Passing test depth, sir. 10

Passing test depth, sir.

Image result for submarine underwater

 

A shipmate asked the other night about handling demons.

It’s a simple question that anyone who has been in a submerged submarine can understand. Years after you have left the boat, many still have dreams about what they did. The dreams can be so real sometimes. The feel of the boat sharply turning (even when you subconsciously know you are in your bed in the middle of the country). The claustrophobic surroundings of a dimly lit passageway surrounded by stainless steel covered bulkheads. The sound of the four hundred cycle hum and fan noises that suddenly go quiet. Periscope depth on a winter’s night in some remote sea lane surrounded by passing ships. A relief valve that lifts off its seat shouting its high pressure screams for all to hear.

And test depth.

The designed depth where the hull and all of the equipment are supposed to be able to operate with impunity to the dangers of the deep. Somewhere below, the real demon lives. Crush depth. Your training is filled with stories about the few boats that found where that monster waits to hold you in its death grasp. The sounds of the hull creaking and groaning under the pressure can be felt as you get closer to the test depth. The sound as you get closer to crush depth can only be heard in nightmares.

How do you handle the demons?

The answers are many and as diverse as the men and now women who ride submarines.

Some did their tours and went home in one piece. Some did careers and never look back at all. Others have not fared so well. Broken lives, divorces, substance abuse, isolation from others… all are part of a pattern repeated too many times. Maybe someday someone will be able to explain why some carry the demons with them and some bury them at sea.

Fifty years ago, a submarine named Scorpion was lost.

The legends and stories are many but I only think of the men who went with her to her grave. They were brave men who were performing a mission in defense of this country. They were all relatively young, many had families, and all had expectations of coming home. This crew and ship joined the ill-fated Gato Class submarine named Scorpion that was lost with all hands in 1944. They all gave their lives for our country.

See the source image

 

I am sure that for the next few decades after the second Scorpion was lost, many submariners would go to sea and think about the “What if?” She was a sturdy boat with a good crew. I know I did from time to time. It is easy to do when you know that the boat you are riding was the original Scorpion, repurposed to fulfill another mission. Although she was not lost, the boat she became tested her crew more than once in typhoons and a collision.

My demons? I write about them. Sometimes I go out and do presentations to civic groups and others that have a curiosity about the life. Alcohol never seemed to help. Took me a long time to figure that one out. Prayer works too but so many people put barriers between themselves and God, it is not something that should be taken lightly.

The demons we all faced are familiar to many who have never even submerged on a boat: they are the demons that remind us of our fragile and temporary existence. Accepting that truth is a pretty big step in keeping them in their place.

We will all pass through test depth on our way down one last time… until then, try to be a good shipmate and enjoy the ride.

Mister Mac

 

Primus in Pace – USS George Washington SSBN 598 Reply

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

My Qual Boat : 1974

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.

Interesting map found at the Sub Base Museum in Groton depicting the missile ranges of the various classes of FBMs

 

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.

The wave

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.

 

Saying Goodbye

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.

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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