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Tales from the Silent Service Rotating the Load

During the Cold war, the typical weapons load for a U.S. Navy 637-class nuclear powered Fast Attack submarine consisted of up to twenty-five undersea weapons. These included a variety of three conventionally armed torpedoes, the WWII vintage tried and true MK-14 Mod-5 alcohol/steam driven torpedo that was armed with a war head with 410 lbs. of TRPX TNT molded inside, and was effective against large surface craft targets. As well, its newer hydrogen peroxide fueled counterpart the Mk-16, Mod-8 that had 1260 lbs. of explosive power and was the most powerful conventional submarine torpedo warhead ever used by any Navy. Then, the Mk-37, Mod-2 electric driven wire-guided torpedo with a warhead loaded with 330 lbs. of HBX-3 high explosive and that had an active sonar transducer to assist it in seeking out and destroying enemy deep diving submarines. Then the load was rounded out with two nuclear armed weapons, the UUM-44 SUBROC sub-surface to sub-surface “submarine rocket” and the MK-45 Astor torpedo.

Unlike an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that was strategic weapon and launched from a vertical missile tube, the SUBROC was a short range tactical weapon launched from a standard horizontal 21-inch submarine torpedo tube. Upon launch it acquired a 45-degree angle in the water then the solid fuel rocket motor initiated ignition to propel SUBROC to the sea surface and up into the atmosphere at supersonic speed to reach apogee where the reentry vehicle containing the warhead separated from the missile to follow a predetermined ballistic trajectory. That resulted in the 1 to 5 kiloton W55 nuclear depth bomb fee-falling into the water then sinking to detonate at a predetermined depth near its target. A direct hit on a specific target was unnecessary because the thermo-nuclear blast caused the literal vaporization of five square miles of ocean above and below. I once viewed a test video of the warhead being dropped from a plane into a small fleet of mothball ships, and post detonation one could clearly identify the entire bow section of a heavy cruiser visible in the mushroom cloud hundreds of feet above. The SUBROC was effective in destroying a single, or multiple enemy submarines at once, and it could also be deployed against convoys and harbors.

The MK-45 Astor anti-submarine torpedo, was a 19-inch -diameter torpedo fitted with an 11 kiloton W34 nuclear warhead. The necessity to maintain direct control of it required that a water-tight wire connection be made between the torpedo and the interior of the submarine torpedo door so that the ship’s fire control system could communicate with the weapon up until detonation. The MK-45 was a last-ditch weapon to be used only in the event of a “hot war” in the instance that an enemy ICBM submarine was detected preparing to launch its missiles against U.S. and Allied populations centers. That was considered to be a dire “can’t fail” scenario. Inside the submarine community the Astor was known as a suicide weapon because its eight miles kill radius would result in the loss of the firing submarine and its crew. Therefore, it was only necessary that each U.S. Attack submarine carry just one of the torpedoes, as there would be no need for a second.

The Mk-45 ASTOR, as well as all the weapons referenced here were replaced in 1972 by the Navy’s current submarine weapon of choice the Mark 48 ADCAP “advanced capability” heavyweight torpedo.

Torpedoes, like most mechanical devices, require periodic inspection and maintenance in order to keep them in peak operating condition, especially in the case of their warheads. Therefore, a submarine torpedo load must be rotated from time to time by off-loading fish that are scheduled for maintenance and replacing them with fresh ones. The evolution resulted in a tough, tiring and potentially dangerous fourteen to sixteen-hour work day for the torpedo gangs and deck crews of the Attack submarines who worked in unison to accomplish the task.

Having been first a deck crew seaman and later on in my career a Torpedoman, I am intimately familiar with the practice of loading and off-loading weapons on an Attack submarine. I reported aboard my sub in January of 1970 and within two years I was a third-class Petty Officer (E-4) and because of the transfer of key senior enlisted personnel I was running the torpedo room at the tender age of twenty-one, and I was qualified as Nuclear Weapons Handling Supervisor. This is a designation normally reserved for enlisted men over the rank of E-6, and officers. However, due to the personnel shortage and the command’s confidence in my abilities they requested and received special consent to bestow the designation onto me. Responsibility comes quickly in the submarine service.

Back in those days and until only five years ago, smoking was still permitted on submarines even though it had been banned Navy-wide for many years prior. So, the “smoking lamp” had been put out throughout the ship because loading weapons or fuel oil was the two most hazardous in-port evolutions on a submarine. Our day started at 7 AM with the Chief of the Boat (COB) and his Seamen gang stationed up topside and all the torpedo gang down below in the torpedo room. The Cob would be working to get set-up with the crane crew on the pier that would assist us in the procedure while his deck crew began un-stowing the required lines and equipment to be used in the load-out. In the meantime, we would work down below to unbolt and remove the deck plates in the middle level and upper level operations compartments above the torpedo room to allow for the 3000 lb. weapons to be lowered through the weapons Loading Hatch, located amid-ships, on a 45-degree incline through the two upper levels of the ship and down into the “room.”

This was facilitated by a dual purpose 20-foot-long hydraulic lift installed in the center deck of the torpedo room that was very similar to the familiar lifts found in automobile repair shops, only this one is just four feet wide, is of solid steel construction and can either be raised straight up to jockey fish around the racks in the room or can be raised on an angle for loading weapons. It is equipped with rollers that were cranked up or down to recess them into the lift when not in use. And, we had installed and locked four torpedo dollies in place in the recessed holes that were provided for that purpose and that would accept the weight of the fish after the rollers were retracted down on the lift.

The COB and I would be in constant voice communication via sound powered telephones throughout the hazardous evolution in order to coordinate the lowering of and securing each weapon in the torpedo room. Because of security concerns the nukes would be loaded last so that they could quickly be connected to the security alarms located in the room.

The boat was to be in port for three weeks prior to going back to sea for ops, and we had off-loaded fish the week prior. So, today we would replace those weapons. And, although we would be involved in war games with Allied forces, during the Cold War an Attack sub was always fully armed while at sea because it could be called upon to respond to a situation at moment’s notice anywhere around the globe. It was common for crew’s to be called to report to their boat and leave for sea on Christmas Eve or other holidays because a situation that arose over night.

Submarine crewmen frequently missed holidays with loved ones, family funerals, and the births and birthdays of their children. They had no contact with their families for up to three months while on Cold War patrols, and should a family emergency occur while they were submerged they would remain uninformed. Consequently, the stress on marriages and family life greatly contributed to the Submarine Service having the unwanted distinction of the highest divorce rate in the military at that time. This, along with the inherent danger, is why it is a strictly all-volunteer special force.

The crane crew set in place a steel torpedo cradle on topside the nose of which would be bolted in place inside of the weapons hatch so that they could later lower each weapon onto it then raise it to obtain the proper angle for loading. The cradle was equipped with fold down legs so that once the weapon was placed and raised the cradle would stand on its own to support the weight.

COB and I had communicated that we were ready to load the first weapon and he supervised the transfer of it from the pier and onto the cradle. Once in place a “universal nose-piece” was place over the war-head that had a steel support cable connected to each side and that ran back to a T-swivel that was connected to a single main hawser line that ran back aft 40 feet to a hydraulically powered capstan. It’s operator, usually an 18 or 19-year-old seaman, was in communication with us also on headsets and was the principal participant in the evolution because he controlled the speed of the decent of the weapon into the room. So, if he messed up, people could die or be maimed. Once the COB was satisfied with the position of the weapon on the cradle then the crane hook was attached to the rear of the cradle to be lifted. Then the COB ordered the that the capstan operator take an initial strain on the lines to support the weight of the weapon, and then the cradle was slowly raised by the crane operator with its full weigh slowly shifting to the cables and main line. And, when the fish had been raised to the proper height the cradle’s legs were lowered and pinned in place to brackets located on the deck so the crane operator could lower the full weight of the weapon upon it. Now the weapon was suspended entirely by the universal nose piece, cables and main line.

Torpedoes are generally safe from detonation when unarmed via the installation of their detonators, even if dropped. However, they may explode or men can be severely injured and equipment damaged due to their sheer weight. And, in the case of a nuke we would have the AEC (currently, the NRC) down our backs big time, and that would make the skipper very unhappy. So, down below in the torpedo room I looked up and saw the awesome sight of a torpedo war head staring me in the face and the fish being suspended by just two lines, then I told COB he could begin lowering.

Slowly, I could see the fish begin to inch downward toward us in the room and as it did the hydraulic lift creaked under the stress. When I saw, the weapon was in proper position I gave COB the cue to stop lowering. Then, I locked the torpedo into place and said to Smitty, stationed back aft in the room, to slowly begin lowering the hoist. Then, when the fish became horizontal and resting on the deck in the room we installed the heavy steel wire torpedo straps to lock it down, removed the nose piece and with the hydraulic handling system moved the weapon to its permanent storage location in the room. Then, we sent the nose piece back up topside to begin loading the next weapon. We repeated the entire process multiple times until it was time to load the nukes at around seven o clock in the evening.

The process was the same, however the stress factor went up a notch as did the security requirement. It was necessary for one of us to now don the role of Torpedoman of the watch and wear a white webbed belt and to be armed with a Billy club since fire arms were not authorized to be in the room lest a torpedo war head be struck by a bullet in the course of a situation. As well, I now took on my role of Nuclear Weapons Handling Supervisor in order to ensure that everything was done “by the book” and in accordance to the procedures set down by the AEC in the handling of nuclear war heads. And, if something went wrong then it was my butt as well as our Weapons Officer, the Captain and the XO. We were going to load two Subroc missiles and one Astor torpedo that day.

So, they got the first weapon, a SUBROC, on board up topside and raised it into position for lowering into the room. Then, COB gave the order to the capstan operator to begin and I looked up to see the white nuc warhead slowly come into the shadows of the interior of the boat, next its red fin guards and finally the solid fuel rocket engine came into sight. And, when it finally reached the proper location I gave COB the order to stop. Then, we lowered the hoist and secured it in place. But, unlike the conventional weapons, we couldn’t walk on it and had to be very careful not to drop a tool or damage it in any way. Even a scratch would be considered an incident code named “Broken Arrow” that must be reported to the AEC. And, a “Bent Spear” referred to a more serious accident such as a drop or other more serious damage to any nuclear weapon that resulted in the release of radioactive material. The American public isn’t aware of just how painstakingly careful the U.S. military is with handling nuclear weapons. I mean, you better not even look at one cross-eyed.

The Subroc was my personal favorite weapon; it just looked mean, and it was too. But of the conventional ones my favorite was the MK-14. Of course, they were all manufactured during WWII so the ones we had here on board were survivors of the “war to end all wars.” And, each one came with a maintenance log that indicated every unit they had been assigned to during their lifecycle. So sometimes during those long lonely watches at sea I would sit and page through some of them and see that a particular fish may have been on the USS Finback or the Growler, or it was at Guadalcanal, or even may have been at Pearl on that “Day of Infamy;” and now, it was sitting right here with me in my torpedo room. And, that gave me a sense of the rich naval tradition that now I was a part of, and it enhanced my pride in my service to America.

Additionally, the 14s were physical works of art inside with all the piping and other accouterments made out of brass, bonze and stainless steel and the workmanship of the components displayed true American craftsmanship. Also, they really were real “Rube Goldberg’s” as far as their internal operating systems and the exploder mechanism in the war heads that armed them were concerned. Everything was accomplished mechanically or pneumatically, no electronics involved at all. I mean, the Gyroscope that guided them was started up by a blast of air from their air flask.

After we accomplished getting the other two nukes down it was time to begin alarming them, and if we did it by the book which involved the “two-man” rule then we would be there working past mid-night. So Weps would turn to me and say “Jim, I’m going up to the ward room for a cup of coffee. So, why don’t you take care of wrapping things up down here then report to me. That was my cue to get it done carefully, but it was OK to skirt the rules because getting them on to the alarm system wasn’t quite so risky a process.

After he left, I yelled out “listen up you guys” to get everyone’s attention. “let’s get these fish on the alarms: Smitty, you take the a Subroc, I’ll take the 45, and Jonesy… you take the other Roc. Now, let’s get it done.”

Then we all got the hand tools we would need and went to work. The procedure was quite simply and involved using a hex head wrench to remove a small plug from the head of each weapon and replacing it with a “quick release” hose fitting. Next an armored hose was snapped onto the fitting and ran to another fitting on the alarm box. Then when the valve was opened on the box nitrogen would flow to the warhead to pressurize it to approx. 25 PSI. After checking all the gauges to be sure the pressure was holding inside the warheads I used my key to turn the switch to energize the alarms. Then the job was done. In the event that one of the alarms sounded thereafter, all hands would grab whatever weapon was at hand and run to the torpedo room in response to a possible security breech. The cook usually grabbed a meat clever; somewhat comical, but very effective. But again, no guns because a bullet through a warhead could cause a detonation.

We completed the task in a half hour. But, if we had gone strictly by the book and followed the “Two-Man Rule” then each weapon would have to be worked on separately with three men, a supervisor, an operator and an assistant. And in that case, the supervisor who must be either myself or Mr. Cox would read each step from the weapons maintenance manual. Then, both the others must say “check” and the assistant would give the proper hand tool, adjusted in the correct position needed to perform the step, to the operator then he would perform the step. When the step was completed and physically checked by the assistant they both would say “check” again indicating to the supervisor that it had been completed satisfactorily. We all were required to go to a school for each weapon and then qualify in the two-man rule in order to be authorized to work on nuclear weapons. The process of working a a nuke really was paramount to participating in a surgical procedure. And, if we would have adhered to it the rules it would have taken three more hours, so our fatigue had to be considered.

After we finished and re-stowed all of the tools I released the men to get some sleep. Then, I went up to report to Lt. Cox in the ward room. After I told him that everything was secured down in the torpedo room he gave me an atta-boy and sent me off. He was a great naval officer who had complete trust and confidence in his men’s abilities.

However as was my way, I went back down to the torpedo room to double check that everything was okay. Then, I sat down on a padded tool box with my back resting against the weapons launch console, took a deep breath, then slowly gazed around the room with a great sense of pride in a job well done.

Then, I thought back recalling a couple of years prior when I had left high school early after my dad became ill and died without warning. It took the heart from me, but when my grief subsided I followed my childhood dream to join the Navy and volunteer for submarine duty. And how I have transformed from a kid with no direction and no future to where I am now; I had done it.

I had earned my GED certificate while in Submarine school in New London; maybe I’ll try college, one day.

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