Veteran’s Day 2019 – Neptune’s Cadillac Redux

Veteran’s Day is about remembering the men and women who sacrificed so much for the country.

If you asked most of us, and we were honest. We would simply say that we did our jobs

This article came from the Honolulu Advertiser and was written about the USS San Francisco shortly after we made the transition from the east coast to Hawaii.

The boat was a part of my life and the life of so many others. But the writer told the story in a way that reflects the men who sailed her.

At the end of the article, there is a post-script about some of the people who are listed in the article.

If I haven’t mentioned it, I hope you have a great Veteran’s Day. DO something kind to each other.

 

Far from land, in a world without sunlight, men slice through the depths in sleek ships. They make their own air, distill their own water, and can cruise as far as their chow and composure allow.

Welcome aboard

Neptune’s Cadillac

By Jim Borg

Advertiser Military Writer

Editor’s note: The Navy has reviewed this report for classified data.

Coutts kept his cool until they slit his teddy bear’s throat.

There it was, stuffing showing and everything, so it’s hard to blame the guy for allowing some measure of annoyance to cross his normal placid features. And if a four-letter word or two passed his lips, why it’s understandable.

In the submarine service, they call it “pinging,” similar to when sonar locks onto the enemy. Among undersea sailors, pinging means you finally got a guy where it hurts.

Blowing sanitary

By in large, a submariner is as gracious as the next guy. But it takes a special breed to handle the artificial environment.

For that and other reasons, those who earn their dolphins, comparable to an aviator’s wings, consider themselves the Navy’s elite. And as with any competitive class, they are continually testing themselves and one another. By prank and prod, they search for signs of weakness.

Slander washes of a typical submariner like water of a walrus, but occasionally a guy gets peeved and pulls down more pings.

The ones who really come unglued are scrubbed of course, consigned to civilian life or “dirtball” duty aboard destroyers or other surface ships. But it’s par for a little squirreliness or cabin fever to break out after weeks under the waves.

One crewman recalled the time he and a colleague donned dark glasses in the manner of The Blues Brothers, popularized by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi.

The four launch tubes in the torpedo room were empty as the two sat at the firing panel enjoying their impersonation, which ruled out any chance of sinking a carrier or causing other such embarrassments, which explains the captain’s lax reaction as he walked around the corner.

“What are you two doing”?

“We’re on a mission from God.”

“Well, I’m glad you are on some kind of mission.” Then he went on his way.

Sailors new to subs usually are gullible enough to accept the infamous “mail buoy” assignment. It’s obvious when you think about it that letters and cookies from Ma would not be dropped off at buoys on the open ocean, but eager crewman have swallowed that one for years.

“We’ve actually had youngsters dressed in foul weather gear and hats ready to go up the ladder.” Chuckled one old-timer, age 21 or 22.

By far the cruelest stroke is to remove the warning sign on the head when the ship is “blowing sanitary,” leaving the next customer eligible for the Golden Flapper Award. As the flush handle descends, compressed air intended to blast the bilge brew overboard instead explodes skyward bathing the victim in brown effluvium. But that hasn’t happened in a while.

A ransom note

Coutts is Doug Coutts, a young sonar technician from just outside Anaheim, Calif.

The bear was a present from a girlfriend. At first he kept it on his bunk.

After the terrorist attack, he locked it up in his sea-locker in the barracks at Pearl Harbor. It was easy enough to sew up the bear’s neck and Coutts allowed as how he “wouldn’t have minded, except that it was a present from this girl.”

Another crewman said, “He let it show that it bothered him and that’s when his bear was kidnapped.” Ping, ping.

When his locker was rifled, bear abducted and ransom note received, Coutts broke cover and reported it to the chief of the boat, who put out the word that the bear was to be released unharmed. It was, and the matter dropped, except that weeks afterwards the men were still talking about it, like it was the funniest thing that’s happened for a long time.

Nuclear speedsters

The world of modern submarines is one of heavy responsibility and buoyant humor. Life revolves around high technology and relentless repetition, meager exercise and interrupted sleep, big meals and little privacy.

Sub duty demands the highest standards of the Navy. The training is great, the pay good and it’s an adventure, just like the recruiting ads say.

But unlike crossing the prairies in a Conestoga or hiking Haleakala, it’s not an adventure in the health tradition of the great outdoors.

As adventures go, sub duty is more like setting a space orbit endurance record. Or breaking out of a safe. Houdini-style. It takes technical skill and an unassailable calm.

That’s a layman’s view after three days at sea aboard the USS San Francisco, one of six Los Angeles-class submarines based at Pearl Harbor.

The Los Angeles-class submarine is the Cadillac of the so called “hunter-killer” fleet. Except for the new Trident, it’s the biggest U.S. sub afloat, making World War II vintage and even modern diesels look like sardine cans.

Commissioned last year, the San Francisco is 360 feet long, 33 feet wide, displaces 6,000 tons, makes air, distills water and can patrol as long as the food and fissionable fuel hold out. The price tag was $600 million.

Equipped with Mk 48 torpedoes and Harpoon guided missiles, it can sink other submarines or ships at long ranges while submerged. And when armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles in the mid-1980’s, the San Francisco and it’s classmates will be able to launch nuclear warheads at distant cities and defense centers, taking on a strategic role thus far reserved for their cousins, the Poseidon ballistic missile submarines.

The submarine service is also the Silent Service, meaning its members guard their lore like magic tricks, so it was not without conditions that the Navy endorsed my cruise. Under the ground rules the nuclear reactor was off limits and I was forsworn to secrecy regarding such niceties as torpedo ranges and the speed and depth of the ship.

Officially, the Navy admits only that its best attack submarines can sail faster than 20 knots (23 mph) and dive deeper than 400 feet. But it was not on the basis of 20 knots/400 feet that the captain issued me an “honorary nuclear speedster” certificate – signed by King Neptune – for having descended “deep into my subaqueous kingdom in the San Francisco (SSN-711) at such great speed and in such maneuvers heretofore not witnessed…”

Angles and dangles

Neptune’s Cadillac cruised out and down, doing maneuvers and drills in an assigned area about 60 miles south of Kauai. For the crew, this was in preparation for an upcoming deployment to waters farther west.

As with all subs, the USS San Francisco must be “trimmed”, on each voyage with ballast tanks adjusted to balance the new stores and bodies aboard. That accomplished, we went through what resembled a car chase through the streets of Namesake City, a roller coaster ride known as “angles and dangles” – diving at ten degrees, the sailing up at 10, diving at 15, then up at 15, down 30, up 30, then banking hard right, the hard left, and so on until those things not tied down were identified by their characteristic crash.

“I just heard a forward door bang.” The skipper, Capt. Al Marshall announced over the intercom. “Watch those things. They can cut a finger off.”

Time in a bottle

At a steady speed, course and depth, there is no apparent motion, no sound but the air condition, no sunshine.

After weeks at sea, crewmen awaken unsure whether 4:29 means morning or afternoon. They don’t care. Chow call is at 5 is breakfast or dinner. They’ll know then.

In the control room, where the periscope is, sailors know its night time when the officer of the deck wears red rimless glasses. The red is to preserve night vision in case an emergency or scheduled satellite message requires the sub to surface.

The men soon adjust to roles in a non-stop three act play. A day no longer has 24 hours, but 18 – six hours on watch, 12 hours off.

Except for the captain and executive officer, who are always on, each of the crew bends to this routine, with time in between devoted to drills and other duty. For junior officers and sailors, that means learning about the boats countless electronic and hydraulic systems. Shuteye or the mess deck menu of music, cards or a library book are sandwiched in between.

Time in this opaque bottle is measured not in lengthening shadows but in the cycle of familiar settings… silver napkin rings on the wardroom table … an after-dinner backgammon match … popcorn and cola and a Goldie Hawn movie … midnight Thursday pizza rations … reading Popular Mechanix, Omni and Car and Driver on a stainless steel seat.

The elusive Boing fish

Jules Verne fans may be disappointed to learn Navy submarines have no big window through which to watch marlin and squid.

On or near the surface, closed circuit televisions around the ship show the view out the periscope but the sub’s true “portholes” are the sonar screens. Sonar equipment picks up noises from vessels and marine life and translates them into green waterfalls, waves and teardrops on TV-like consoles.

By watching the displays and listening to their sources, sonar technicians can identify just about everything out there.

An exception is the Boing fish, an elusive creature scientists believe to be a whale. It leaves a very noticeable smudge on the screen and I heard its telltale “boing” myself after borrowing some headphones.

Sonar men swear it sounds just like an electronic transmission.

According to the Navy handbook, Boing sounds have been observed mainly in the late fall and early winter off San Diego and in the Hawaiian area. They are especially common (some of article missing).

Subculture

As a rule, the dolphin clan is a close fraternity of intelligent and highly motivated men who are given big jobs very early. (No women sail on submarines yet.)

All officers were screened personally by Adm. Hyman Rickover. Except for the supply officer, an ensign whose job is solely that, they learn every wire and widget on the ship – how to operate the reactor, navigate, drive, plot sonar contacts and fire weapons.

As junior-grade lieutenants, age 24 or 25, they begin to stand watches as officer of the deck, making them responsible for the operation and safety of the entire ship and crew of 127.

Skippers of nuclear submarines, usually Navy commanders are among the highest paid officers in the military. Last year Marshall made $61,000, which includes sea pay, nuke pay and skipper’s pay.

Add to that free medical benefits for himself and his family back in Virginia, and cheap meals when he’s at sea. (My mess bill for three days came to $11.10.)

A 1962 Annapolis graduate, Marshall is a good example of how a submarine officer climbs the career ladder.

After post-graduate training, he served as a reactor jockey aboard a number of submarines, eventually making ship’s engineer, the executive officer, then in 1977, skipper of the USS Shark.

The first 10 years you’re learning, the next 10 years your teaching says Marshall, at 42 a fatherly figure for a crew with an average age of 21.

Like all sea duty, the submarine service puts a strain on family life and as sailors look back on the account book of a career, missed christenings and birthdays make heavy debts.

“I missed it when my daughter was born,” says one chief petty officer. “I missed Christmas. I missed my anniversary. When my son became a Webelos, I wasn’t there.”

A six-year sonar tech explains why he was leaving the Navy for a civilian job: “if I stay in, I got two choices. I could go to shore duty and lose $4,000 a year, or go to sea and not see my wife.”

“It’s murder on a marriage,” says another sailor.

“Loaded for bear”

Undersea life brings other pressures.

A sailor crouches with a book in the tiny companionway corner just outside the officer’s wardroom, oblivious to passers-by.

During battle stations, 20 people cram into the control room, measuring six steps by eight. Before dinner, the mess deck is like high noon at Ala Moana Center.

The sub at times seems to have the space and pace of an anthill. By day three, that’s what began to get to me.

The head and shower offer temporary privacy, but the closest thing to personal turf is your curtained bunk, part of a triple tier and measuring 18 inches high, 24 inches wide.

Thanks to a design flub, Neptune’s Caddie has fewer bunks then bodies. On our cruise, the ship had only a partial load of weapons, so some sailors shacked up next to long, green MK 48s – not homey, but a rack they could call their own.

But on a long patrol, says the captain, “we forget about those amenities and go loaded for bear.” With the torpedo racks full, the ship often institutes what is known as “hot-bunking” – two beds for three men on different watches, a kind of time sharing, submarine style.

What’s more distressing, there’s no opportunity for any real heart thumping exercise – for blowing psychic sanitary (except by slitting the throats of teddy bears etc.) After 10-week deployments you’d think the men would all be hearing Boing fish sans sonar.

“We had one guy from the inner city of Chicago,” recalls Lt. Jon Poland. “He’s the only guy I’ve ever seen pull a knife on someone on board a submarine. Whoa.” The sailor was scrubbed and later busted for drugs.

Kurt Viestenz, chief of the boat, the sub’s top chief petty officer, puts it this way: “Sometimes a guy will close himself up, become antisocial. He doesn’t want to communicate. Somebody usually’ll see it and break it up. On long operations you have a lot of time to think – about your family, your work – and sometimes you get into it too much. The boat inside becomes smaller. Where men can take out some of their tension is the mess decks. The only other way is to find yourself a corner and a book.

In time of war, these are the men and machines – the Marshalls and McNamaras and Couttses aboard hunter-killer submarines – who may decide a naval campaign.

In time of peace, the enemy is Houdini’s safe. The campaign against a counterpoint of pings, is keeping calm.

Post script Veteran’s Day 2019

Captain Marshall Retired and lives in South Carolina. Kurt Viestenz stays in touch with the San Francisco Association and checks in every once in a while on Facebook. I am proud to call them and many others who sailed on the boat friends.

Doug Coutts left us on February 9th 2016. He had many struggles in life after the San Francisco and finally fell to forces that beat his body down but not his spirit. So many people had memories of him and his unceasing love for his fellow mankind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is how I choose to remember my friend.

In 1982, our shipmate Doug was asked to read the scripture at the funeral service of another shipmate (Jim Baumann) who had been killed in a tragic car accident. The ship received an album a month later from the Chaplain who had overseen the service. I don’t visit the files very often because of how sad the event was for so many people. But I was reminded today about the nature of Doug’s loving and caring character when I read the words the Chaplain spoke about his shipmate. Those very same words are as true of Doug as any ever written.

If I could help somebody

As I walk this road, then

My living is not in vain

If I could touch somebody

As I walk this road, then

My living is not in vain.

“The touching of other’s lives and giving a helpful hand

Seems to characterize the nature of your son’s relationship

With his fellow shipmates – then his life was not in vain.”

Chaplain Edward W. Cagle, US Navy

This picture was on his Facebook page the day he died. I have to be honest and admit it kind of haunts me sometimes. I did not participate in Doug’s tormenting. But I didn’t do much to stop it either. I asked him for forgiveness before he died. Doug was filled with grace.

Thinking of you this Veteran’s Day my old friend. Rest in Peace Shipmate, we will meet again.

Mister Mac

 

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