The Birth of the Atomic Fleet
In 1950, the same year the USS Pickerel conducted a remarkable journey from Hong Kong to Hawaii in just 21 days under snorkel, the President of the United States, President Harry S. Truman, authorized the building of an atomic submarine for the first (August 1950).
Pundits and politicians had been predicting that the potential for nuclear power in a submarine was two to ten years away from being realized. What they did not know was that when Captain Rickover steered the engineering work on an atomic engine to Westinghouse in a place called Bettis in 1948, his vision was to make the atomic sub a reality well before anyone expected. Rickover chose Westinghouse because he knew they had the practical engineering capability to do something that was being delayed by the scientists and bureaucrats of the Atomic Energy Commission.
As early as 1946, Naval Leaders like Admiral Nimitz understood that the submarine was the future of naval warfare but needed to extend its time at sea and it’s conceal ability with a new type of propulsion. The harnessing of the atom provided just such an opportunity. The commitment to build and operate the Nautilus was a bold step for Truman and the Navy.
1950 was the fiftieth year of the American Navy Submarine Force
But August of 1950 was a very challenging time for the country and the world. The Cold War was heating up. On June 25, 1950, the North Korean Army (backed by the Soviet Union and Communist China) boldly invaded the south. The Russian navy was operating large numbers of submarines in the area and newspaper articles warned of the danger of a third World War starting. Troops were still largely shipped to the danger spots of the world by ship and the existence of enemy submarines in the approaches to Korea was a real danger.
The United States had rapidly mothballed much of the fleet after the war while disbanding the forces needed to operate them. Trained men were not available and the fleet struggled at first to manage its commitments in a very hostile world.
The promise of an atomic powered vessel with nearly unlimited fuel promised a solution for many of the Navy’s concerns.
Rickover saw this and with sheer determination and will power, shoved the Navy and the World into the Atomic age. He was a practical thinker and not a sentimentalist in any way. His vision was to see a Navy second to none powered by the most advanced technology that man could imagine. He succeeded in a way that still has an impact today.
This post includes material that comes from a book that was published in 1964 by the Atomic Energy Commission called Nuclear Powered Submarines.
This book was written a short ten years after the Nautilus was commissioned and shows the rapid progression of the nuclear submarine fleet. In ten years, the Nautilus was eclipsed by the newer and sleeker boats that were themselves to be eclipsed again within a decade. Those boats would be dwarfed in size and capabilities and later joined by behemoth aircraft carriers that could go decades between fueling.
Nuclear Powered Submarines. U.S. Atomic Energy Commission
The application of nuclear energy to submarine propulsion has caught the imagination of people everywhere; no scientific proficiency is needed to understand the value of such a development. We can all share pride in the arctic achievements and the globe-circling adventures of our nuclear submarines. How- ever, it is considerably more difficult for the average person to appreciate the magnitude and complexity of the engineering involved in actually building and operating these ships. This booklet is intended to help you obtain such an appreciation.
Young people particularly are attracted to these ships and the atomic plants that propel them. Often young people mistakenly think that atomic energy somehow magically simplifies everything and that it must be easier to work with such plants than with more conventional machinery. Nothing could be further from the truth. More knowledge and understanding are needed; knowledge of science, of engineering, and of the fundamental laws of nature. I strongly urge young people who may be thinking of entering the atomic field to study the basic subjects of chemistry, physics, metallurgy, mechanical engineering, and, of course, mathematics. Then, if they have superior intelligence, insight, and especially an affinity for hard work, they may be able to participate in a program which combines both the excitement of a technological frontier and the pride of contributing to our national strength—our growing atomic Navy.
The Nuclear Powered Submarine
The advent of the atomic age has revolutionized our undersea Navy. The introduction of nuclear power has converted the submersible surface ship of yesterday to a true submarine capable of almost unlimited endurance.
Events have followed swiftly since the pioneer nuclear submarine Nautilus entered fleet service in 1955. Records established by the Nautilus for submerged endurance and speed were soon eclipsed by submarines of later generations such as Seawolf, Skate, Skipjack, and Triton. Skipjack, first to incorporate the blimp-shaped hull, ideal for under water mobility, broke all existing records to become the world’s fastest submarine. The Navy reports, within security limitations, that today’s submarines travel in excess of 20 knots.
Nuclear submarines also have opened up the waters under the Arctic ice pack for operations. In 1958 the Nautilus made a historic voyage from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic via the North Pole. The Skate has three times journeyed to the top of the world, twice surfacing at the geographic North Pole as well as making numerous surfacings in polar lakes.
The marriage of the nuclear submarine and the ballistic missile has been one of the most significant developments in the free world’s defense structure. Since 1960, nuclear submarines capable of submerged firing of the Polaris missile, armed with a nuclear warhead, have been patrolling the seas that constitute 70 per cent of the earth’s surface. Missiles aboard the first two generations of Polaris submarines—the George Washington and Ethan Allen classes—have a range of 1,200 to 1,500 nautical miles. A new Polaris missile capable of hitting its target 2,500 miles away has been developed. These are aboard a third generation of Polaris submarines—the Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton.
The First Nuclear Submarine
Authorization for the first atomic submarine was signed by President Harry S. Truman in August 1950. This was to be the USS Nautilus. The Chief Executive gave the world an idea of what could be expected from the ship: “The Nautilus will be able to move under the water at a speed of more than 20 knots. A few pounds of uranium will give her ample fuel to travel thousands of miles at top speed. She will be able to stay under water indefinitely. Her atomic engine will permit her to be completely free of the earth’s atmosphere. She will not even require a breathing tube to the surface.” On January 21, 1954, the Nautilus slid into the Thames River, New London, Connecticut.
This article was developed on the eve of the Navy’s 243 Birthday celebration (2018). The efforts of the early pioneers in the AEC, the Navy, the men and women of Western Pennsylvania and the builders can all be proud of the realization of the dream.
In 1950, the US Navy was coming to terms with its peacetime role in a Cold War setting. The Russians had obtained the German submarine technology along with the rocket scientists from captured territory. No longer content to be a coastal navy, the Russians were building their own fleet of new submarines with the ability to stay at sea for longer periods of time. Atomic power was being worked on in secret but diesels still ruled the waves for the world’s navies.
This is a unique story about the USS Pickerel’s voyage from Hong Kong to Pearl Harbor. The entire voyage was made submerged at periscope depth. The depth allowed the boat to use its diesel’s for propulsion the entire length of the trip. I can only imagine making that run at periscope depth. Submarines are notoriously bad “rides” when they are going through any kind of seas and keeping the snorkel mast above the water line would be critical no matter what the waves brought.
The second part of the story talks about life on board the boat during the trip. Most submariners can appreciate the experience.
Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 10 April 1950.
21-Day Undersea Trip Of 5,200 Miles Made By U. S. Submarine
By the Associated Press
On March 15 a United States submarine dived into the Pacific off Hong Kong and didn’t surface again until 21 days later at Pearl Harbor.
In the meantime, the submarine had covered 5,200 miles. The Navy told of the trip yesterday. It did not claim a record, but officers said that this was the longest underwater run they had ever heard of. The precise time during which the submarine, the Pickerel, relied on its snorkel “breathing” apparatus was given as 505 hours, one hour over 21 days.
The achievement, disclosed as the submarine service prepared to celebrate its 50th anniversary tomorrow, pointed up the growing importance being attached to undersea craft by Navy planners.
Recent tests showing that submarines can be used to launch guided missiles have made them a threat against coastal targets as well as sea commerce, thereby stepping up their potentialities in any future war.
At Pearl Harbor, Comdr. Paul R. Schratz of the Pickerel called the long voyage “all in the day’s work, just a routine test.”
He was asked whether the sub could be seen on the cruise, and without elaborating he said: “We had indications to the contrary.”
Pickerel Is New Craft.
The Pickerel was built at the Portsmouth, N. H., naval shipyard and was commissioned April 4, 1949. She went to the Pacific Fleet last fall.
The Snorkel apparatus with which the latest United States subs are equipped is a breathing tube which extends to the surface.
It was developed by Germany during the war, from a Dutch idea. By using the device, the submarine can operate under the surface on its diesel engines, which give it much more speed than can be had from the electric motors previously relied upon for submerged runs.
There is the added advantage of not having to come up to re charge batteries exhausted by the motors.
Fuel Supplies Only Limit.
Thus with the Snorkel equipment the time a submarine can stay down has little limitation other than fuel supplies. Pressure is being applied in this country to development of means to stretch that limit almost infinitely by application of atomic power.
Work is progressing on such an engine which would lift even the fuel and batteries requirement. An atomic-operated engine would operate indefinitely without refueling, for all practical purposes. The Westinghouse Corp. has acknowledged that it is working on an atomic power plant, but its development is expected to take from two to ten years.
American interest in submarine and anti-submarine devices has been spurred by reports that Russia is building the world’s mightiest undersea fleet—estimated currently at 250 to 300 vessels, only a small percentage of these are said to be snorkel-equipped.
German Plans Captured.
Like this country, Russia is reported to have captured German plans for a hydrogen-peroxide engine that would require no breathing tube at all. What is being done in that field either here or in the Soviet Union has been kept secret.
Along with submarine development work, the United States Navy is pushing defense measures against undersea craft.
Admiral Forrest Sherman, chief of naval operations, has assigned Vice Admiral Francis S. Low, wartime chief of anti-submarine work, to survey needs in that field. And Admiral Sherman himself has said that the Navy’s No. 1 project right now is to get more patrol planes and destroyers—both major weapons against submarines— back into the active fleet.
Along the same line Rear Admiral C. B. Momsen, assistant chief of naval operations for undersea warfare, said in an address here March 27 that he has reason to believe there will be an early development which will enable the United States to “drive submarines off the seas.”
21 Days Under Water Means Lots of Beards, 30 Movies
By the Associated Press
PEARL HARBOR, April 10.—
What do you do under water for 21 days and 5,200 miles? Comdr. Paul R. Schratz supplied the answers yesterday after commanding the snorkel-type submarine Pickerel from Hong Kong to Pearl Harbor without surfacing.
“If you feel like getting a good workout,” he said, “you just lie down until the feeling’s gone. Our main athletics were cribbage and acey-deucy.”
The 34-year-old skipper added in an interview:
“We took 30 movies along on the trip. We saw them all by the time we hit Pearl.”
Comdr. Schratz said the 67 enlisted men and eight officers abroad the 300 – foot sub “Just didn’t feel like eating much” during their underwater voyage from March 15 to April 5.
Most of the officers tried to make up by growing goatees and mustaches. Most of the crew grew full beards. These adornments didn’t last long once the men arrived here. Wives and sweethearts met them at the dock with leis and kisses.
“And. as soon as they got home, with scissors,” Schratz added.
The pickerel’s crew also whiled away some time watching tropical fish in a small aquarium they took along. The skipper, who plays first violin in the Honolulu symphony orchestra when he isn’t doing his day’s work under the Pacific, didn’t take the violin along.
Comdr. Schratz himself suggested the underwater cruise after taking part in exercises in Philippine waters.
“We used the snorkel breathing tube the entire voyage,” he said.
The Pickerel made the complete distance at periscope depth and made an average speed of about10 knots. The usual number of torpedoes for Pacific Fleet submarines was carried.
The 1,850-ton Pickerel is a standard fleet type submarine—only streamlined and with higher propulsive power than others of her class.
The official Navy Birthday is now celebrated on October 13 every year thanks to Admiral Zumwalt declaring that day as the one to remember. But it has not always been celebrated on that day or with the same focus.
In 1947, the aftermath of the Second World War was being felt all around the world. The Iron Curtain had been declared, the Cold War was starting to emerge and the Navy was undergoing many changes. Historians tell us that there was a tremendous amount of pressure to amalgamate all of the services into one post war structure under a unified Department of Defense. The Navy fought most fiercely against this unification since it was not convinced that the Army would be able to understand the needs of a nautical force.
The article that follows came from the United Press services but reading it from a Navy Historian perspective, I can see the influence of many of the Navy’s leaders in the words and ideas. What is remarkable for 1947 was how right the predictions ended up being. I thought it fitting as we approach the 243rd Anniversary of the Navy that this article would be a great post to share. I hope you agree.
Navy Expects War With Russia Next
WASHINGTON, Oct. 25. 1947 — (UP)—
The Navy, celebrating its “birthday” Monday, is vigorously preparing for the greatest fundamental changes in its 172 year history.
It has a fistful of ideas for ships, new weapons and new ways of fighting that to promise a revolution in warfare.
Submerging capital ships, rockets armed with atomic, planes that can outrun he sun, clear skies when you want them — these are only a few of the dramatic ideas the Navy is considering.
Deep in the secret file until very recently was a development that seems tame by comparison but is actually of tremendous importance. It is “Radac” a revolutionary method of answering battle questions at the speed of light.
Details of Radac—rapid digital automatic computation— are locked up as tight as the Navy Knows how but the only announcement of its existence compared it in military significance to radar —king of war due inventions.
Many advances are a long way off, but even in the next few years the Navy would not fight a war with the weapons of World War II.
Carriers are switching to jet planes. Cruisers are getting completely automatic turrets. Destroyers are being equipped with new intricate detection devices. Submarines are learning to use the German “schnorkel/’8 breathing tube that allows a sub to stay concealed for weeks at a time.
None of these inventions played in a part in the war. Their development is a delayed dividend on war research.
Our original Navy idea was a fleet of ships to defend the shores of the United States against an enemy. For such a purpose the present day powerful fleet has no equal. But if the United States is to do anything about keeping peace in the world and supporting small nations against aggression, then a different kind of fleet is needed.
It will have to go anywhere in the world and fight if need be not other ships but planes and submarines defending foreign shores, perhaps with atom bombs. It will have to protect and land troops and supplies unless atomic war eliminates the need of an invasion.
Navy leaders do not say so publicly, but their private nightmare features Russia seizing the Middle East and Europe with her huge army and the U.S. trying to carve a foothold for an expeditionary force by the use of sea and air power.
Regardless of whether this is a realistic estimate, the American fleet is slowly being prepared for such a mission.
The battleships designed to fight other battleships, is dead. Its place will be taken by a new type vessel, the guided missile ship.
Two experimental ships are being constructed, using the unfinished hulls of other type ships. In the same way the first aircraft carriers were converted from other hulls.
The main weapons of the new type will be guided missiles and rockets. The huge 1-inch rifle, with its amazing accuracy, is obsolete.
The ram jet engine for a guided missile has done better than 1,500 miles per hour under test, but years will pass before it can carry a warhead and have a good range.
Rockets are closer. The first big ship rocket, the Neptune, is scheduled for test next year. Capable of 235 miles range with a light load, it is designed to teach scientists how to build big rocket weapons rather than be a weapon itself.
Marking the first such experiment, a German V-2 rocket was fired last month from the carrier Midway, but it behaved erratically and exploded six miles from the ship. One leading admiral said later that the information obtained could have been discovered by a little study and thinking.
Although the Navy does not contemplate arming its carriers with 45 – foot rockets, shipboard testing of the Neptune will probably be undertaken on a carrier. The guided missile ships are a long ways from being finished.
Defense of all ships, but especially the guided missile ships, which will have to carry the brunt of the attack, will bring many changes.
Ships will have to be sealed against radio-activity, all fighting and navigation done from below decks. Radar antennas, gun directors and other equipment which cannot withstand the shock of atomic bomb blast will have to be strengthened or made retractable into the hull.
Propulsion by atomic energy has been predicted variously for the next five or ten years. The Navy’s best ships will have to be equipped with it, bringing such changes as eliminating the smoke funnel, increasing range, providing more space for armament, probably higher speeds.
With superstructure and funnel cut down, the capital ship will look like a submarine and may end up being just that.
As I think about ships like the Ohio and Virginia Class submarines operating in tandem with the nuclear powered super-carriers and their amazing fleet of technological warriors, I wonder what the authors of this article would think today. I also wonder what the future of the Navy will be as we experiment with the new weapons that would not have even been imagined in that day. Especially the ones named after the man who set the Navy’s Birthday as October 13.
Regular readers know that once upon a time when the world was still dark with fears from the Soviets, a little known base in Scotland served as a portable pier for our submarine fleet. Starting in 1960, units of the United States Fleet anchored in a small inlet called Holy Loch that was just up from Dunoon. The submarine tenders that rotated in and out for the next 31 years all toiled endlessly to support the ballistic missile submarines and occasional fast attacks.
The other major unit was the floating sectional drydock that was known
as the USS Los Alamos (AFDB 7).
You can search theleansubmariner by looking for articles about her and understand just how important this asset was and how amazing the technology was that allowed her to serve for the entire time Site One was open.
A chance for a new life for a venerable name
The LA has been decommissioned for nearly twenty seven years as a Naval Unit but a unique opportunity has emerged that would pay tribute to the city that gave its name to this unit.
LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) – New Mexico’s congressional delegation says the U.S. Navy’s next nuclear submarine should be named “USS Los Alamos” in recognition of the community’s contributions.
The delegation sent a letter to Navy Secretary Richard Spencer on Monday citing the founding of Los Alamos National Laboratory, the once-secret federal installation that helped develop the atomic bomb.
The letter refers to the heritage, service and scientific achievements of the northern New Mexico community.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the lab, one of the nation’s premier nuclear weapons research centers. Aside from its role in the Manhattan Project, work at Los Alamos provided the technical understanding in nuclear energy that led to the Naval Propulsion Program.
The naming effort also has the support of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.
Of course I strongly support the efforts to bring back the name Los Alamos to the US Navy. My only hope is that in all the hubbub, the people who are pushing from the name don’t forget the mission the original LA performed. By providing remote dockings all of those years, she contributed so much to the nation’s defense.
Heritage means something to all of those who have served in the Navy.
This is one heritage that should not be forgotten.
Post #598: Primus In Pace
If you cross parts of the great American prairie, you can still see the ruts of the wagons that crossed the vast wilderness on their way to the west. Those ruts have been superseded by ribbons of concrete and asphalt that stretch from sea to shining sea and remind you of where we have been and where we have yet to go.
On the other hand, you can scour the oceans as long as you want and you will never find evidence that the mighty submarine warship USS George Washington was there. From the minute she started her first underway in 1960 until she was decommissioned on January 24, 1985, her path was largely undetected with a few notable exceptions along the way. That part of her story was long after I left her and will remain for another day.
Primus in Pace
Any submariner that follows the story knows that she was the lead class of the first Polaris submarines.
These submarines paved the way for the group of boats known as the “Forty One for Freedom” boats.
Each succeeding hull number series brought greater capabilities and more powerful weapons. But through it all, the Georgefish sailed on and played her role. She sailed in the Atlantic and the Pacific and places unknown for a few generations of sailors. I was assigned to be an Auxiliaryman in 1973 and spent two years learning about the boat, about submarining in general and about myself. I would like to say I did things that were heroic and memorable but that would be a lie. Like most submariners of that age, I mainly just did my job.
Not that there weren’t interesting times. We sailed out of Guam and I the early seventies, Guam and Mother Nature treated us to a couple of typhoons. The Vietnam War was ending and the Cold War was heating up so we had a lot of company on our way into and out of Guam. Those Soviet fishing boats liked to show us how well they could navigate while listening for telltale signs of submarine sounds. Even when we got on station, we knew that there would be great challenges. Submarines sometimes came closer to the surface for different reasons and the enemy had many faces. Some of those faces were actual patrolling craft and sometimes the enemy took the form of great open ocean storms.
The new kid
When I first reported aboard, I learned about how life is ordered. If you are new and not qualified to do anything, sleeping was more of a rare privilege than a right. You can’t imagine how low you are on the food chain until you have to clean out the trash compactor room with all of the smells that still manage to come back after over forty years. When things need to be quiet, trash accumulates quickly and the stench fills your nose. There really is no place to go that you can avoid that odor when you are working in the scullery so you just learn to talk yourself out of being sick.
The bunk that I was assigned was directly below the scullery. Since the scullery wasn’t watertight, often the liquids would come down the long shaft of the TDU (trash disposal unit) and settled near where I slept (when I actually got to sleep). I have to be honest, I was not aware how lucky I was to have a rack at the time but in retrospect, I remember being extra careful to clean my space and keep it spotless.
After a tour as a mess cook, it’s off to the helms planes station. Compared to the diving stations I see on the modern boats, ours looked like something out of an ancient handbook. We had manual depth counters, a rudder angle indicator, an actual bubble inclinometer and two colors: white when it was light and red lights when it was rigged for red. You learn what ultimate boredom is and sheer panic is while sitting in the same seats. You also learn to control them both. The boredom on an old boomer is traveling at a set speed for days on end, sometimes varying your depth, always following the compass to you next path. We kept ourselves awake with cigarettes and coffee and hot cocoa. We learned old sailor stories from the more seasoned Petty Officers, Chiefs and sometimes Officers that kept us company on our long drive to nowhere.
Man Battle Stations – cue the really annoying electronic alarm
Then there would be the moments of stress. Battle Stations Missile, Battle Stations Torpedo, Collision Alarms, Fires and flooding in some of the most unusual places. Mostly drills but you didn’t always know it. You went from practically asleep to wide eyed and alert in moments as everything around you changed too. Headphone would be manned, communications between missile control, engineering and the torpedo room would come rattling across like bullets from a machine gun. During all of these, you kept focus on what was in front of you.
In some cases, your rudder or planes would no longer function properly. We drilled on the back up process which was incredibly old fashioned and manual. Minutes seemed like hours. Somewhere, hundreds of feet behind you, shipmates who just minutes before may have been sleeping or eating were struggling to activate an emergency backup system and restore the ship.
There was no place to go.
When an actual casualty did occur, all the discipline and practice kicked, almost as if directed by unseen hands. Men knew where to go and what equipment they would need. We practiced in the dark just in case the lights were out. We knew where every twist and turn was located so that we could get through the maze of equipment without becoming casualties ourselves. Your heart would be racing a hundred miles an hour as you took your position but you were there. Waiting if needed but ready.
It paid off more times that I can tell you. The Georgefish was well worn by 1974. She had some shipyard time for repairs and upgrades in weapons systems, but some things just fell below the radar. So when she found herself in a Northern Pacific monster storm and had to go up for a communications pass, she got to test the designer’s abilities and the builder’s skills.
I do not know what the size of the waves were that came rolling over us in a series of loud canon shots. I do know that the boat inclinometer was clearly indicating that every other swell took us to forty five degrees. I do know that it was black as night and the Officer of the Deck kept saying he couldn’t see a damn thing. The rudder was nearly useless in trying to keep us on course and we popped to the surface where we remained for the next twenty minutes. We were caught in a surfacing effect between the wave troughs. The missile deck superstructure was higher than the pressure hull and it worked as a magnet holding us fast on top. Then came “the wave”. It was horrendous and sounded like the loudest clap of thunder I had ever heard. I was standing back fro the dive stand near the officer of the deck when I heard the loud spraying noise coming from somewhere in front of me. Followed by loud yelling of the men caught in its path. We had all been taught from the very first that flooding and fires kill people first and submarines second.
Just at that moment, the Captain came into the control room and turned the lights on. He said, there is no use having the lights off officer of the deck, you can’t see anything. Then he took the deck and the Conn. Sizing up the situation quickly he saw what had happened. The hydraulic supply line to the ram that controlled the fairwater planes had a small blow out plug in it that was supposed to protect the lines in case of over pressurizations. It worked. The 3000 PSI supply line was over pressurized when the wave forced the fairwater planes to fight against the ordered position. It did exactly what it was supposed to.
My Chief was the Chief of the Watch and he isolated the line stopping the flow of oil. The planes were now frozen in the “rise” position. Both the inboard and outboard planesmen were covered with hydraulic oil so they were relieved and sent below. That left me (as the messenger) the only choice to sit in the outboard station and the rudder was shifter over. They were cleaning up the oil all around me as the boat continued to rock and I tried to control the rudder.
The Captain ordered a massive amount of water flooded into the variable ballast tanks. Thousands and thousands of pounds of cold sea water made the boat heavier and heavier until finally, we broke the grip the ocean held on us. Now the boat began to sink quickly and as we passed 150 feet, the reactor gave up the ghost. The main propulsion for the boat comes from that single screw driven by the steam created in the reactor. But all of the wild gyrations on the surface must have affect the plant. Without that power, the huge pumps needed to get rid of all that extra water would have to sit and wait. Restoring power would take everything.
Fairwaters jammed on full rise
As the boats downward speed increased, I remember hugging the stern planes yoke to my chest. Full rise. Trying to take advantage of any residual speed still left on the no longer responding screw. My eyes were glued to the dial that showed us slowly sinking closer and closer to test depth. I was only nineteen. I really didn’t want to die. But I also didn’t want to let go of that yoke. The Captain was behind me watching the same thing.
As we approached test depth, maneuvering called on the 2MC and reported that the reactor was back on line and propulsion was being restored. We were moments away from having to do an emergency blow. If that had failed, we would have been a worse disaster than the Thresher. I didn’t think about that at the time. I just kept asking God to keep us alive. The next few hours were a blur. We came back up from the deeps and had to porpoise the boat. The fairwater planes were still stuck on full rise so I had a depth band of about 75 feet to play with. I think I got pretty good at it as they came up with a replacement blowout plug and restored the planes. I finally got relieved and was so very happy to just go and lay my head down for a while.
The remainder of that trip was unremarkable. It’s funny how that works. When we returned to port and gave the boat to the Gold Crew, I was still in a bit of a haze. I wasn’t really sure I ever wanted to go back to sea. But I did. There were more adventures and other casualties along the way. A few fires, an Oxygen generator rapid depressurization, and losing the rudder ram when the end cap sheared off during another storm.
A different kind of war, a different kind of warrior
Some people will say that we weren’t in a war. Fair enough. The work that many of us did was far from anything that resembled Vietnam of the Gulf Wars. I would never try and take anything away from anyone who has served in active combat where you don’t know from minute to minute if this is your last. I didn’t see my first Russian Officer face to face until a few years after I retired when a former Soviet Submariner came to Kansas on a trade mission shopping for deals on wheat. He seemed nice enough.
Our only real claim to fame was that in all the years we sailed, not a single missile flew with a hostile intent in mind. Lots of practice shots along the way but the very fact that we could not be pinned down must have given old Ivan a lot to think about all those years. For all of his craziness, he wasn’t too bad of an enemy. He at least understood that the one nation that has actually used nuclear weapons had enough to make any victor just as much as a loser.
I was stationed in Bremerton when the Georgefish showed up for decommissioning. A lot of water had travelled over both of our hulls by that time. I have the distinction of sailing on the first SSBN and the first Trident USS Ohio. I can assure you that the difference was dramatic. Both filled the same role but the destructive power of an Ohio Class boomer is breathtaking.
It was a very cold day in January 1985. I have no idea how the Navy found out that I had been a young sailor on the Georgefish but I got a personal invitation. She looked odd sitting next to the pier with no missile compartment. I felt a loss it is hard to explain. That feeling would return decades later when I stood on the hill looking at her sail in Connecticut. But all things come to an end. Except the stories. Those will live long past the boat or the men who sailed on her.
My life was profoundly influenced by my association with the men and women of America’s submarine program. I would not trade the experience for any other kind of experience the world has to offer.
I am also profoundly grateful to those who taught me, accepted me as one of their own, and made sure that we never left ruts in the ocean.
An odd kind of submarine
Today’s post is about an odd numbered submarine that played a unique role in the development of the nuclear Navy, the USS Tulibee. I am always reminded when I do stories about the nuclear submarine Navy that there has never been a point in my life that the United States did not have a nuclear submarine. I was born in the cradle of the Nuclear Navy (Pittsburgh not New London) in 1954 and had family members that worked at Bettis Atomic Energy from the very start.
“In 1956 Admiral Arleigh Burke, then CNO, requested that the Committee on Undersea Warfare of the National Academy of Sciences study the effect of advanced technology on submarine warfare. The result of this study, dubbed “Project Nobska” was an increased emphasis on deeper-diving, ultraquiet designs utilizing long-range sonar. The USS Tullibee incorporated three design changes based on Project Nobska. First, it incorporated the first bow-mounted spherical sonar array. This required the second innovation, amidships, angled torpedo tubes. Thirdly, Tullibee was propelled by a very quiet turboelectric power plant.”
The Soviets were already developing boats that combined speed and diving ability. That ambition would remain one of their driving goals throughout the Cold War. Some of their later boats were rumored to seceded the diving capability of Allied Submarines by a significant amount. So Tullibee was an early recognition by American planners for the need for stronger ASW capability and operational improvements.
“Naval Reactors’ effort to develop a quiet nuclear propulsion plant began early — even before the sea trials of the Nautilus — with the hunter-killer submarine Tullibee (SSN 597). The purpose of the hunter-killer was to ambush enemy submarines. As the mission of the ship was seen in the early 1950s, speed was less important than silence. By substituting an electric-drive system for reduction gears, Rickover hoped to reduce noise. In this approach a generator ran an electric motor. Varying the speed of the motor would achieve the same result as the reduction gear, but there would be a penalty; the electric propulsion system would be larger and heavier than the components it replaced.
On 20 October 1954, the Department of Defense requested the Atomic Energy Commission to develop a small reactor for a small hunter-killer submarine. The ship was meant to be the first of a large class. The commission, wishing to broaden industrial participation in the program, assigned the project to Combustion Engineering, Incorporated. The S1C prototype achieved full power operation on 19 December 1959 at Windsor, Connecticut. Congress authorized the Tulibee in the 1958 shipbuilding program, Electric Boat launched the ship on 27 April 1960, and the navy commissioned her on November 9 of that year. The ship was not small; although her tonnage, beam, and draft were less than the Skipjack, her length was greater. By the time the Tullibee was in operation, she was about to be superseded by the Thresher class.”
“Tullibee combined the ASW focus of the SSKs with the smallest nuclear reactor then feasible with an eye toward a relatively cheap, dedicated ASW asset that could be deployed in the numbers still considered necessary to fully populate the forward barriers. Compared to the 15,000 SHP S5W type reactor of a Skipjack, Tullibee had a 2500 SHP reactor and turbo-electric drive. She could barely make 20 knots, but she lacked the reduction gears whose loud tonals made prior SSNs so easy for SOSUS to detect at extreme range. She also continued the tradition established by the BQR-4 equipped SSKs by mounting a large, bow mounted, passive, low frequency array, the BQR-7. On Tullibee, the BQR-7 was wrapped around the first spherical active sonar, the BQS-6, and together they formed the first integrated sonar system, the BQQ-1.
Superficially, the Tullibee appeared to be one of the blind alleys into which technological evolution occasionally wandered. Nevertheless, the ship was important. To get good reception, her sonar was placed far forward, as far away from the ship’s self-generated noise as possible. Her torpedo tubes were moved aft into the midship section and were angled outward from the centerline—features that were incorporated in the Thresher submarines.8 Finally, electric drive worked well; the submarine was the quietest nuclear platform the Navy had.
As an ASW platform her performance was unmatched, but almost as soon as the decision to deploy Tullibee was made, a further decision was made to avoid specialized platforms and pursue instead a multipurpose SSN that best combined the speed of Skipjack and the ASW capability of Tullibee into one platform. This became the USS Thresher.”
The Tullibee had a good career lasting from the early sixties into the late 1980’s. She was superseded by a number of classes but the work done on her would impact most of those classes. Tactics leaned in those early days would help the newer boats to understand the opportunities that existed for modern nuclear submarine warfare.
Decommissioned and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 25 June 1988, ex-Tullibee entered the Navy’s Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program on 5 January 1995. Recycling was completed on 1 April 1996. One of the fairwater planes from the Tullibee can be seen as part of a permanent art installation on the shore of Lake Washington in Seattle.
To all who built her and sailed on her, Brazo Zulu.
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.
If you ever lived on one, this will make you homesick. If you never lived on one, it might make you jealous. In the beginning scenes one of my colleagues Mark Keef is featured in a submarine missile launch. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qj6VaV6-d6Y Enjoy
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Merry Christmas to all of my fellow Submariners wherever you are!