Tales from the Silent Service
I was sipping my first cup of hot coffee while on the morning watch in the Torpedo Room. I called it my eye-opener and it also served to warm the body against the chill emitting off the cold steel of the ship’s hull with the frigid waters of the sea just beyond it. Bluefish was running at 400 feet, slicing through the depths ahead flank speed and headed due south towards home port Norfolk at the conclusion of a six-week short-op in the North Atlantic. The messenger of the watch (MOH) passed-by to notify me that we would be going up briefly to dump our accumulated trash from the bridge. This was SOP for a Cold War Era Attack submarine as we would freeze weighted galvanized trash disposal (TDU) cans of garbage in the reefer rather than risk being detected by the inherent noise of operating the mini-torpedo tube-like TDU. The revolting “garbage management” duties were left to the mess cooks and was one of the foremost down sides of their lowly existence, besides the grueling long work hours and comradely crew abuse that served to build character in young non-qual sailors who were considered to be lower than whale poop. Fortunately, their assignment lasted just three months then they were replaced by some other newly arrived non-qual puke, or NUB (non-useful body) as they were frequently referred to. Yep, one must toughen up quickly in order to fit into a boat crew. Otherwise, they will be gone just as quickly. Soon-after the messenger left, the 1MC blared “Now, rig ship for surface, rig ship for surface.” So, I ditched the tech manual that I’d been studying, pulled the Rig-for-Surface compartment bill from the clasped medal bill-holder on the bulkhead, and performed the specified directives. Although qualified in the procedures pertaining to the operational evolutions of a submarine a crewman must also review the compartment bill to confirm he has sufficiently performed each crucial step, as little is left to one’s memory on a submarine. The bill holder has a printed compartment bill for each of the ships evolutions including fire, flooding, emergency ventilation, reactor scram, repel borders, etc. that is specific to each compartment on the boat. And, it assures that each compartment’s systems are rigged for a particular evolution because many systems transit multiple compartments on board, such as the ventilation system. Therefore, if we are emergency evacuating the battery well located below the torpedo room and the torpedo man of the watch mis-rigs a damper then the well may not benefit from the ventilation system even though all other aspects in other compartments have properly been aligned. Of course, all this is even more momentous pertaining to the safe operation of the nuclear reactor. Next came the announcement to surface the ship and soon after I heard the accustomed short blast of high pressure air hit the main ballast tanks (MBTs). Then, we nosed upward toward the surface and into the angry white caps being whipped up by frosty winds that are typical of the North Atlantic in the winter time and began the familiar “rocking-n-rolling” of a submarine bobbing on the ocean surface. The compartment came alive with the sounds of the creaking from the destressing steel hull and the clinking and clanging of pots and dishware in the galley above me where breakfast was still in full tilt. I heard the clamor as guys reacted to dishes, glasses and tableware sliding on the Formica tables as they weren’t covered with the usual on-the-surface rubber table-cloths because this was to be an unscheduled and brief surfacing maneuver. But then suddenly, the roiling increased intensely and I heard the crashing of dishware above me as I was being tossed around like a beach ball. Then, we took a crushing hit from a wave that sent us rolling heavily to starboard and I was thrown across the space crashing on my back and slamming my head on the hard steel deck as my coffee cup fell from the table and splintered beside me spraying me with glass shards. The “fish” above me was straining against its straps to stay in place, and it’s not unheard of a 3500 lb. torpedo breaking loose and rolling around the room; what would be a devastating and life-threatening situation. Then, it began to “rain” in the torpedo room as sea water poured in through the overhead and, the 1MC squawked “report conditions on the dive.” I was being drenched, the deck was awash and multiple conflicting events were occurring so rapidly that I became muddled as to what was actually happening because there hadn’t been an announcement to rig the ship for dive, nor a diving alarm, or any warning that we were submerging again. So, dazed and confused and with my sound powered phones still strung around my neck I scrambled to my feet and I screamed into the mouth piece “there’s friggin’ water coming in down here!” Which admittedly, wasn’t the way I was trained to do it. However, the phones had already been secured after the surface and so they were dead. Consequently, I grabbed the wall mounted telephone hand-set, dialed up the control room and reported flooding in the torpedo room then I dove for the bill holder, but there wasn’t really much for me to do as the source of the water was elsewhere on the boat and all the pumping equipment is operated by the Chief of the Watch from the Ballast Control Panel (BCP) in the control room. Soon the 1MC erupted “flooding in the torpedo room, flooding in upper level ops, flooding in middle level ops.” Holy crap, I thought, we’re going down to Davey Jones’ locker, and this is the end. Unknown to me we had surfaced into a state five sea, the technical definition of which is “rough with 8-13-foot-high waves.” And, when the OD climbed up to the top of the bridge ladder and opened the upper hatch he was washed back down the bridge trunk, his fall broken by the look-out who was following behind, and then he crashed to the deck below in the control room. We were flooding through the open bridge hatch so the Captain ordered an emergency dive. However, in the frenzy, the lower hatch was shut trapping the lookout inside the trunk, although he did have a mind to struggle against the incoming sea to the top and secure the upper hatch to save himself from being drowned. Had he not and had it been a grave emergency then he would have been expendable in order to save the ship. Subsequently, when the Captain identified the source of the flooding he broached the sail and ordered the hatch reopened allowing the look-out to be flushed down into the room also along with the residual sea water in the trunk, and he was no worse for wear and tear. Then, the skipper took her deep to avoid any further threat from the turbulence. Luckily there were no serious injuries besides some bumps and bruises, and a heck of a lot of frayed nerves afterwards. The Captain keyed the 1MC again and explained the situation to the crew and that we were now safely back in our undersea realm. It’s no wonder boat sailors dislike visiting the surface world because the ride is rough and bad things can happen up there. Meanwhile down in the torpedo room standing wet to the bone, speckled with glass shards, and with a sore back and a headache, I surveyed the mess that I had on my hands. Then, our Weapons Officer came into the room and asked me if I’d done a damage assessment yet and I responded that I’d seen only water damage so far. He retorted that I had better get the rest of the gang down to help get things squared away. So, I had the MOH round them all up and we gathered in the torpedo room, and after their typical grumbling about being awakened, or interrupted at chow, or just coming off the last watch we went to work mopping up the deck and wiping everything else down. That included all of the conventionally armed torpedoes, the nuclear armed Subroc missiles and one Astor torpedo that were drenched with sea water, as well as the weapons launch console and all of the mine tables with their hydraulically operated handling gear. And, we had to be diligent in our efforts because sea water is corrosive over time. The Captain would probably have to file a “Bent Spear” report to the AEC (now the NRC; Nuclear Regulatory Commission), the code name for a nuclear incident for the nucs; contrastingly a “Broken Arrow” would have indicated an actual accident that had resulted in the release of nuclear radiation. All the work we had put in mopping up was only the beginning because when we hit port the torpedo gang would have to off-load every single weapon in the room to be sent back to the torpedo maintenance shop aboard our support ship the submarine tender USS LY Spear AS-36 to be disassembled, thoroughly cleaned internally and externally, be tested out, and then reassembled before they could be redeployed to other boats. Then, we would have to on-load another consignment of weapons. And all the work would be done over the course of one long single 18-hour work day. But, that’s what submariners sign on for when they volunteer to serve in the Silent Service; hard work, low pay and little recognition or fanfare. However, self-assured in the fact that we humbly serve among the elite of the U.S. military. We have an unofficial slogan that we live by; whatever is necessary. And, we all voluntarily accept the reality that our lives are expendable for the greater good of the boat and its crew; their survival is everything.