I joined the Navy in April of 1972 by raising my right hand for the very first time. The Navy used the Delayed Entry Program to pre-sign willing young volunteers and at the age of seventeen, I was anxious to leave home and see the world. I remember my girlfriend at the time crying a bit and shortly before I joined, President Nixon escalated the bombing of NVA troops and Hanoi. On the day I signed up, 100,000 people in various cities around the United States protested the increased bombing. Needless to say it was not a great time to be in uniform. The support for the military was further diminished by various scandals and secret bombing campaigns were being revealed by the press on a regular basis.
In December 1972, I was finishing up Machinist Mate A school in Great Lakes Illinois while President Nixon ordered the launch of the most intense air offense of the war: Operation Linebacker. The attacks, concentrated between Hanoi and Haiphong, drop roughly 20,000 tons of bombs over densely populated regions. The outcry both here and abroad was fierce but it achieved the goal of bringing the North closer to desiring an end to the war.
In January of 1973, the Selective Service announced the end to the draft and instituted an all-volunteer military. I was just beginning my submarine training at New London when the announcement was made. Since I had volunteered before I was eligible for the draft, it did not mean much to me personally. But I did notice that many who were serving around me had chosen a Navy path to avoid the Army. Some were upset that they had joined now that the draft was gone.
The rest of 1973 was spent shuttling around the country to various schools. From New London, I was sent to Charleston to learn advanced skills related to the boat I would eventually join in Guam. The USS George Washington had already left Charleston after a shipyard period so I would not see her until the fall of 1973 in Guam. The schools and a short stint TAD at the Submarine Base in Pearl seemed like an endless wait. I officially reported on board on August 28, 1973 to the Blue crew which was preparing to leave Hawaii. Then came the day I took my first crew flight from Hawaii to Guam.
Guam is a hot and humid place no matter what time of year you show up. The trip from Anderson Air Force Base was in a vintage non-air conditioned military bus. I remember pulling up to the USS Proteus and how tired we all were from the long flight and heat on the ground. We went on board the tender and were assigned to submarine crew quarters. The bunks were stacked on top of each other and the smell was horrible. The George Washington was not back from patrol yet (the Gold Crew had her) so we waited for a few days doing not much of anything.
I watched the boat as it came into the harbor. It seemed kind of small at first but by the time it was tied alongside you could see the top and sides. Men were scurrying with the lines and some hoses of one kind or another and there were thick black cable being connected between the boat and the Proteus. The Proteus was a leftover from World War 2 and the crew on board were stationed there all year round. We just came for visits twice a year and many of us were glad to leave her when the time came.
Once the boat was tied up, the turnover process began. As a young Fireman, I was not aware at the time of all the things that would need to be completed in order to successfully transition between Gold and Blue. I was just very anxious to get off the tender and into the boat. The very first time I went down the forward hatch I noticed a few things. The first is the smell. A submarine smell is something you never forget. It is a mixture of diesel, mono-ethylamine, cigarettes, cooking residue, body odors and many other things. It gets into your nose first then into your clothes. It never quite leaves you. If I close my eyes, I can still imagine what it smells like.
The good thing about being a new kid is that you don’t have much time to think. The work comes fast and furious and you do not want the Chief to catch you skylarking. There is just too much to do. The crew that is leaving is packing up their stuff as quickly as possible for the long ride home. Within a few hours, the on-loading process for the coming patrol begins. Boxes of food both frozen and canned are waiting to be loaded and the only way they get into the boat is through the long narrow hatches with men stationed on deck and all the way to the lowest levels of the boat. You load until everything is in the boat. Your arms are aching in a way that you never thought possible. Same with your back and legs.
As an Auxiliaryman, our job was to also make sure we had enough hydraulic oil and essential other fluids. These evolutions often happened at night sine they tied up the hatches. There was very little sleep. Broken equipment needed to be repaired, flex hoses needed to be changed out and a hundred little tasks that needed completed were rushed in order to make the deployment schedule. Topside, the deck gang went between chipping and p[painting and helping with weapons moves. The Russians were waiting for us just outside Apra Harbor and even though we were technically at peace, we were also technically at war. You made no assumptions.
Guam is in a tropical environment and when the rains come, they leave you soaked to the bone. No matter what is going on, the rains will not stop the progress. You simply went down into the boat soaking wet and tried your best to dry off before your next trip topside. After a while, you just gave up trying. And everybody got a cold within a week. The Doc would hand out Actifed like it was candy to keep people from getting too sick.
The first dive
At the end of the refit, things started to settle into a routine. The tanks were topped off, stores were loaded, the equipment that had been placed topside for repairs was all gone and the boat was ready for that first dive. I was in the control room standing messenger under instruction. That is about as low a position as you can find on a submarine. It means that you are an air consuming passenger without a real purpose in life. You really just did your best to stay out of everybody’s way as the boat approached the dive point. Strange new sights and sounds and a symphony of orders and replies fill the packed little space. Reports from all over the boat come rapidly in indicating that all spaces are prepared. The Officer of the Deck is the last man down and reports to the Conn. The board goes straight and the order is given. Diving officer, submerge the ship.
The main vents are cycled open, you hear the rushing of the water and for just a moment, you pray to yourself. The boat takes a down angle, reports come in indicating a normal dive and then she settles out. The beginning of a very long ride begins. Mine took quite a few years to finish… It would end on the USS Ohio in another very rainy place called Kitsap County Washington.
You join a very selective community on that day.
For the rest of your life you will hear people ask what it was like and say things like, “Oh, I could never do that.” You just kind of smile and say to yourself that once upon a time, you thought so too. I kind of hope I make it another five years before I take my final dive. Old submariners will understand why.