Watch where you are going
The world is filled with things in motion. Ever since the wheel was invented, one of the most cherished pieces of advice has had to have been to watch where you are going. We heard it as kids. It’s easy to become distracted along the way but those distractions can be deadly. I can hear my Mom yelling at me as I went speeding down Duncan Station Road on my Spider Bike, nearly oblivious to the approaching station wagon filled with kids on their way to the ball field.
Submarines are no exceptions. Because of the nature of the craft, collisions have been a fact of life since the very early days. Early boats had bells to warn mariners that a submarine was present. Those boats spent a significant amount of time on the surface and in the rough waters of many coasts, the low profile of the boat coupled with slower speeds made them easy targets for lumbering merchant ships. A number of fatal accidents happened in the beginning of the last century involving collisions.
Modern Submarines are not immune
The improvements in submarines since the Second World War have added to the safety and operability of modern boats. The addition of improved propulsion plants and air regeneration systems have allowed boats to operate with much higher levels of efficiency and durability. The electronic systems have also improved over time which should give the submarines an edge when it comes to navigation and identification of large vessels. But no systems are completely immune to failure. The human element is still a strong influence on how well the boats perform.
As I wrote this, I was aware that there have been a number of other incidents that have affected the US Submarine forces and others around the world. It is not my intent to create a complete list. I saw a connection between the three stories I chose to highlight and can speak with some experience about two of them having operated on the boats and classes involved. So please be kind as you add your comments about other boats that had events that you are familiar with. All were remarkable and the men who survived are worthy of our praise and thanks.
This first story comes from an infamous collision that occurred in April 1981.
Collision With Nissho Maru
On 9 April 1981, the USS George Washington (SSBN 598) surfaced underneath 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. Nissho Maru sank in about 15 minutes. Two Japanese crewmen were lost; 13 were rescued. The submarine suffered minor damage to her sail.
The accident strained U.S.-Japanese relations a month before a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki and President of the United States Ronald Reagan. Japan criticized the U.S. for taking more than 24 hours to notify Japanese authorities, and demanded to know what the boat was doing surfacing only about 20 nmi (23 mi; 37 km) outside Japan’s territorial waters. Neither the submarine nor an American Lockheed P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft circling overhead made any attempt to rescue the Japanese crew.
The U.S. Navy initially stated that George Washington executed a crash dive during the collision, and then immediately surfaced, but could not see the Japanese ship due to fog and rain. A preliminary report released a few days later stated the submarine and aircraft crews both had detected Nissho Maru nearby, but neither the submarine nor the aircraft realized Nissho Maru was in distress.
On 11 April, President Reagan and other U.S. officials formally expressed regret over the accident, made offers of compensation, and reassured the Japanese there was no cause for worry about radioactive contamination. As is its standard policy, the U.S. Government refused to reveal what the submarine was doing close to Japan, or whether she was armed with nuclear missiles. (The standard response all modern American submariners are taught to neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons aboard.) The Navy accepted responsibility for the incident, and relieved and reprimanded the George Washington’s commanding officer and officer of the deck.
On 31 August, the U.S. Navy released its final report, concluding the accident resulted from a set of coincidences, compounded by errors on the part of some members of the submarine crew.
That is probably what happened, Navy submarines told us, in the East China Sea tragedy April 10. The U.S.S. George Washington, a Polaris missile sub, was almost certainly surfacing to pick up new orders. That maneuver would be unnecessary with ELF.
I was on board the George Washington a few years before the collision occurred and participated in a number of surfaces and dives as a control room party member. There were a few times that the systems on board did not give us a complete picture of the sea lanes we were operating in. When the periscope first breaks the surface and the OOD is spinning around, you were really depending on his good eye to avoid any unexpected meetings. It was kind of scary in rough seas.
The second incident I have included happened nearly twenty years later on February 10, 2001. From the press reports at the time:
— A U.S. Navy submarine collided off Hawaii today with a Japanese boat filled with high school students learning commercial fishing, sinking the boat and leaving up to nine people missing, military officials said.
The USS Greeneville, a 362-foot attack submarine, hit the 191-foot Ehime Maru as the sub surfaced at about 1:45 p.m. Hawaiian Standard Time (6:45 p.m. EST) while on a routine training mission about 10 miles south of Honolulu. The Japanese ship sank almost immediately, officials said.
The Navy said that it appeared the Greeneville’s stern hit the Ehime Maru.
Rescue boats and helicopters plucked 25 people — one with a broken collarbone — from the sea. The Japanese boat was reported to have had 34 people on board, and searches continued for the other nine. Empty life rafts were spotted in the water.
Standard operating procedure for U.S. submarines before surfacing is first to use sonar to check if any ships are moving on the surface, then to survey the area with a periscope, said Norman Polmar, a naval analyst based in Alexandria. He said submariners are taught not to use radar because the emissions reveal their location.
The Greenville was a much improved class of submarine compared to a Boomer built in 1959. The electronics were vastly superior and the tactics were influenced by knowledge and experience gained during the many years of the Cold War. Yet somehow, the human element still did not prevent the collision and resulting reexamination of how submarines routinely do business.
In a recent letter from the Captain of the Greenville
“In his letter, Waddle noted that he was born in Japan at Misawa Air Force Base and is proud of that fact. At 27, he climbed Mount Fuji to “marvel at the splendor of the country where I was born.”
“The day nine Japanese mariners on the Ehime Maru died, part of me died with them,” he said. “I felt I had betrayed those that died and their families.”
Twenty years ago this Tuesday, the USS Greeneville was impressing 16 civilian guests south of Oahu with some of the capabilities of a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine.
On the surface, there was open-air time with the Greeneville’s gregarious, cigar-smoking captain, as the vessel powered through the waves.
Underwater there were steep ascents and descents — “angles and dangles” in Navy jargon, at one point reaching a classified depth below 800 feet — as well as high-speed turns.
And finally, there was the demonstration of an emergency main ballast tank blow, an action that forces 4,500 pounds per square inch of air into ballast tanks, causing the 6,900-ton submarine to breach the surface like a humpback whale.
Then came the collision. The Ehime Maru sank within 5 to 10 minutes.
In a book he wrote after the incident titled “The Right Thing,” Waddle recalled watching helplessly and in horror through the periscope as the stern of the Ehime Maru listed, the bow came out of the water, the ship stood vertical for a moment and then it disappeared beneath the waves.”
A recent incident on a Japanese submarine echoes the dangers that come from submarining.
Twenty years later, even the most modern submarines can find themselves in trouble.
Japan submarine collides with commercial ship off Shikoku, 3 injured
KYODO NEWS KYODO NEWS – Feb 9, 2021 – 02:32 | All, Japan
“A Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force submarine collided Monday with a commercial vessel in the Pacific Ocean off the western main island of Shikoku, with three crew members on the submarine slightly injured but no major damage reported, government officials said.
The 84-meter-long Souryu scraped the hull of the vessel as it was surfacing, the Defense Ministry said, adding that the submarine’s antenna mast and other upper parts were slightly damaged but it was able to continue sailing.
Top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato said at a press conference that a ship believed to be the one involved in the collision, when contacted by the Japan Coast Guard, reported that no impact was felt and it does not appear to have sustained any damage.
The ship may have been the Ocean Artemis, a Hong Kong-flagged bulk carrier, according to people with knowledge of the incident.
The collision occurred at around 10:55 a.m. off Cape Ashizuri in Kochi Prefecture. Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said the submarine, which was engaged in routine training, saw the commercial vessel through its periscope as it rose but was unable to avoid it in time.
As the submarine’s communications equipment was damaged in the accident, reporting of the incident was delayed. The crew was eventually able to do so by mobile phone at around 2:20 p.m.”
From the beginning, the dangers of operating a stealthy submarine have been apparent.
The miracle is that there have been as few disasters as there have been.
It is a testament to the thousands of dedicated submariners over the past 121 years that it hasn’t been worse.