Who’s sail it is anyway?

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.

Mister Mac



26 thoughts on “Who’s sail it is anyway?

    1. Great story and thanks for clearing up the multiple tales I have heard about the 598 Sail! I did six patrols on her between 1967 to 1970 (Blue Crew) then did two more on 645 (Blue) 1970 to 1971.

  1. 1 boat had the keel laid as an SSN (Scorpion) but was converted to SSBN (Washington) during construction. It was only commissioned as an SSBN. 2 boats (Polk and Kamehameha) started as SSBNs and were later converted to SSNs. I served on the Polk while it was a Boomer from 1969 – 1973. 4 boats started as SSBNs and were later converted to SSGNs (Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Georgia).

  2. From SS-24 in 1909 thru AGSS-555 in 1962, the United States Navy commissioned 430 diesel submarines. The Navy also built some that it sold directly to other countries and didn’t commission.

    Although all the nukes also have a diesel engine, so if you count them, too, the number goes up by another 209. I think.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I was on the blue crew when the boat hit the Nissho Maru. We were called to Guam early to relieve the gold crew and perform repairs. I never did know the entire story about repairing the sail. I only knew repairs were performed. Guess I was spending too much time in the engine room!

    1. I was TAD to the George Washington from the Sargo..I was onboard when the collision happened. I remember the CO and OOD and Sonar Supervisor magically disappeared and we completed the patrol after repairs with the Commodore as the CO. I remember the sail was covered in tarps and eventually we headed back out to complete the patrol. Fun fun …

  4. Glad to hear you hold no ill will towards one of my old homes – SSBN 642. I understand that while the Kamehameha was stationed in the Pacific, there were many patrols that were extended because she could not meet her underway times. In fact, I got punched in New London by a guy that had been extended twice because of the Kam when he saw the command rocker on my uniform!!

    1. Thanks Al. You are correct. Because of the strategic arms limitation treaties, many of the early boats were converted late in their lives. More about that in the year to come.

    2. In addition to the Jimmy K. and Kamehameha, there were 7 other boomers that actually made patrols as fast attacks: George Washington, Patrick Henry, Robert E. Lee, Ethan Allen, Sam Houston, Thomas A. Edison, John Marshall.

  5. Great article. I would like to ramble a bit about ‘donor’ parts. All boats get parts from other ships in order to expedite repairs, it does not change the identity of the ship itself, it retains the same hull number and name.

    Let me put this another way that we may understand more completely. A person, “Jane Doe” needs a heart transplant. She receives a new heart from a donor that was “John Doe”. As “Jane Doe” recovers and goes on with her life, she retains her identity and never referred to as “John Doe” even though she lives on with his heart. Later, when she is laid to rest, she will be forever remembered as “Jane Doe”.

    Now, let’s bring this back on course to submarines. The tragic event that the SAN FRANCISCO, the 711 fish, experienced resulted in the HONOLULU donating most of her forward compartment to the SAN FRAN. SAN FRAN went on to sail as the SAN FRAN, not the HONOLULU. Sailors lovingly would morph the two names into the SAN-OLULU or something of the sort, but she was never officially known as any other name than SAN FRANCISCO.

    So, there you have it, the sail is the GW.

  6. OK – I am not so small that I can’t admit when I’m wrong. OK – not so much “wrong” as “incomplete”. There were actually 9 SSBNs that also actively served as SSNs. (Posted the list in another reply) Can I get a sig on that now?

  7. I was Blue Crew in April 81. We took the boat over from the Gold. The part of the sail that was replaced was right on the top, front area , right around the ships horn. The area was 3 to 4 foot wide by 6 foot high. You could see where it had been cut and welded and the paint was fresh. They did a nice job butting the new piece in. Viable from inside the sail

    1. Thanks Tim. I have had quiet conversations with so many of the crew members that reached out to me about the sail. I just think its important to recognize what really sits on that hill side.

      1. Fresh out of Sub School, I was assigned to GW Gold and on my first time at sea was aboard for the collision. A couple minor differences between what was described here and what I recall, (don’t think we surfaced to look for the Nisho Mary}, but all in all accurate.

      2. Thanks for your feedback. I try to be as accurate as possible but recognize that there is nothing like the story told by someone who was there

  8. On the Blue crew for my first patrol in 1975. COB was FTGCS Norm Heller. Holmberg was the CO. Transferred to the ABRAHAM LINCOLN 2 weeks after first patrol to fill FTG gap.

  9. Great article. I qualified on the “George-Fish” in 1977. A-Ganger. Aux of the Watch, Air Regen watch. Got real good at rebuilding the scrubber blowers (Studebaker derived planetary ball drive blower) and the CO2 (Westinghouse air brake) compressor. We also affectionately nicknamed her the E-B Edsel, the “First and the Worst”, but boy do I have cool memories. Happy to report that I never blew sanitaries on anyone (or myself either). Had my Dolphins pinned on transiting through the Panama Canal on our way to the Cape for DASO. Who remembers the Green House and Coco Beach? Operated out of Pearl / Guam after overhaul at Mare Island — holy crap, I’m having flashbacks to the Horse and Cow! Skivvy checks anyone?

  10. Mac , Been following your posts a long time. I’m a tender sailor 72-75 76-78 Rota. who loved working on submarines. Worked In pipe shop and flex hose shop. Crawled all over the sub to inspect all hoses. Rode 658 on sea trials. Test depth and Angles and dangles. Took the watch in the sail on surface. It was the biggest feeling moment of my 30 year career. A blast.

  11. Great read. I was on the GW gold at the time we hit the ship. As for the sail if you look just below the ships whistle there is a weld line follow that weld all the way around that is what was replace. It took sometime because we had to ride out a storm (blew the “T” shed away). Anyway got done with the repair and back to sea for the ORSE. Then back in and home to Pear. Thats when I left for the Omaha.
    Hope this clears things up.

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