Its hard to believe that a little over twenty years ago I checked on board the USS Hunley. The ship was already about thirty years old when I got to her as the Machinery Division Officer (later Auxiliary Division). The previous two years had been spent in Holy Loch Scotland where the Hunley had spent a number of years long before my time. Now she was In Norfolk and the budgetary affects of the end of the Cold War were about to set in.
The Hunley was an interesting ship and one of only two built like her (Holland was the other). Her propulsion came from six main engines tied through a giant converter to produce enough AC electricity to turn the giant squirrel cage induction motor. That motor could turn the single screw just fast enough to make fifteen or sixteen knots on a clear and calm sea with a strong wind at our back. She was not built for speed.
Being built for speed was not her purpose though. In the beginning of the cold war, our submarine missile launch capability was limited by the technology. In order not to lose too much patrol time, submarine tenders from World War 2 were quickly converted and Hunley and Holland headed the line of new construction tenders. Each new tender would have greater capability and a different type of propulsion system. But Hunley’s all electric engine rooms served a unique dual purpose.
When the subs would come along side, Hunley was able to provide them with electricity, a source for air conditioning and a complete shop to make just about anything. She had fresh and canned food, basic supplies, diesel fuel, and anything the boats needed to fulfill their mission.
She was not without her challenges though. Several design flaws continued to haunt the Hunley throughout her career. The engine rooms were ventilated with forced draft air. That did not take into account the atmospheric conditions found in some of her operating areas. In other words, she got a bit warm in the tropics.
The little boilers were kept up as good as they could be for their age, but occasionally they would give themselves a rest at just the wrong time. As good as the air conditioning units were in their day, they had mostly fallen on hard times by the time I got there.
The engine exhausts were an interesting experiment as well and from time to time caught on fire. Since a million gallons of diesel fuel capacity wrapped both engine rooms, God Bless the folks that got the fires out before it was too late.
The last unique design “issue” was throwing the main contact to engage the main engines to the propulsion system. The lever had to be manually operated. This is one position where as the EOOW, I always made sure I had my biggest and strongest electricians ready for. Towards the end, the contacts (which were made of gold by the way) would stick as we were coming in to the pier. I was not on watch that day but will never forget the sound of the Captain screaming at the CHENG through the MC.
To the Hunley’s credit, she didn’t let those things halt her forward progress. Not only did we pass OPPE with flying colors, we also upgraded the ship well enough to pass an INSURV right before the the Navy decided that she had to be retired due to the post Cold War budget cuts. On the day she was announced for retirement, all ten engines were running and in pretty decent shape.
We had installed a new galley, new AC units throughout the ship, and every major piece of equipment was in fighting condition. The men and women of the Hunley answered the call with no hesitation when Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida. Our people were rewarded for their four months of hard work with the Humanitarian Service Medal.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t thrilled to have the EOOW watch during that North Atlantic storm in the early winter of 93. I had all the mains on line and could barely hold 3 knots. But the men and women in both forward and aft engine rooms (as well as the many folks up topside) proved that they were as good a crew as any I served with in twenty two years.
One member of my Auxiliary Division was a young third class when I knew her. Today, she is a Major in the Air Force and fought in the Liberation of Iraq. I think some of the “men” who wasted so much time giving the women a hard time couldn’t have held her “battle rattle” on a good day.
Hunley is gone now, sold for scrap. I can’t even guess how many thousands of crew members sailed on her. The only ones I would just as soon forget know who they are so I will leave them to their retirements in peace. But I will always remember the fine men and women who took her around the world and made her work to the best of their ability. God Bless them All.