The Birth of the Atomic Fleet – When Science Fiction was Dwarfed by Science Fact Reply

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

Forward

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.

H.G. Rickover

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.

Submarines: “from a boy to a giant” 4

One of my favorite pastimes is discovering unique stories about the United States Submarine force and the development through the ages.

There is no better witness to the phenomenal growth than that of one of the most profound influences on submarine operation and development: Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. The most fascinating thing about this man was that he came from such a humble beginning in Fredericksburg, Texas where he originally desired an appointment to the Military Academy. Fortunately for the world, he failed to gain entry and instead went to the Naval Academy where he graduated  with distinction in his class.

His service record is covered elsewhere but one thing was common throughout was his understanding of the potential for a submarine force even when the very idea was being kept in check by the Admirals.

The Navy published a series of submarine brochures but these quotes come from the 1969 edition. Admiral Nimitz had already gone on final patrol but his Forward was kept as a tribute to his memory.

In late 1965, Nimitz suffered a stroke, complicated by pneumonia. In January 1966, he left the U.S. Naval Hospital (Oak Knoll) in Oakland to return home to his naval quarters. He died at home at age 80 on the evening of February 20 at Quarters One on Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay. His funeral on February 24 was at the chapel of adjacent Naval Station Treasure Island and Nimitz was buried with full military honors at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno. He lies alongside his wife and his long-term friends Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, Admiral Richmond K. Turner, and Admiral Charles A. Lockwood and their wives, an arrangement made by all of them while living

But his words live on in eternity. So does his impact on Naval Sea Power

United States Navy Submarine Brochure

As a Midshipman at the Naval Academy, l had my first ride in the United States Navy’s first submarine – USS HOLLAND. Thus in the brief span of my life, l have seen the submarine grow “from a boy to a giant” of the Polaris submarine with strength untold for our land of freedom.

(The airplane and the submarine both began to join the Fleet early in this 20th century, as invention and engineering provided reliable internal combustion engines and other engineering wonders. Each of the strange new means of warfare promised to destroy the power of Fleets – at least in the minds of enthusiasts. Instead, they have brought incredible new power.

l early joined submarines as a young officer, engaged in experimental developments, commanded the submarine forces of the U. S. Atlantic Fleet, studied diesels in Germany and helped to introduce them into our Navy.

For years afterward l continued to serve in submarines afloat. Then, as naval duties took me away from the submarines, l followed their steady development with undiminished interest.

When l assumed Command of the Pacific Fleet, l hoisted my flag in USS GRAYLlNG (SS-209).

When detached, after V-J Day which owed so much to the valor, skill and dedicated service of submariners, l lowered my flag from the gallantly battle-tested USS MENHADEN (SS-377).

While Chief of Naval Operations, with imaginative leaders like my Deputy, Vice Admiral Forrest Sherman, Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, Naval Inspector General, who brilliantly commanded our Pacific submarine operations during much of World War ll, and Vice Admiral Earle Mills, Chief of Bureau of Ships, l was happy to initiate the development of nuclear power afloat.

The decision was based in considerable part on a major study completed by Dr. Philip Abelson of Naval Research Laboratory in early 1946. All the foregoing officers were enthusiastic about the prospects. lt struck me that if it worked we would be far in front in the ceaseless race in armed strength to keep our country strong and free. The fantastic speed and unlimited radius of action offered by atomic power gave promise of at last making possible the true submarine with indefinite endurance submerged. Its feasibility had been explored in the Navy in the early ’40’s but the development had been set aside by the war and the single goal in atomic energy of the Manhattan Project. Now was the time to get underway. What remarkable results have followed.

Thus for much of my life, l have had faith in the submarine as l have had faith in the rest of the Navy and our great land of America. Each by being true to itself—seeking efficiency and power for noble ends—has been a blessing, just as for ignoble ends, it could be a curse. l am convinced that the mighty Polaris submarine, bearing imperishable names like Washington, Lincoln and Lee, will prove a blessing to America of the future and to all men as they reach upward to the light.

Chester W. Nimitz

Fleet Admiral, U. S. Navy

Two of the boats from 41 for Freedom.

1969 Submarine Brochure Introduction

Fleet Admiral Nimitz’s foreword, written for an earlier edition of the Submarine Brochure some 3 years before his death, points up the vast and growing influence of the sea to our destiny. ln this growth, the submarine fleet in particular has made such strides that we have found it necessary to issue a new edition of this compact account every few years.

The first submarine brochure came out under the skilled direction of Commander D. V. Hickey, USN, now retired, and Lieutenant Henry Vadnais, USNR, of the Curator section. This latest edition has been ably modified by Commander V. J. Robison, USNR, now directing the Curator section, Commander C. F. Johnson, USN, Commander H. Vadnais, USNR, and the diligent application of Mr. Robert L. Scheina. We also owe special appreciation for assistance to the following commanders and their staffs: Admiral lgnatius J. Galantin, Chief of Naval Material; Vice Admiral J. B. Colwell, Commander Fleet Operations and Readiness; Vice Admiral Arnold F. Schade, Commander Submarine Force, Atlantic Fleet; Rear Admiral Walter L Small, Commander Submarine Force, Pacific; and Captain Leon H. Rathbun, Commander Submarine School.

The swift growth of the under sea part of the trident Navy reflects the broad growth of sea power as a whole and of its effect upon the fate of nations in our time. Throughout history the sea has stood for freedom— free horizons, free transit without frontiers or barriers, free opportunity for him who ventures boldly and skillfully. Fortunate indeed then is it that this increase in power at sea has come when the United States has received responsibility for the leadership of civilization. May she meet this charge wisely, courageously, and well

M. Eller

“He goes a great voyage that goes to the bottom of the sea.”

George Herbert, 1651

Mister Mac

Post Number 633 – USS Casimir Pulaski SSBN 633 1

A salute to one of the many unsung heroes of the Cold War:

The USS Casimir Pulaski (SSBN-633)

USS Casimir Pulaski (SSBN-633), a James Madison-class ballistic missile submarine, was the second ship of the United States Navy to be named for Casimir Pulaski (1745–1779), a Polish general who served in the American Revolutionary War.

Lafayette Class Ballistic Missile Submarine: Laid down, 12 January 1963, at the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corp., Groton, CT.; Launched, 1 February 1964; Commissioned, USS Casimir Pulaski (SSBN 633), 14 August 1964; Decommissioned and struck from the Naval Register, 3 July 1994; Disposed of through the Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program, 21 October 1994 at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, WA.

Specifications: Displacement, Surfaced: 7,250 t., Submerged: 8,250 t.; Length 425′ ; Beam 33′; Draft 32′; Speed, Surfaced/Submerged 20+ kts; Complement 120; Test depth 1,300′; Armament, 16 missile tubes, four 21″ torpedo tubes; Propulsion, S5W Pressurized Water Nuclear Reactor, two geared turbines at 15,000 shp, one propeller.

For a comprehensive in depth look at the 633 boat, click this link…

https://www.usscasimirpulaski.com/

 

Thanks to all who served on her and protected our nation during the Cold War

Mister Mac

August 28, 1973 The Journey Begins 13

I joined the Navy in April of 1972 by raising my right hand for the very first time. The Navy used the Delayed Entry Program to pre-sign willing young volunteers and at the age of seventeen, I was anxious to leave home and see the world. I remember my girlfriend at the time crying a bit and shortly before I joined, President Nixon escalated the bombing of NVA troops and Hanoi. On the day I signed up, 100,000 people in various cities around the United States protested the increased bombing. Needless to say it was not a great time to be in uniform. The support for the military was further diminished by various scandals and secret bombing campaigns were being revealed by the press on a regular basis.

In December 1972, I was finishing up Machinist Mate A school in Great Lakes Illinois while President Nixon ordered the launch of the most intense air offense of the war: Operation Linebacker. The attacks, concentrated between Hanoi and Haiphong, drop roughly 20,000 tons of bombs over densely populated regions. The outcry both here and abroad was fierce but it achieved the goal of bringing the North closer to desiring an end to the war.

In January of 1973, the Selective Service announced the end to the draft and instituted an all-volunteer military. I was just beginning my submarine training at New London when the announcement was made. Since I had volunteered before I was eligible for the draft, it did not mean much to me personally. But I did notice that many who were serving around me had chosen a Navy path to avoid the Army. Some were upset that they had joined now that the draft was gone.

The rest of 1973 was spent shuttling around the country to various schools. From New London, I was sent to Charleston to learn advanced skills related to the boat I would eventually join in Guam. The USS George Washington had already left Charleston after a shipyard period so I would not see her until the fall of 1973 in Guam. The schools and a short stint TAD at the Submarine Base in Pearl seemed like an endless wait. I officially reported on board on August 28, 1973 to the Blue crew which was preparing to leave Hawaii. Then came the day I took my first crew flight from Hawaii to Guam.

Guam

Guam is a hot and humid place no matter what time of year you show up. The trip from Anderson Air Force Base was in a vintage non-air conditioned military bus. I remember pulling up to the USS Proteus and how tired we all were from the long flight and heat on the ground. We went on board the tender and were assigned to submarine crew quarters. The bunks were stacked on top of each other and the smell was horrible. The George Washington was not back from patrol yet (the Gold Crew had her) so we waited for a few days doing not much of anything.

I watched the boat as it came into the harbor. It seemed kind of small at first but by the time it was tied alongside you could see the top and sides. Men were scurrying with the lines and some hoses of one kind or another and there were thick black cable being connected between the boat and the Proteus. The Proteus was a leftover from World War 2 and the crew on board were stationed there all year round. We just came for visits twice a year and many of us were glad to leave her when the time came.

The smell

Once the boat was tied up, the turnover process began. As a young Fireman, I was not aware at the time of all the things that would need to be completed in order to successfully transition between Gold and Blue. I was just very anxious to get off the tender and into the boat. The very first time I went down the forward hatch I noticed a few things. The first is the smell. A submarine smell is something you never forget. It is a mixture of diesel, mono-ethylamine, cigarettes, cooking residue, body odors and many other things. It gets into your nose first then into your clothes. It never quite leaves you. If I close my eyes, I can still imagine what it smells like.

The good thing about being a new kid is that you don’t have much time to think. The work comes fast and furious and you do not want the Chief to catch you skylarking. There is just too much to do. The crew that is leaving is packing up their stuff as quickly as possible for the long ride home. Within a few hours, the on-loading process for the coming patrol begins. Boxes of food both frozen and canned are waiting to be loaded and the only way they get into the boat is through the long narrow hatches with men stationed on deck and all the way to the lowest levels of the boat. You load until everything is in the boat. Your arms are aching in a way that you never thought possible. Same with your back and legs.

As an Auxiliaryman, our job was to also make sure we had enough hydraulic oil and essential other fluids. These evolutions often happened at night sine they tied up the hatches. There was very little sleep. Broken equipment needed to be repaired, flex hoses needed to be changed out and a hundred little tasks that needed completed were rushed in order to make the deployment schedule. Topside, the deck gang went between chipping and p[painting and helping with weapons moves. The Russians were waiting for us just outside Apra Harbor and even though we were technically at peace, we were also technically at war. You made no assumptions.

The rain

Guam is in a tropical environment and when the rains come, they leave you soaked to the bone. No matter what is going on, the rains will not stop the progress. You simply went down into the boat soaking wet and tried your best to dry off before your next trip topside. After a while, you just gave up trying. And everybody got a cold within a week. The Doc would hand out Actifed like it was candy to keep people from getting too sick.

The first dive

At the end of the refit, things started to settle into a routine. The tanks were topped off, stores were loaded, the equipment that had been placed topside for repairs was all gone and the boat was ready for that first dive. I was in the control room standing messenger under instruction. That is about as low a position as you can find on a submarine. It means that you are an air consuming passenger without a real purpose in life. You really just did your best to stay out of everybody’s way as the boat approached the dive point. Strange new sights and sounds and a symphony of orders and replies fill the packed little space. Reports from all over the boat come rapidly in indicating that all spaces are prepared. The Officer of the Deck is the last man down and reports to the Conn.  The board goes straight and the order is given. Diving officer, submerge the ship.

The main vents are cycled open, you hear the rushing of the water and for just a moment, you pray to yourself. The boat takes a down angle, reports come in indicating a normal dive and then she settles out. The beginning of a very long ride begins. Mine took quite a few years to finish… It would end on the USS Ohio in another very rainy place called Kitsap County Washington.

You join a very selective community on that day.

For the rest of your life you will hear people ask what it was like and say things like, “Oh, I could never do that.” You just kind of smile and say to yourself that once upon a time, you thought so too. I kind of hope I make it another five years before I take my final dive. Old submariners will understand why.

Mister Mac

Hallmark doesn’t make a card for Sea Daddys. (But maybe they should) 8

Warning: Some salty language may have snuck past the censors

There was a Navy training film many years ago called “The Lost Sailor”.

The idea behind the film was for Navy leaders to recognize all the things that could go wrong with a young sailor when they first report on board a ship or submarine. The newly arriving boot was probably fresh from school and this was his first assignment at sea. He reports on board and suddenly gets disillusioned when everyone is too busy to pay any attention to him. In fact, the sailor that ultimately takes him to his berthing assignment is a sub-standard sailor who is only available for such duty because he is on restriction. It doesn’t take long for the squared away recruit to turn into a derelict just like his “mentor”. The entire film is based around leaders not letting this kind of thing happen to their new sailors when they report on board.

I don’t remember the first time I heard the term “Sea Daddy”. Thinking back to my earliest days in the Navy, I remember reading the Blue Jackets Manual from front cover to back. The Eighteenth Edition of Ridley McLean’s handbook for sailors had specific details on everything the American bluejacket would ever need to know about being a sailor.

Delbert D. Black was the Master Chief Petty officer of the Navy in the 1969 edition and he gave the following forward: To all Navy Men: The Navy is a man’s job. It requires courage, dedication and daring. Navy men have a proud tradition of heroism in all conflicts.”

He goes on to say more but in the entire book, nothing is mentioned about the existence of a position or assignment called Sea Daddy.

Maybe that’s why I never had one when I went to my first submarine. I was a Machinist Mate Fireman that was assigned to a Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine and my role would include driving the boat, cleaning dishes in a hot deep sink, compacting and shooting trash and eventually standing watch as a roving Auxiliaryman and later as a Scrubber Room watch.

As I was reporting on board, the senior men in that division all hit their rotation dates. Once the dust settled, we had a brand new Chief (who had just been advanced) one first class and one second class. The rest of us were new to the boat and new to submarines. If there actually was an official title of Sea Daddy, there wouldn’t have been enough of them left to care for the rookies that showed up for duty,

Looking back through a long lens, I think Chief John did the best he could with what he inherited. All of us had been through a lot of technical classes before we showed up. The problem was that the technical classes were mostly geared towards the sleek new SSBN 640 Class Boomers and this was the original 41 For Freedom experiment called the George Washington. By the time I reported on board, she had sailed in both oceans, made over forty patrols, and was showing the signs of age that can only come from a boat that had been stitched together in a rush to beat the Russians to a viable boomer.

Old Boats Leaked

Everything that could leak did. The pumps we had to pack and repack were buried under pipes and deck plates and lines that crisscrossed each other in a chaotic maze that had been designed by a mad man. The high pressure air compressors were not the kind any of us had trained on so each time they required repairs (which was pretty damn often) it was like an exercise in jig saw puzzle land. On my first patrol, I saw very little of these mechanical wonders since I spent most of the time in the galley as a crank. The second patrol was a little better since I was qualified and only stood dive and drive part of the time. Between watches and drills, I was indoctrinated into the world of adapt and overcome.

While I am sure he would have revolted against the idea of being called a Sea Daddy, Chief John probably fit the bill more than any other man I served with in all five boats. He was patient to a point but he was also firm that you didn’t get to walk away from a job just because it was kicking your ass. He would teach to a point but his main method of teaching was to make sure you didn’t screw things up too badly while you were figuring out the right way to fix them.

You do not have permission to quit

My least favorite job was repacking the trim pump. This pump was vital to the ship’s operation since it moved water from tank to tank and helped the boat to adapt to the ever changing sea and internal ballast. But replacing the packing meant climbing down into a tightly packed area with very little room to get comfortable. Then you had to maneuver your hands in such a way that you could pull the old packing as needed and insert the new rings. If you tightened the packing too much, you smoked the rings. Then you got to start all over. I found this out the hard way. After a few attempts, I went back to the Chief and said that I couldn’t get it. I was tired, hot and dirty and I just wanted to go to my rack.

I don’t think I saw my rack for another day.  Or maybe it was two

Chief John made it very clear that he had no time for someone not doing their job. I don’t remember his words but I do remember he had quite the way with phrases that a young sailor would never forget. I finally got it right. I never had to repeat that error again. The same lesson would be learned on nearly every job I was assigned to for the next few years.

I lost track of Chief John when I transferred. After some time away from submarines, I returned to being an Auxiliaryman and never looked back. The lesson about doing hard things without quitting never left me and I hope that I did him proud. To be honest, I think he would be surprised to know I made it as far as I did. He was in my mind the day I made Chief. I tried to help other sailors along the way with some of his best lessons and maybe a few I learned from others.

Come to think of it, maybe there was such a thing as a Sea Daddy after all. If I were to see him today, I would thank him for helping me through some of the most difficult days of my life. And I would probably wish him a Happy Father’s day.

Dedicated to MMC/SS John Mills, US Navy

The best damn Chief I ever met

Mister Mac

 

 

The First Thanksgiving 8

The First Thanksgiving

If you are expecting a traditional story about Pilgrims and Indians, you might as well go back to your search engine and try again. This is a story about my real first Thanksgiving that occurred somewhere in the western Pacific Ocean about 150 feet below the ocean exactly forty years ago today on board the USS George Washington. More about that later. First, I need to give credit to the people who provided what honestly would had been many real opportunities for Thanksgiving if I hadn’t been the self-centered little bastard that I was up until that day in 1973.

September 1973 003

I grew up (for the most part) in a suburb near a steel making town surrounded by every bit of privilege that a person could expect in the Sixties. Our house wasn’t overwhelming but it was warm and I had my own bed, some space in a closet for my clothes, and access to hot running water and a safe place to play. Being a middle child, I was isolated from the curse of being the first with all the experimentation around proper behaviors. I was also old enough compared to my two younger brothers that I could get my way on some things. As a middle child though, I found a strong compulsion to focus a lot on ME. My oldest brother was named for my Dad and my older sister was the only girl of five children so it seemed like much of the family’s focus was on the “One” and Daddy’s girl.

Two things grow from a situation like that. A very active imagination, and a wish for a way to be different in order to stand out. I spent a lot of time on both.  I ran away from home three times as a kid and finally succeeded in the ultimate run away… at seventeen I convinced my Mom and Dad to sign the forms for me to join the US Navy. I was absolutely convinced that this would be the best way to get on with my life without all that interference and finally be my own person. Hey, I said I had a lot of imagination and I certainly don’t claim to be all that smart.

When you understand

My parents and Grandparents tried to provide us with not only the comforts of life but they made sure we were aware of all the traditions that were important including a big Thanksgiving celebration. Rumor had it (at least among us kids) that one of Grandpa Parkin’s relative actually came over on the Mayflower and was at the first big dinner. We always had the big turkey day at the mansion he owned and some of the silver looked detailed enough to support the story’s validity. The only time you actually saw these heirlooms was at Thanksgiving so of course it had to be true.

Parkins House

The “Big House” was a wonderful place for a Thanksgiving feast. The kitchen was huge with a large mixer that spent the day making real mashed potatoes. The rest of the counters were filled with every type of traditional food and the breakfast room was the repository for the pies and jellos that would be brought in to the formal dining room.

The dining room was nothing short of amazing. A large table in the center beneath the shining candelabra, a fireplace at one end, and of course an exquisite tapestry hanging on the inner wall above a side boy table groaning from the weight of the food and drinks already staged. China and real silver, BUTTER with no limit, and a bay window surrounded by colored electric lights looking out over the snow covered front lawn.

You would think that a boy would be thankful for all of this wouldn’t you? Sadly, I truly believe that while I had appreciation for it, I did not understand the meaning of thankful at all.

Fast forward to the fall of 1973. I had already been in the Navy for well over a year but had not gone to sea yet. I bounced around the country going to school after school as the Navy tried to prepare me for my role as a Submarine Auxiliaryman (the fancy name for an A-ganger).  From Great Lakes to New London to Charleston South Carolina and finally to Ford Island in Hawaii. Ironically, one of the main reasons I had joined was to get away from the boredom of being in a classroom. Like I said, I never claimed to be smart. Looking back at my service record and the “satisfactory” marks, I am sure there were a lot of Naval Instructors along the way that would concur.

The First Patrol

I missed what should have been my first patrol by a few days when my travel was interrupted in San Francisco on the way to Pearl Harbor. The summer of 73 was a pretty crappy time as I found out the Navy was not as well organized as I had believed it to be. Temporary duty in a barracks at the sub base was a lonely time and made other issues in my personal life more complex. The letters from my high school sweetheart  went from nearly every other day to every other week and by the time I was got on the crew flight to Guam in October, they were non-existent. We didn’t have cell phones back then and you used a very expensive phone call only sparingly. It really sucked when you would call and she was “out with her girlfriends but we’ll give her your message.”

The crew flight and arrival were pretty overwhelming for a nineteen year old on his first trip. The main thing I remember is being shoved into the crews berthing on board the submarine tender Proteus which was what I would imagine it would have felt like on the ship that brought my grandparents over from Ireland. The air conditioning didn’t work and the boat was delayed in coming in because of the weather. When it finally did come in, I found out that “Non-Qual Pukes” did not rank very high on a submarine and my first rack was in a place called TDU alley. While submariners spend an inordinate time cleaning their ship, TDU alley is the one place that struggles the most due to its location near the Trash Disposal Unit directly above the berthing area. The one good thing about my rack was that I was inspired to stay out of it as much as possible which helped me qualify in one run.

After a really demanding refit, the ship finally got underway to its patrol station. I had sent my last letters off including the blank “Family Grams” to my girl and my family. You were limited to ten and I split them in half. I got the five from my Mom. That was all I would receive for that patrol.

At the beginning of the patrol, I was a helmsman/planesman. The job itself wasn’t that hard but under normal circumstances it was fairly boring. Back in the day you had a Diving Officer behind you in a leathered seat to keep you on depth and the Officer of the Deck somewhere behind you to keep you on course. The occasional drill mixed things up but for the most part it was drilling holes in the ocean with little change up or down, left or right. It gave you a lot of time to think which is not always a good thing for someone with an overactive imagination.

The COB must have seen how bored I was getting so he arranged for me to have a brand new experience: Mess Cranking.

Up to this point, the Navy had been a pretty disappointing experience overall. Where was the part about going to exotic places and being honored for heroic deeds? The first day in the scullery as the new guy was overwhelming. There were no automatic dishwashing machines in the day and everything was done by hand and then sanitized in a hot sink. Meals on a boat are chaotic to begin with because of the tightness of time between watch changes. You learned pretty quickly that if you didn’t keep the dishes flowing through the wash and rinse cycle, people would be yelling at you through the little window where they passed dirty dishes and silverware.

The days speeded up quickly but sleep seemed to be in short supply. But pretty soon I developed enough of a rhythm that it all fell into place. I was busy but not too busy to hurt inside for the seeming loss of a love and the distance I found between me and my parents. Things had not worked out like I planned and it all seemed like I was completely out of control.

Then came Thanksgiving.

I must not have been paying attention very much to the calendar. I had mastered the scullery well enough to be promoted to the galley helper and occasional wardroom backup. We had a Philipino Commisaryman Chief who ran the whole operation and he was very good at keeping us squared away. Like most of his rate, he knew the importance of a well-run galley and wardroom. He also recognized the importance of holiday meals and made sure that the big ones like Thanksgiving were perfect. The two days leading up to Thanksgiving were probably the hardest working days of my Naval career (at least up to that point).

I will admit that the smell of the turkey’s baking that day will stand out as one of the most powerful memories I have. We worked for hours preparing the mashed potatoes and yams. Pies were very carefully made and the Chief had told the Diving Officer that if he did any angles while he was baking, he should not expect a drumstick on his plate. The older qualified guys would try and sneak into the galley for a taste and I found out for the very first time in my Naval career that I had power. If you had been an asshole up to this point, it was up to me to grant you a taste. Some got in, some had to work a little harder.

Unlike the other meals served on board, this one was not a chaotic event. Oncoming watch-standers ate with a little more purpose and the off-going section mingles in with the off watch guys. People seemed a little more respectful of the hard work that went on behind the scenes. The Chief had the lights turned down lower and some Pilgrim and Indian decorations had magically appeared. The Captain came in and thanked all of us for the hard work that went into the meal. As the galley and mess decks emptied out, I felt satisfied in a way I had never felt before.

Sitting at the table in the mess decks, I took stock of my life. A split with my parents, a doomed feeling about my girlfriend, being the lowest of the low on board a submarine far from home. Then someone came and sat across from me that I really didn’t want to see. I had been trying to get a checkout for my quals in the engineroom and this guy had blown me off more times than I care to talk about. He said the most amazing words I could remember: “Are you ready for your checkout now Mac?” We spent hours together hand tracing pipes and looking for valves. I would give anything to have that qual card back.

I am thankful I was able to experience all of those things early in my career. Nothing was given to me and I found the joy of hard work resulting in a payoff. It truly was my first Thanksgiving.

Mister Mac

Oh by the way… the girl dumped me. I was then free to have some of the most amazing adventures in my life all around the world. And it helped me be ready for the time when I would find the true love of my life.

2016 Update

Since that Thanksgiving many years ago, I have learned that good things normally follow adversity. The country is pretty well divided now and it will take some serious leadership to heal. I am certain it can. Please remember that we should be grateful to live in a Constitutional Republic that ensures that mob rule will not prevail over the laws and nature of the country that was created so long ago. Blessings to us all this year and let us unite in a single voice of Thanks

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