41 For Freedom – SSBN Memories 41 Years Later 3

Its funny how an old picture can bring back so many memories. Whether a boomer sailor sailed out of Scotland, Guam, Rota or Charleston many of the events they experienced were similar. I don’t know how many hundreds of ballistic missile patrols were made. I am sure there were a lot.

Since the 1960s, strategic deterrence has been the SSBN’s sole mission, providing the United States with its most survivable and enduring nuclear strike capability.

The world’s first operational nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) was USS George Washington (SSBN-598) with 16 Polaris A-1 missiles, which entered service in December 1959 and conducted the first SSBN deterrent patrol November 1960-January 1961. The Polaris missile and the first US SSBNs were developed by a Special Project office under Rear Admiral W. F. “Red” Raborn, appointed by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke. George Washington was redesigned and rebuilt early in construction from a Skipjack-class fast attack submarine, USS Scorpion, with a 130 ft (40 m) missile compartment welded into the middle. Nuclear power was a crucial advance, allowing a ballistic missile submarine to remain undetected at sea by remaining submerged or occasionally at periscope depth (50 to 55 feet) for an entire patrol.

A significant difference between US and Soviet SLBMs was the fuel type; all US SLBMs have been solid fueled while all Soviet and Russian SLBMs were liquid fueled except for the Russian RSM-56 Bulava, which entered service in 2014. With more missiles on one US SSBN than on five Golf-class boats, the Soviets rapidly fell behind in sea-based deterrent capability. The Soviets were only a year behind the US with their first SSBN, the ill-fated K-19 of Project 658 (Hotel class), commissioned in November 1960. However, this class carried the same three-missile armament as the Golfs. The first Soviet SSBN with 16 missiles was the Project 667A (Yankee class), the first of which entered service in 1967, by which time the US had commissioned 41 SSBNs, nicknamed the “41 for Freedom”.

This is a typical picture of a boat leaving Holy Loch Scotland

Inside that boat, the sailors and officers were preparing for the first dive after refit. There are very few times in life where something so seemingly simple can be so complex. The vent valves on the ballast tank will open on command but will they close? Are the seals on the hatches cleaned and inspected before closing? What major systems were worked on during refit that might cause a problem? Did you get all of the air out of the hydraulic lines, especially the ones for the planes controls?

For the older guys, a feeling of sadness knowing that it will be sixty or more days before they get to talk to a loved one again. For the new guys, its that feeling of mixed excitement at a first dive and a nagging fear that anyone one of the things listed above could go wrong. For the officer’s its that lurking Russian trawler just beyond the Clyde waiting to give them a hard time on their way to work.

For the tender guys, its just another boat in a long rotation of boats with another one soon to follow. On shore, the people of Dunoon see a shadow filled with customers and men who often drank too much knowing there would be no more drinks for the months ahead. Somewhere back in the states there was an empty feeling in the homes of the families who may have wished that last phone call could have lasted a few minutes longer. In the heartland of America, there was nothing. Not a feeling of something special or different about to happen. Not a fear in the world that some Soviet boat might be at that very minute patrolling near their coasts. Not a streak of an ICBM over the dawn sky.

Because at the heart of it all, men who sailed on that boat and worked on those tenders and docks were so very damn good at their jobs.

Mister Mac

Did it matter? 21

Did it matter?

A few weeks ago on one of the Holy Loch themed Facebook pages, a few of us were reminiscing about the old days and all of the patrols that were made during the Cold War. Someone reflected how successful the system was but a member of the site (who self-identified as an anti-nuclear activist) said something to the effect that we didn’t do a thing. I was reminded that since the end of the Cold War, many of the early anti-nukes were actually encouraged, trained and funded in a very secretive way by the KGB. Yet, I do ask from time to time, was it all worth it?

Proteus early 70s

From 1960 – 1991, submarines made deterrent patrols beneath the surface of the ocean almost non-stop in support of America’s strategic system. The intent of course would make the idea of anyone (USSR specifically) launching a first strike nuclear attack virtually out of the question. While land based missiles and planes could be targeted by heavier and heavier land based missiles, finding all of the Polaris, Poseidon and later Trident boats would have been much more of a challenge. Even the growth of the Soviet submarine forces as a countermeasure would not have stopped all of the boats from performing their gruesome task.

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In order to support such a system of deterrence, someone was going to have to give up some free time of course. The ballistic missile submarines from the very beginning were manned by rotating crews (blue and gold). The hallmark of the system was that pretty well engineered boats with nuclear reactors and flexible support teams could get in to port, turnover and refit and return to station with a great deal of efficiency. From 1960 that included forward deployment of tenders and drydocks in strategic locations to allow the patrol zones a maximum coverage.

The sacrifices were abundant.

For the men who sailed on the boats, there were plenty of sacrifices to go around. The separation from family for months at a time is in itself one of the great reasons so many only did one or two tours. We sailed in virtual silence, only being on the receiving end of an occasional Family Gram. These messages were limited to a few sentences and if the sender didn’t do it right, a man could go without any word for the entire patrol. Not only were you missing holidays and birthdays (not to mention the occasional actual birth of a child) but you had nothing but the bottom of the upper bunk to stare at in the glowing red lights in berthing.

Life went on while the boys were under the seas. Bills to pay, washing machines that waited until the hatch was closed to break. Cars that had flat tires and storms that blew down fences. All while Daddy was away and left Mom to try and figure out how to fix things. Some marriages weren’t strong enough. The divorce rate was high and the broken families literally littered the landscape. Kids learned to talk and walk and fight and make new friends all while Dad was so far away. There was no one to ask advice from about that girl who drove you crazy or the boy who wanted to be “more than friends”. All that had to wait while Mom tried to handle things on her own.

It wasn’t a great picnic for single guys either. Their lives were just as much impacted by hibernating under the waves.

Bob and Renee 1972

My first patrol was a Christmas run on the George Washington in 1973. When I went to sea, I had had a fight with my fiancée on the phone. This was no small deal since we were in Guam in another time zone and she was at home in Elizabeth PA. The phones were very expensive back then and when you are fighting and not speaking, it’s an expensive silence. Things at home were not great either. Dad had just come back from the hospital where Mom was spending the night after a few days of a serious medical condition. He was tired and we also had some harsh words about the future and the past. I can’t even remember if I told him I loved him. He was pretty angry that I had sent half of my family gram forms to Renee.

The boat leaving for patrol was actually kind of a relief in some ways. The relief was that we were so busy with everything that comes with making a patrol that we could turn life off for a while. There were fun moments mixed in the bad ones. There were hours of boredom surrounded by a few moments of utter fear. Even as close as you were with the men around you, there were also a lot of lonely moments when you really questioned who you were and what you were doing there.

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The worst moment of course came on Christmas Eve. The cooks had decorated the mess decks for the season with some shiny tinsel and a few lights. If I remember, there were even some of those cheesy cut out signs strung together that said Happy Holidays. I had mess cooked all day and was pretty tired but I have to say the feeling on the mess decks when they broke out the movie was pretty depressed. I was raised as a Christian and missed the service at my old Church field with singing and Joy to the World. I don’t know who thought it was a good thing to do, but in the second reel of the movie, the fans suddenly turned off and the General Alarm broke over the MC system followed by “Man Battle Stations Missile, spin up all missiles” followed by another round of that awful General Alarm.

There were not many Christian sentiments shared by the crew members who dragged themselves out of their racks that evening. I couldn’t help but think about the old saying Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards men as we came together to practice what we had been sent to do.

But it was only practice. The world got to live another day without a cataclysmic moment. Silent Night, Holy Night.

The patrol would end just like the 42 before it on board the George-fish. Turnover to the Goldies, get on the busses to the air base in Guam and try to catch back up with our lives.

That girl I left behind found a new guy. Mom got better and has lived another 40 years in relatively good health. Dad and I found a way to say “I love you” before he died … He told me the day before he passed and the day before I went to sea for one of my last trips. The world never did get to experience that nuclear holocaust we were sent out to prevent.

Did it matter?

I still like to think it did. We have had wars of other kinds but the ones we worked to prevent never have materialized. I hear the Chinese are building boomers now. I hear the Russians are upgrading their fleets again and of course there is that whole madness with the entire Middle East. Our own country is being torn apart inside by people with some pretty selfish motives.

But tonight, as I write this and you read it, some new generation is at sea riding their own patrol or mission. Even with the change in the way we live and fight, our submarine force is still sailing the oceans protecting a fragile peace. I thank them all. I pray for their missions and their safety. I mostly pray that as I sing Silent Night at Church tonight, the words will have as much meaning as they did that night 41 years ago.

Mister Mac

Merry Christmas to all of my fellow Submariners wherever you are!

 

The World of Polaris Reply

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One of the best weekends of my life was our Perfect Scottish Weekend. We travelled the Highlands in August of 1991 and visited Newtonmore for a visit with Clan MacPherson. Then we went to Edinburgh for the world famous Tattoo. I hope you get a chance to visit it someday, it is breathtaking. Recommend that you make reservations well in advance for seats beneath the Governor’s box.

Mid way through the video clip attached you will see a Tattoo from an earlier time. The whole video takes about half an hour but for anyone interested in or having lived the Polaris story, this is a wonderful way to view the life we lived when not on the boats.

 

Enjoy, Aloha.

Mister Mac

The First Dive – Looking Through a Prism Reply

I have always been fascinated by prisms. As a kid, I loved looking through them at various objects to see what would happen. Without going into the science of it, what you saw as you looked through it was different depending on the angle you looked through it. Another sailor posted a picture on Facebook today that almost immediately made me think of the points of view of all the people who would have been involved in the original picture.

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This picture appears to have been taken in Scotland in the Holy Loch. The base was really more of an anchorage where ballistic missile submarines (and the occasional other fast attack submarine) would come for refitting between patrols. The tender provided many services that the boat was unable to provide for itself and the floating drydock nearby would provide a means for cleaning the hull and other major repairs in a remote location.

LA and Simon Lake

The boats started patrolling fifty years ago and the ships that supported them rotated through for over thirty years except for the drydock USS Los Alamos which stayed for the entire time During those years, the dock had a number of sections changed out but on the whole, parts of it were there nearly non-stop.

As I looked at the picture, it occurred to me that I had been at one time or another one of many of the roles represented in it. Of course I sailed as a submariner then as a Docker. In my last days I served on a tender that had a long history of servicing boats. While our mission had changed by 1991, the Hunley was still configured for her original mission in many ways as well as adapting to the new ones.

Hunley 1994

 

What they were feeling depended on what their point of view was – their own view through a prism.

inside that boat, the sailors and officers were preparing for the first dive after refit. There are very few times in life where something so seemingly simple can be so complex. The vent valves on the ballast tank will open on command but will they close? Were the seals on the hatches cleaned and inspected before closing? What major systems were worked on during refit that might cause a problem? Did you get all of the air out of the hydraulic lines, especially the ones for the planes controls? For the older guys, a feeling of sadness knowing that it will be sixty or more days before they get to talk to a loved one again. For the new guys, its that feeling of mixed excitement at a first dive and a nagging fear that anyone one of the things listed above could go wrong. For the officer’s its that lurking Russian trawler just beyond the Clyde waiting to give them a hard time on their way to work. For the tender guys, its just another boat in a long rotation of boats with another one soon to follow. On shore, the people of Dunoon see a shadow filled with customers and men who often drank too much knowing there would be no more drinks for the months ahead. Somewhere back in the states there was an empty feeling in the homes of the families who may have wished that last phone call could have lasted a few minutes longer.

What about in the heartland?

In the heartland of America, there was nothing. Not a feeling of something special or different about to happen. Not a fear in the world that some Soviet boat might be at that very minute patrolling near their coasts. Not a streak of an ICBM over the dawn sky. Because at the heart of it all, men who sailed on that boat and worked on those tenders and docks were so very damn good at their jobs.

What is most interesting to me is the resurgence of the Russian missile forces and the growth of the Chinese. The first submarine response was necessary for the continued freedom of mankind from tyrannical forces. I hope we have not lost the learning that was achieved during the First Cold War. It appears we may need some of those lessons again.

Mister Mac

FBM Blue and Gold – The Beginning Reply

This post from a while back has a link to a 7.5 minute video of the USS George Washington in 1963 (fifty years ago and ten years before I rode her). Even though its black and white I could feel myself at the inboard station making my depth one five oh feet. The launch of an A1 missile is pretty cool too

theleansubmariner

Thanks to shipmate Tim Lutes  STS2(SS)  USS George Washington SSBN 598 for finding this little gem and posting it on FB.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=HGrDJSHmXZU#!

I sailed on the GW when she was about twelve years old and had clear memories about how old she was (at least every time something broke).

598 1973 Pearl Harbor

At different points in my four patrols we suffered a failure of the fairwater planes in a typhoon, the rudder ram during a high speed run, fire in the machinery room (O2 Generator), and others that I still wake up to at night sometimes.

Watching the small clip took me right back to being a helmsman staring at the grey panel and very old fashioned depth and speed indicators. What a far cry from my last boomer tour which was on the USS Ohio in the eighties. Both were examples of man’s ability to create rapid advancements in the face of…

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A Highland Festival of Note 4

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The sky was exactly what would be expected for a festival that claims to celebrate the highlands of Scotland. Sunny one moment and dark grey and foreboding the next.

The weather didn’t deter the faithful though as people from all over Western PA and anyplace within reasonable driving distance headed out to the Ligonier Highland Games at Olde Idlewild Park.

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The parking lot was full to overflowing (as proved by the brand new dent on the rear bumper of my car).

But the people were exactly as one would expect at a typical highland games: excited to hear the bands, see the lovely dancers, and smell the amazing foods waiting to be eaten.

If you’ve never been to a games but you suspect that you are even vaguely Scottish (twice removed on your Mother’s side for instance) you should seek one out. What I like about this game setting is the timing. Fall in Western PA reminds me a bit of summer in Western Scotland (all two weeks of it).

Moderate temperatures which makes wearing a kilt much nicer and the coolness in the air seems to help the pipes sound even more fantastic than they normally do.

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You meander through the booths like a wild stream through the woods of Idlewild. The bumper stickers say it all: “If it isn’t Scottish, it’s CRAP”. The funny thing is, I always end up walking away a little more laden with stuff that isn’t crap in my knapsack. Well, it keeps the economy rolling along I suppose. I am sitting at the keyboard wearing my latest amnesia/Alzheimer’s present to myself. It’s a beautiful black polo shirt with the Clan Crest and my last name sewn on it in bright letters. I call it that because someday when my memory fades my wife can just dress me up in one of the many fine shirts I have bought over the years and if I am ever in doubt, I can merely look at the name for a quick reminder.

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There is something for everyone… Shetland Ponies, dogs of every breed, color and size, pipe bands and solo pipers and wee lads and lassies dressed in their highland finest.

 

As I mentioned before, there is also a fine selection of foods. The Scottish are world renowned for their skillful cuisine that I am sure most countries would die for. Actually, most of what is served helps you along the way to the final resting place. Scotch Eggs, Bridies, Meat Pies, Haggis, Banger’s and Mash and a full assortment of American fried and grilled foods for the non-Scottish members of the family.

If it wasn’t for the never ending skirl of the pipes caused by the solo pipers practicing by a tree, you could probably hear the arteries of many of the patrons hardening as they swallow their treats. I will freely confess that it isn’t a good games for me without at least a tasting. Special note to the gentleman behind me: Texas hot sauce is not normally found at the Meat Pie tent. I’m sure its delightful but its not normally served.

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The real delight for me though is the massed bands marching onto the field. The sound of well over a hundred pipers echoing off the nearby hills is amazing and takes you far away to another place and time. The staccato drumming and muffled beat of the big drums adds a crisp line of rhythm that keeps even the most excitable child in line if only for a short time. The well placed feet follow a practiced pattern and they come down the field in a way that reminds you of the bold army they once led. No wonder the enemy called them “The Ladies from Hell”.

Everyone is a family member or part of a larger “Clan” on days like today. The military men who served in Vietnam are all getting on in years now but still wear their caps with their kilts. The Navy boys form the Holy loch keep a keen eye out for a brother with Dolphins or Surface Warfare Pins on their khaki shirts. The Marines sport their own shirts and hats but you can tell them by their walk. They are American’s first, but are proud of the lineage that sets them apart as Scottish blooded warriors.

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The Festival and Games are over for another year. Just ahead will be celebrations for Saint Andrews day in November. January brings Rabby Burns Birthday Celebrations and all the Haggis your heart can stand. Cold winter nights up north are just a reminder of the hardships our ancestors faced to help build this new land. But in the far reaches of the hollows and lanes, you can bet that somewhere, some young piper is practicing for the next season. Some athlete is dreaming of how he will get the next few feet from his throw. Some dancer meets in a practice hall and listens to hour after hour of the pipes learning how to control that critical step.

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They will meet again in September of 2013 in the woods near Ligonier as their predecessors have for over 54 years. And all of us who love the history, mystery and revelry of Scotland will gladly join them there.

Will ye no come back again?

Mister Mac

By the way, if anyone saw the guy who hit my car, send me a note to my private email. A kind soul wrote their license plate number on a napkin and the police think they know who did it, but it would be nice to have a witness. (It happened between 10:30 and 2:00 PM) Thanks