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Tales from the Silent Service The Pargo Adventure

April 19, 2017

 

I had been assigned to the pre-commissioning crew of the nuclear-powered Sturgeon class, Fast Attack type submarine USS Bluefish SSN 675, under construction at the Electric Boat/General Dynamics shipyard in New London Connecticut.

 

I and two of my mates had been given Temporary Assigned Duty (TAD) Aboard USS Pargo SSN 650 for a trip to Cocoa Beach Florida for Helmsman/Planesman training. We kept to ourselves during the two-and-a-half-day transit to Florida because we were considered “lower than whale shit non-quals” and useless riders who pointlessly suck up air and food and are a liability to the rest of the crew. However, that casual cast system builds character and humility in young sailors. 

 

To become qualified a sailor must learn all the ship’s systems as listed on a qualification card, have each one signed off by a Qualifications Petty Officer, then pass a qualification board consisting of an officer, enlisted man and a Chief Petty Officer. And, finally, the Commanding Officer designates him “Qualification in Submarines.” 

 

That’s is followed by a qualification ritual where the Captain presents him with a Submarine Qualification Certificate and pins the coveted silver dolphin to his chest and proclaims that he is qualified in submarines. Next each member of the crew pounds the pin with their fist and looks him in the eye acknowledging that they trust him with their very lives, and them with his; and yes, it does hurt and there is blood. 

 Subsequently, on the next in port they take him to their favorite bar to have him “drink his dolphins”, a long-standing submariner tradition. The bar-keep pours shots of liquor from assorted bottles to fill the beaker and drops his Dolphins in to sink to the bottom. Next, he is sat up on the bar to be cheered on as he chugs down the booze, catches the dolphins in his teeth and proudly displays them to the crew; immediately puking in the plastic bag provided for that purpose. 

 

Along the way to Cocoa, we heard that NASA was to launch Apollo 13 on America’s seventh space mission to the moon and that we could witness it from a distance and the crew was excited about that opportunity. We three spent much of our off time in the galley with the mess cooks as they went about their daily grind and who were non-quals too, so we all got along pretty well. A mess cook is a job all new crewman of the lower ranks must initially perform, and it’s a grueling three months of eighteen-hour work days washing dishes, making salads, scrubbing decks on hands and knees and serving tables for a hundred guys who can become cranky at times and take it out on the mess cooks. Once, a guy flung a butter knife at me when I was mess cooking because I sassed him; he missed and so I kicked the knife back to him on the deck and told him to try again which got a chuckle from him and the crew. As well, you must work on your quals to avoid landing on the “dink-list” and having your liberty cancelled because you won’t see land again, even in port

 

When we surfaced off of Cocoa beach we three went to the control room to observe the procedure. The OD ordered the Diving Officer to “clear Baffles” by putting Pargo in a 360 degree turn so our sonarmen could listen for any contacts that might ram us; when clear, the OD ordered “up-periscope” then he was on it and scanning around prior to it even breaking the surface. Surfacing is a perilous time for a submarine, being “sonar deaf” aft because of the prop wash, and being blind visually until the scope breaks the surface. So, for those transitory minutes its vulnerable because “deep-draft” super-tankers can cut a submarine in half.  Once surfaced, we stationed the Maneuvering Watch, then picked up our escort tugs and the Harbor Pilot who would climb the bridge to guide our Captain through the harbor to our berth.

It seemed that the Pargo’s Captain Kurk and his crew had something in common with McHale’s Navy because had a reputation for being a bit off, yet his crew was devoted to him. For example, once Pargo was running submerged at 400 feet and ahead flank in the North Atlantic when the ship was jarred as if it had experienced a collision, and when they emergency surfaced to check for damages they discovered the bridge glazed with blood and guts; it seems they had struck an unwary whale sending him to his demise. Another time, the Captain attempted to roll the submarine completely over, which is an engineering impossibility.  But, Kurk decided to test that theory by ordering flank speed and repeated full left and right rudder resulting in high speed turns. And, although he was unsuccessful, the boat did take 45 degree rolls. 

 

I experienced some of his antics first hand later into the trip when the captain ordered that the viewing of the evening movie would take place topside along with some fishing and a bar-b-que. So, he ordered the sail planes into the 90 degree “under ice” position, then the off-duty crew scurried up topside armed with a bed sheet and affixed it to the port fair-weather plane and set-up the movie projector. Apparently, they had done this before because the procedure was accomplished expediently. 

 

Back aft, some of the engineers affixed a large fishing hook, that they had fashioned out of a bucket handle, to a line and wound it around the aft capstan. Next, one of the mess cooks brought a whole ham to bait the hook with and a case of pork chops for chum. Before long, three sharks were lurking around the boat and so I decided to mosey back aft to take a closer look. The deck was still slick making walking treacherous causing and me to lose my footing to gradually glide down the hull while upright, and towards an awaiting shark. I instinctively reached out my hand, shouting for help but the words gagged in my throat. Then, a hand came from nowhere and grasped my arm wrist-to-wrist then yanked me up onto the deck where I landed on my knees breathless, pale-white and shaken. I looked up woefully to see my savior, a third-class FT named Bell, staring down at my sorry ass; “Ya okay sailor? We don’t want to lose anyone out here” he said. Then he patted me on the head, turned forward and casually walked off.

Later, we grilled steaks and baked potatoes while Hinckley sat aft on his beach chair, fishing pole in hand and shouting course changes up to the OD on the bridge. The engineers managed to hook one shark, however he escaped while being hoisted up the side and fell back into the water. 

 

Many of the Skippers of that era were WWII vintage and a salty breed who frequently pushed the envelope of their boat and crew, but in exchange returned loyalty to their men by giving them a break from the stresses of submarine life whenever possible. So, they routinely looked the other way concerning many minor infractions such as returning to the boat escorted by Shore Patrol after a bar-room brawl or committing some other madcap act, as young sailors often do.  And, the Attack boat crews regarded themselves as apart from the “spit-and-polished” Navy having “uniforms of the day” of patched up jeans, sneakers without socks, and sans under-wear; they had swagger and fancied themselves as modern day pirates.

 

 Afterwards, we dove Pargo to spend the night, then headed into Cocoa Beach prior to day break. It was April 11, 1970 the date of the space launch and I had the day off having the opportunity for some sun and fun. So, I rented a 250CC Yamaha motorcycle, threw a bag on the back and headed out for a day of discovery, then later on I stopped in a bar for a cool one and to watch the launch on TV. The atmosphere was celebratory and patriotic, refreshing in those protest days of the Viet Nam War era because the space program was based in Florida and the residents were extremely proud of that. I viewed the pre-launch preparations and the start of the final count-down, and when it reached T-minus-five the bar abruptly emptied out into the street, all traffic stopped and drivers exited their cars to search the sky. I followed the crowd to see the fiery plume of the rocket engine off in the distance as it powered the space capsule and crew into the heavens and outer space for a ronde-vu with destiny.  The crowd cheered and wished the crew and God’s speed for a safe and successful mission. But, little did we know then that would not be the case.

 

Two days later on April 13th aboard Pargo back at sea off the coast the radio room advised that it had received “flash traffic” of a highly confidential nature and they requested that the Captain proceed in immediately to view it. He returned and ordered the OD to ahead flank and to change course immediately, then he announced that Apollo-13 was in distress and NASA had aborted the mission and may be forced to bring it down in the Atlantic rather than the Pacific as initially planned. We were the only ship in the area that could get to the alternate splash-down site in time to assist. The significance and urgency of the situation and concern for the NASA crew filtered throughout the boat, yet we were thrilled about the prospect of Pargo being instrumental in their safe recovery.

 

 However, few hours later we were notified that the space capsule would be brought down in the Pacific, as planned and soon after it was recovered, with the astronauts safely aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima LPH-2. That was the best outcome anyway because an Attack submarine isn’t well equipped to recover a space capsule, so the best we could have done was to keep it afloat until larger support vessels arrived. 

 

Next, it was time for our helmsmen/planemen training. So, Kurk summoned the three of us to the Control room where we stood ill-as-ease looking up at him as he stood authoritatively on the periscope stand and explained that we would be practicing a “jam-dive.”

 

This is when due to a systems failure of the ship’s control devices they jam in full dive sending it into an uncontrolled descent into the depths. Failure to recover from the emergency will cause the submarine to exceed “crush depth,” and collapse under the under the enormous load of tens of thousands of pounds of sea pressure; one doesn’t die due to drowning on a submarine, rather they are crushed to death.

Next, Kurk explained he would order ahead flank speed and that the stern planes be put in full dive, saying that we would not react, what-so-ever, until he gave the “command jam-dive.”

 

That disturbed me deeply since I was well aware of the consequences of putting on full dive at flank speed, having sunk a few trainers in my time. These maneuvers are called “angles and dangles” and submarine crews actually love it, except for the cook that is, because the dishes, pots and pans sail around the galley and then come crashing to the deck leaving a huge mess to be cleaned up by him and the mess cooks.

 

The captain had selected me as his first victim, so I requested permission of the D.O. to relieve the helm, was given the pertinent info concerning course, depth and speed then I swapped out with the helmsmen and buckled into the seat.

I had done this maneuver prior on a simulator in submarine school, but this was going to be one hell of a way to be introduced to piloting a real submarine.  I checked my gauges; our depth was 202 feet and the ordered depth was 200.

“Mind your depth sailor.” Barked the Diving Officer.

“Aye, aye sir!” I responded.

 

Its required to hold depth to within two feet and course within one degree in either direction. And, since I was a novice they were watching me closely, and they were razzing me to try and rattle me too.

Kurk ordered ahead flank, I answered back and turned the knob on the engine order telegraph to inform the throttle-man in the engine room of the speed change; he answered with a ring and the corresponding arrow clicking to ahead flank.

 

I felt a vibration in the seat of my pants as the huge prop began to propel our 4200 tons of submarine through the sea at increasing speed. And, soon we were hurling through the blackness of the sea at over 25 miles per hour with only our passive sonar to alert us of what might lurk ahead.

I tensed in anticipation and my knuckles whitened as I gripped the wheel, my thoughts drifted back in time to a dark New Jersey highway with my hands gripping a different steering wheel. That of my ’66 GTO careening at high speed in a drag race with my buddy’s 68 Chevelle SS. That was a long stretch from an irresponsible street racing kid to this of a trained young sailor at the helm of a Nuclear Attack submarine. It had been just a year earlier, but it seemed like a life-time ago to me now.

My heart was pounding and my muscles were taut as I awaited the jam-dive order. Then, I felt a hand on my shoulder as the D.O. leaned forward and in a friendly voice and whispered.

“Relax sailor, you’ll do OK.”

So, I loosened my grip and took a deep breath; then finally, the order came.

“Full dive on the stern planes!”

Then suddenly, I was hanging by my waist in the seat belt and struggling to keep the stick up by crushing it to my chest against the gravitational force while I braced my feet on the control panel below me that was in front of me prior. The guys in the control room were hanging from the overhead piping, their legs dandling in midair or bracing their bodies against bulkheads to remain upright.

I glanced at the digital depth gauge spinning so fast that I recognized only hundred foot increments as we passed 300 hundred feet in a flash and continued descending; it had been just seconds since the full dive order, but seemed like an eternity had passed already. 

“Crap, what is this guy waiting for?” I thought.

Then mercifully, “Jam Dive, jam dive!” 

 

Beads of sweat had formed on my forehead as I struggled to reach the engine order enunciator and simultaneously throw the rudder to full right. The response came from the engine room and the pots and pans were crashing to the deck down below; the cook was screaming. 

“Rudder is full right, stern planes are in full rise, sail planes are in full rise, answers all back emergency”

“Aye... aye... aye… aye” Kurk responded coolly.

 

I was hanging on for my life, the depth gauge passed 500 feet and the bubble indicator was pegged as Pargo careened downward in a near vertical dive into the ominous depths of the sea while the pressure hull groaned under the increasing sea pressure. Then, I felt a heavy rumble in my seat and I was being drawn down more forcibly now against the seat belt as the prop began to get traction to reverse our descent and the boat began to slow.

 

“Passing 625 feet sir.” Said the D.O.

“625 aye.” Kurk acknowledged.

The entire boat was shuttering under the strain, but the depth gauge was becoming readable again. 

“Passing 650, and slowing Captain.

“650 feet, aye.”

 

Now, we were literally standing on our bow nearly 700 feet beneath the Atlantic. Then, as the boat slowly began to back out of the dive and level off, and I could lower my feet to the deck again; my body was trembling, sweat was pouring from my forehead, and my shirt was soaked with perspiration from the stress of it all, as well as the shear physical exertion.

Soon, we leveled off at 350 feet and although I was drained, I was exhilarated; that was great I thought, I can’t wait to do it again.

 

The Captain ordered that the rudder be put amidships, level all planes, ring up ahead two-thirds and come to a depth of 200 feet.

 

“Neeext!”  shouted Kurk, reminiscent of a chain style maître d’. For him it was just another day at the office. But, for me it had been the most harrowing day of my young life.

I took my place on the stern planes as speed was increased to flank again, then full dive on the stern planes came the order. And, as I answered and executed I thought here comes the start of another wild ride. Already, I could hear the cook screaming, and everyone in the control room was laughing.

It’s been forty-seven years now, but I will always remember my adventure aboard USS Pargo with Captain Kurk and his crew, especially my first “JAM-DIVE!”  

 

 

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