the three men on the bridge—the commander, the executive officer, and the lookout—into the ocean. They would be the only three men to make it off the sub.
Water gushed into the boat through the huge hole in her side and the open bridge hatch. In less than a minute she sank, bow first. The next morning divers attempted a rescue of any Sailors who might still be alive—they noted that at least one crewmember had survived long enough to close the bridge hatch, which stubbornly resisted the divers’ attempts to reopen it. After 25 unsuccessful trips to the bottom the effort was called off. None of the divers reported hearing tapping from inside the hull, so it is doubtful that anyone was left alive. To this day S-26, a protected war grave, lies upright and intact in 300 feet of water. She and the 46 men who went down with her remain on eternal patrol.
S-26 (Lt. Cdr. E. C. Hawk) was lost at 2223 on 24 January 1942, in the Gulf of Panama about fourteen miles west of San Jose Light in three hundred feet of water. There were three survivors, two officers, one of whom was the Commanding Officer, and one enlisted man. These people were on the bridge at the time of the collision; the fourth person on the bridge, an enlisted man, was lost.
S-26 was proceeding from Balboa, C. Z. to its patrol station in company with S-21, S-29 and S-44 and an escort vessel, PC-460, at the time of the disaster. At 2210 the escort vessel sent a visual message to the submarines that she was leaving the formation and that they could proceed on the duty assigned. S-21 was the only submarine to receive this message. Shortly thereafter PC-460 struck S-26 on the starboard side of the torpedo room and the submarine sank within a few seconds.
Salvage operations were started immediately under Captain T. J, Doyle, USN, Commander Submarine Squadron Three and Submarine Base, Coco Solo, Canal Zone, and attempts at rescue were made but without success. The submarine was not raised. She had previously made one war patrol but had inflicted no damage on the enemy.