Did it matter? Undersea Patrols on Christmas Day

Did it matter?

A few weeks ago on one of the Holy Loch themed Facebook pages, a few of us were reminiscing about the old days and all of the patrols that were made during the Cold War. Someone reflected how successful the system was but a member of the site (who self-identified as an anti-nuclear activist) said something to the effect that we didn’t do a thing. I was reminded that since the end of the Cold War, many of the early anti-nukes were actually encouraged, trained and funded in a very secretive way by the KGB. Yet, I do ask from time to time, was it all worth it?

Proteus early 70s

From 1960 – 1991, submarines made deterrent patrols beneath the surface of the ocean almost non-stop in support of America’s strategic system. The intent of course would make the idea of anyone (USSR specifically) launching a first strike nuclear attack virtually out of the question. While land based missiles and planes could be targeted by heavier and heavier land based missiles, finding all of the Polaris, Poseidon and later Trident boats would have been much more of a challenge. Even the growth of the Soviet submarine forces as a countermeasure would not have stopped all of the boats from performing their gruesome task.


In order to support such a system of deterrence, someone was going to have to give up some free time of course. The ballistic missile submarines from the very beginning were manned by rotating crews (blue and gold). The hallmark of the system was that pretty well engineered boats with nuclear reactors and flexible support teams could get in to port, turnover and refit and return to station with a great deal of efficiency. From 1960 that included forward deployment of tenders and drydocks in strategic locations to allow the patrol zones a maximum coverage.

The sacrifices were abundant.

For the men who sailed on the boats, there were plenty of sacrifices to go around. The separation from family for months at a time is in itself one of the great reasons so many only did one or two tours. We sailed in virtual silence, only being on the receiving end of an occasional Family Gram. These messages were limited to a few sentences and if the sender didn’t do it right, a man could go without any word for the entire patrol. Not only were you missing holidays and birthdays (not to mention the occasional actual birth of a child) but you had nothing but the bottom of the upper bunk to stare at in the glowing red lights in berthing.

Life went on while the boys were under the seas. Bills to pay, washing machines that waited until the hatch was closed to break. Cars that had flat tires and storms that blew down fences. All while Daddy was away and left Mom to try and figure out how to fix things. Some marriages weren’t strong enough. The divorce rate was high and the broken families literally littered the landscape. Kids learned to talk and walk and fight and make new friends all while Dad was so far away. There was no one to ask advice from about that girl who drove you crazy or the boy who wanted to be “more than friends”. All that had to wait while Mom tried to handle things on her own.

It wasn’t a great picnic for single guys either. Their lives were just as much impacted by hibernating under the waves.

Bob and Renee 1972

My first patrol was a Christmas run on the George Washington in 1973. When I went to sea, I had had a fight with my fiancée on the phone. This was no small deal since we were in Guam in another time zone and she was at home in Elizabeth PA. The phones were very expensive back then and when you are fighting and not speaking, it’s an expensive silence. Things at home were not great either. Dad had just come back from the hospital where Mom was spending the night after a few days of a serious medical condition. He was tired and we also had some harsh words about the future and the past. I can’t even remember if I told him I loved him. He was pretty angry that I had sent half of my family gram forms to Renee.

The boat leaving for patrol was actually kind of a relief in some ways. The relief was that we were so busy with everything that comes with making a patrol that we could turn life off for a while. There were fun moments mixed in the bad ones. There were hours of boredom surrounded by a few moments of utter fear. Even as close as you were with the men around you, there were also a lot of lonely moments when you really questioned who you were and what you were doing there.


The worst moment of course came on Christmas Eve. The cooks had decorated the mess decks for the season with some shiny tinsel and a few lights. If I remember, there were even some of those cheesy cut out signs strung together that said Happy Holidays. I had mess cooked all day and was pretty tired but I have to say the feeling on the mess decks when they broke out the movie was pretty depressed. I was raised as a Christian and missed the service at my old Church field with singing and Joy to the World. I don’t know who thought it was a good thing to do, but in the second reel of the movie, the fans suddenly turned off and the General Alarm broke over the MC system followed by “Man Battle Stations Missile, spin up all missiles” followed by another round of that awful General Alarm.

There were not many Christian sentiments shared by the crew members who dragged themselves out of their racks that evening. I couldn’t help but think about the old saying Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards men as we came together to practice what we had been sent to do.

But it was only practice. The world got to live another day without a cataclysmic moment. Silent Night, Holy Night.

The patrol would end just like the 42 before it on board the George-fish. Turnover to the Goldies, get on the busses to the air base in Guam and try to catch back up with our lives.

That girl I left behind found a new guy. Mom got better and has lived another 40 years in relatively good health. Dad and I found a way to say “I love you” before he died … He told me the day before he passed and the day before I went to sea for one of my last trips. The world never did get to experience that nuclear holocaust we were sent out to prevent.

Did it matter?

I still like to think it did. We have had wars of other kinds but the ones we worked to prevent never have materialized. I hear the Chinese are building boomers now. I hear the Russians are upgrading their fleets again and of course there is that whole madness with the entire Middle East. Our own country is being torn apart inside by people with some pretty selfish motives.

But tonight, as I write this and you read it, some new generation is at sea riding their own patrol or mission. Even with the change in the way we live and fight, our submarine force is still sailing the oceans protecting a fragile peace. I thank them all. I pray for their missions and their safety. I mostly pray that as I sing Silent Night at Church tonight, the words will have as much meaning as they did that night 41 years ago.

Mister Mac

Merry Christmas to all of my fellow Submariners wherever you are!

Epilog: Christmas 2020

2020 has been a remarkable year and one filled with sadness and loss for too many people. This is my first Christmas without my Mom. In so many ways, I am happy for her because I know she is celebrating her first birthday in heaven.

The world still remains a dangerous place. The Russians and Chinese just conducted a joint drill last week that involved the simulated use of nuclear armed weapons. At the same time, a Russian cyber attack was directed at the command and control systems in the Pentagon. I truly hope that world isn’t blindly marching into another global conflict. Peace on Earth and Good Will towards men only works when we all truly mean the words.


28 thoughts on “Did it matter? Undersea Patrols on Christmas Day

  1. Thank you for your thoughts and all. I was on a fast attack out of New London for about 5 years. Spent many days at sea that I would have rather been at home. BUT that was the job we HAD to do…

  2. Great story, thanks for sharing. I was in the Navy and stationed at NAVCOMMSTA THURSO UK. I sent/received messages on the teletypwriter to many a HolyLock subtender and as they rounded the northern coast of Scotland, we communicated. My Christmas there was better than yours. Best wishes and Merry Christmas 🙂

  3. YES IT MATTERED The truth to all this “insanity” is the only way to defeat evil is to look it in the face, stand up to it, and kill it.

  4. Very moving and thought provoking, even if they are thoughts of years past. Good job. And yes, it did matter…,to me, to my family and all the families in America and the rest of the free world.

  5. Great discussion. I was DCA on my last patrol on George Blue in dec ’73, so shipmates briefly. Looking back on my nuclear sub career and the span of historical events, my answer is it was worth it for the nation and me personally. Family life came after my Navy time. My hat is off for those that manage both simultaneously. Not easy as a full time effort and not easy alone. The character, courage, perseverance and commitments to do all the right things right have and continue to distinguish nuclear submariners from their peers and the lessons learned in the boats serve each sailor well for the rest of their life. This legacy endures and impress others for years. The nation owes many debts to dedicated men and women who serve and those of the silent service are at the top of the list for their lifetime of achievement.

  6. I have asked myself many times if it was worth it from this end, a spouse of a boomer sailor….I don’t know, it was a lonely life, raising children virtually by myself….I really don’t know if knowing what I do now, if I would choose to do it again. 13 patrols, 6 years he spent under the ocean, not including two unaccompanied duty stations. Well written and thought provoking post, thanks. Merry Christmas.

  7. I served on GW(B) from 78-81; a DASO, and 3 patrols, TM2 when I left. Retired USN in 1999. Served aboard SSN 708 and 683 also.

  8. Yes, “it” mattered. Both we and the Russians survived the last Cold War, therefore, both what our country did and what we as individuals did “mattered.” But as you pointed out, there is still much tension/terror out there. Just as WWI did not end all wars, “our” Cold War did not end all cold wars. I find what is going on now to be disappointing and discouraging. But the fact that nations are involved in another arms race does not lessen the significance of what we accomplished. As long as our strategic deterrent remains effective and we are motivated by the significance of our constitution, what the current generation of “cold warriors” do will “matter.” Just the thoughts of an old fart. Happy New Year to All (aft and forward equally ).

  9. Great story I was on the herny clay Blue 6 runs out of holy lock and your story brought back some good and bad memories from when i served but I had a job to do and yes it mattered to me a great deal. I served 80-88 left the clay for the us ssbn 730 in washington then got out but it made me the man i am now and proud to be long to the brother hood of sub vets of new and old……thank you all that server with pride…….

  10. Nicely written and triggered memories not thought of for long time. This old Nuke served on SSB(N) 611 out of the Loch and Rota 1968 to 1971, 7 patrols and a PSA. For our Country it was probably necessary, but I think the individual prices paid were excessive and,, in many cases, still being paid. Notwithstanding,, I am proud of having earned my Dolphins and of having done a difficult job well (No less would suffice in our small, closed world where we our lives truly depended on our shipmates knowing and doing their job.). One psychological benefit I retain is being able to calm myself to sleep by recalling the gentle rolling in my bunk on patrol above the Arctic Circle. I rarely encounter someone with like experience, but, when I do, I relish the opportunity to share and be understood as only occurs between nuke submariners. Frank Sauser, IC1, NEC 3354, nuclear and submarine qualified.

  11. I served within the USS Guardfish SSN 612, from Jan 1980 to Sept 1983. I went on 3 WESPACs and a summer in Mare Island Naval Shipyard. The missions we performed were amazing. The nuclear deterence that we provided was and still is outstanding. The book “BLIND MAN’s BLUFF” gives a peak into the great value of what we, the submarine community, provided. While the nation celebrates Christmas, revolts in the street over racism, celebrates our freedom of religion, fights to remove posting of the 10 Commandments, exercises the right to bare arms, assainates people on a school ground or movie theatre, and exercise any of our freedoms, there are men standing watch to ensure our freedom stays free. I salute you who faithfully served and still serve.

  12. Great write up that brought back a lot of memories. I have no doubt it was worth it and I am proud to have been part of that mission.

  13. I thoroughly enjoyed this read. My grandfather was a career navy man (lied about his age in WWII) and he earnestly tried to get me to follow him.

    In the end, I chose the Army and have loved my 17 years. Sadly, your story is only a small taste of all the untold stories of heroes like you.

    Not only did it matter, what you did still matters.

    Thank you for your service and memories.

    My aunt and uncle (Gravitt) shared this with me.

  14. Mister Mac, I just read this article and it brought back my memories of when I was away at Christmas in the USN Seabees and a much deeper appreciation for those like you that really did make a difference. While I was only in for four years, the first two Christmases were away. ….1st in Boot Camp in San Diego and the 2nd was in Guantanamo. …..However, we were very blessed and didn’t have to watch a movie. ….Guitmo was a “hot spot” at Christmas in 1960 and Bob Hope brought his Christmas Show to brighten up our Christmas quite a bit.

    Thank you for your service and MAKING IT MATTER, and for sharing your thoughts, insight and memories with us.

    Keep up the good work.

  15. Hi Mac,

    I’ve stumbled across this site on the back of a couple of pints on a reflective Sunday afternoon. Thank you for what you’ve written.

    I did 8 years in the Royal Navy – as a ‘skimmer’ rather than a ‘sun dodger’ – 6 months of which (November 1985 – May 1986) was spent on a requisitioned trawler (MV Arctic Freebooter, for anyone who’s interested) running out of Faslane on the Clyde. I was one of only four RN personnel onboard, the remainder being 17 career trawlermen civvies.

    The ship had two main roles – COMCLYDE submiss (we had loads of escape gear onboard) and Fleet Contingency Ship 2, whose job it was to ‘close mark’ the Malin Head AGI. Incidentally your readers may not realise it was only on station for around 6 months of the year.

    The first trip out of Faslane was straight out into a force 11. I appreciate that for submariners ‘happiness is 200 feet in a force 12′ but whilst I was on a relatively small ship, I watched a number of boats in the Atlantic rolling like absolute pigs while surfaced which made me count my blessings. This may bring back memories for some of your readers.

    As I’ve got older and I’m now increasingly defined by what I did, rather that what I do, I do find myself reflecting more and more about the worth of it and my contribution to it.

    My experience may be the same as many peoples’: we did some stuff, a a chunk about which we cannot speak (and it would in any event lose a great deal in translation, as well a boring the tits off most) but, we are nevertheless proud. Whether we should be or not is probably a matter of debate.

    In the UK post 9/11 and Iraq/Afghanistan we’ve gone through a period where members of the armed forces are enjoying significant public support. It’s not always been the case and it’s not always justified. Certainly it’s my view that not everyone who’s done time in uniform is a hero or even someone that should be looked up to. I’m sure that I’m not the only one to have worked with complete wankers. That said, the best people I have worked with are servicemen and I consider myself to have had my personality and my values forged in the Royal Navy.

    To return to your question, ‘did it matter?’ In my view, the answer is ‘probably’. But more to us than in the grand scheme of things.


    1. Dave, Thanks for the Note and your insights. I was the last Docking Officer on the USS Los Alamos in Holy Loch and still miss it a lot. We were invited to a Dining In with our RN counterparts in Faslane. What a wonderful memory. The Captain of the Base at the time was Captain MacPherson (no relation to yours truly) but I learned a lot in one evening. What you all did really did matter. You were closer to the front, more directly in the line of fire, and often had to do so with the disapproving glare of some of your countrymen. Thank you sincerely for you work and for the note. The site does have a search function so I would encourage you to look for some of the other stories tagged Holy Loch.

      Robert MacPherson, Chief Warrant Officer, US Navy Retired aka MisterMac

      1. Hi Mac,

        Thanks for the response and please accept my apologies for the tardiness in my reply – I’ve been hill walking in Wales, a country where the mobile phone (and the attendant requirement for network coverage) has seemingly not reached.

        Glad you had good memories of your experience with the RN. I didn’t work closely with any USN personnel but those I did run into (in Portsmouth, Bahrain and Hong Kong) appeared to be not that much different to me.

        I’ll have a look through your website and if any further memories are triggered then I’ll drop you a line.



  16. MisterMac, we know that we mattered, and that we made a difference in ways that the average Joe or Jane simply can’t comprehend. To liken it to today’s situation and issues, Blue Cross is running a TV ad in which their CEO states that “We’ll never know how many lives we’ve saved by wearing masks and social distancing” during the current COVID pandemic. However we all know that we were instrumental in saving ALL of the lives in this world. Merry Christmas Shipmate.

    Michael Frey ET1(SS) USN/USNR Retired

  17. “Einstein’s Monsters,” by the way, refers to nuclear weapons, but also to ourselves. We are Einstein’s monsters, not fully human, not for now.”
    ― Martin Amis, Einstein’s Monsters

  18. It was a good read. I remember the days in Guam and in Holy Lock aboard the USS Hunley AS-31 and even though not on a patrol. Watching those boats go in and out away from the ship, there was always a prayer they would come back safely.

    1. Thanks Gregory. I sailed out of Guam on two of my boats (one boomer one fast attack) I was there when the Old Pro was stationed there. But my last assignment was as the M and later A division officer on board Hunley in Virginia. We decommissioned her in 1994 and that was also the month I retired.
      I appreciate the note and thanks for your service

  19. Mac, I don’t spend much time on Facebook but found myself poring over every word of your reminiscences and current update. Well said. I too wonder, from time to time. I believe, as I look back, that those four years I spend on boomers (John Marshall 611 Blue, and the Jimmie K 645 Blue ’67-’71) cemented a way of life, an awareness of the ever present dangers to our democracy that we cannot allow to go unchallenged without, full- in-the-face, equal or greater strength and resolve. I don’t know that there would have been a better place to have learned both the seriousness of the threat or a greater example of the teamwork, intelligence, ingenuity and yes, sacrifice necessary to protect and defend those we love, the freedoms we cherish, and the values we pray are instilled in our children. For me, before I volunteered out of high school, we had weekly drills of hunkering under our desks after the Cuban Missile Crisis and wondering, what is the future of this way of life? Not much later, many of us found ourselves walking through the taunts and spittle of “Baby Killer” at Holy Loch which added to those thoughts of, “Is it worth it?”. Ultimately, the strength, wisdom and confidence serving with a team of like-minded individuals on the greatest deterrent force ever devised by man, engendered in me a better sense of what it takes to preserve, nurture and defend the future for all of us.

    1. Very well stated Mike. The work we did was more important to the world than most will ever know. Thank you for your thoughts and for your service to this country.

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