Warning: Some salty language mixed with the metaphors and memories… you have been warned
One of my favorite submarine memorials has a personal connection. I qualified in 1974 on board the USS George Washington somewhere in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean. My joy at the time was that the grueling journey was over and I could finally get some rest. I finished qualifying on one run by not sleeping very much and working as hard as I could to get the annoying title of “Non-Qual Puke” removed from my title. I was still pretty young and really didn’t have much sense of the brotherhood I was entering. I was just really glad that it was over.
It wasn’t until I went to my follow on boats that the real meaning started to sink in.
Once you have earned the fish, as long as you don’t suddenly develop an overblown sense of entitlement, you are accepted by those who wear them.
But the boat, which we lovingly called the George-Fish, never left my mind. I laugh when I hear a fellow bubblehead call her that since I know the inside joke. There is a long held perception (however factually incorrect) that submarines of importance were always named after fish. At least in the American Navy. The practice of naming boomers after men was just one more insult to people who didn’t really know our submarine history. “The used to be manned by men and named after fish, now they are manned by fish and named for men.”
Ha ha… funny. So some of us who realized that a submarine that could actually dive deeper and stay under longer than many of her predecessors decided that it would be funny to tweak those “traditionalists” and simply rename it “George-Fish”.
I loved and hated the boat. As an Auxiliaryman, I had some of the worst jobs imaginable. The sights and smells come back to me from time to time. The struggle to maintain old equipment under the worst circumstances certainly left its mark. We had a young crew with little experience so we learned every single day. Once on patrol. there were no other resources to call on. You fixed it or you stopped patrol. And stopping patrol was rarely an option. By the end of each run, you were slightly crazy (we called it Channel fever) and out of cigarettes and definitely out of patience.
Then the boat comes to the surface and the bridge hatch is popped open. The foul smell of fresh air slowly fills the boat. You remember that the hull is round as the boat rocks back and forth in the waves as you enter port for the homecoming trip. If you are lucky, you get to go topside to handle lines. If you are very lucky, its to raining. But frankly, rain or shine, it didn’t matter. You were close to coming home. the bad shit that you encountered along the way is packed away. Sometimes it won’t come back for forty years. Sometimes it comes back more often.
So there on a hill next to the Nautilus and Submarine Museum in Groton Connecticut sits a hunk of steel. It has the number 598 and some missiles painted on the side of what is known to those who rode boats as a Sail. There is a 41 for freedom display right next to it, and every time I wrote about my experiences on the GW, I use a picture I took of her.
Then, just like clockwork, I will get emails, posts, texts and all manner of communications on social media wanting to correct me and set the record straight. “Hey Mac, you know that’s not the GW sail, right?… its really the Lincoln and they just call it the GW.” The great thing about submariners is that every one of them is right. All the time. Even when the information is conflicting.
During the qualification process, there is something called an Oolie. It is a made up word meaning obscure fact about the submarine that the non-qual will have to spend an inordinate amount of wasted time finding an answer for. My least favorite was “Where is TD-598 and what does it do?” TD stands for Trim and Drain system and valve number 598 was a gage stop valve for a TD gauge in lower level missile compartment. The main purpose for oolies was to prove to the Non-qual how significant even the most insignificant part of submarine is. The other purpose was just to show how much of an ass you could be.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the ultimate oolie of all sits on a hill in Groton Connecticut cleverly disguised as a former sail form the USS George Washington SSBN 598. She looks just like the one I last saw when I was at her decommissioning in Bremerton in the 1980’s. Frankly, I went to see her one last time because I wanted to bury old ghosts.
But here comes the oolie. Is it really the GW sail?
Anyone who knows her story knows about the very unfortunate accident she had with the Japanese trawler. She took a bad hit that day and the front part of her sail was damaged.
On 9 April 1981, George Washington was at periscope depth and was broadsided by the 2,350 long tons (2,390 t) Japanese commercial cargo ship Nissho Maru in the East China Sea about 110 nmi (130 mi; 200 km) south-southwest of Sasebo, Japan. George Washington immediately surfaced and searched for the other vessel. Owing to the heavy fog conditions at the time, they did see the Nissho Maru heading off into the fog, but it appeared undamaged. It headed into port for repairs; the crew was later flown back to Pearl Harbor from Guam. Unbeknownst to the crew of the George Washington, Nissho Maru sank in about 15 minutes. Two Japanese crewmen were lost; 13 were rescued by Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers JDS Akigumo (DD-120) and Aogumo (ja). The submarine suffered minor damage to her sail.
After the collision with the Nissho Maru, the damaged sail was repaired with parts from the sail from the USS Abraham Lincoln which was waiting for disposal at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.
And there it is… The Abraham Lincoln sail donated parts so that the GW could go on to continue serving the country.
Notice what it doesn’t say?
It doesn’t say that the whole sail was replaced. Nope. Not a shred of evidence that the entire sail was replaced. The best description I can find from a sailor who was present at the time is that the part that was replaced was just above the whistle door and about halfway back on the top. That would mean that it actually is the original sail with some spare parts from the Lincoln.
By the way, I have been writing the blog for many years now. I know for a fact that the minute this is posted, someone will fire off a nasty gram informing me of my ignorance and lack of understanding. After all these years, I am okay with that. You have a different point of view. I’m okay with that too.
The sail is a representative monument to all of those who sailed in the 41 for Freedom boats. I actually think its pretty cool that its more than just the GW. The inside story for me is that the Lincoln was a perfect choice to add parts. It is actually a payback for all the times we got extended on patrol because the Lincoln could not get underway. (Sorry Lincoln guys, I love you but in 1974-1975 we were relieved late three out of four times and some things you never forget).
Before I close, two more oolies: First, how many boats were classified as an SSBN and an SSN? Second, how many Diesel Boats were there (after the first Diesel Boat was built)?
In the end, you will see whatever you chose to see when you look at her.
I see a brotherhood of men who served a nation. I see years of sacrifice and service to a great nation. I see the faces of a lot of young men who got older while serving on those boats.
If I have offended anyone with this post, well, that’s on you.
I am still a Submariner. I just can’t help myself.