When I took command of the Sargo from Comdr. Dan Brooks, my first big job was to ready Sargo for her Arctic cruise. We had only a few months to install special equipment, test it, and train the crew for the Arctic operations. I’d been aboard Skate with Jim Calvert on her earlier trip to the Pole and had also studied the reports of Nautilus when Bill Anderson took her to the Pole via Bering Strait, so I knew some of the problems involved. But both Nautilus and Skate had made their Arctic cruises in the summer. It was thus imperative to know if our submarines could operate effectively in the strategically useful Arctic Ocean in mid-winter. And it was also imperative to see whether Sargo could be taken to the Pole via Bering Strait under the worst ice conditions.
Nautilus’s course into the polar regions had been through the Bering and Chukchi Seas — the shallow route into the deep North Canadian Basin, some 75 degrees north latitude. But even in the summer her way was blocked repeatedly by deep ice ridges extending as much as 80 feet down from t·he surface. Time after time she had been forced to backtrack and try new routes before she got through. And once, the boat, which measured 50 feet from keel to top of sail passed under an 80-foot deep ridge in 142 feet of water, leaving her only six feet of clearance above and below! Because Nautilus’s sonar couldn’t detect deep ice ridges until they were virtually overhead, Commander Anderson had broken off the mission, Nautilus returned to Pearl Harbor, was refitted with the proper equipment and eventually made a successful transit to the Pole.
Getting Sargo ready, made for the most hectic four months imaginable. Yard workers labored frantically , even on Christmas and New Year’s Day, to finish the job on time. Then immediately after installation was completed, Sargo was off for sea
trials. The inertial navigation system was tested, vertical ascents and descents were practiced, and the new iceberg detector was tried out. This was tested using another submarine in place of the ice ridges the Sargo would face. From these exercises we were able to check out the equipment, learn its range, estimate depths of “ice ridges ” , and familiarize ourselves with appearances of various objects on the scope of the overhead sonar.
We were ready to leave for the north when 1 got a pessimistic letter from an old friend from my days aboard Skate , Walt Witmann, the Navy’s senior ice forecaster. He predicted , after reconnoitering the northland&, that the winter would be a particularly tough one. Bering Strait, the gateway to the Arctic from the Pacific side, might have such deep ice ridges it could be closed to submarine traffic. With that letter in my pocket I slept uneasily the last few nights before we cast off for the north. But I kept the bad news to myself.
One week out of Pearl, Sargo was surfaced. She had made good time underwater past the Aleutian and Pri bilof Islands, and was nearing Saint Matthew Island in the Bering Sea, still some 1, 800 miles from the North Pole. A navigational fix was needed before going under the edge of the ice pack, which was only a few miles north. In fact, I was much aware of ice as Sargo was cautiously surfaced with periscope and antennae retracted into the sail. Such caution moreover paid off. As Sargo broke the surface, chunks of ice bounced off her, making sharp rapping sounds on the hull. Seals cavorted about, and dead ahead was the solid edge of the ice pack. We were at the starting line and now our work had begun.
It was then we contacted the Staten Island, one of the five U.S. icebreakers. She was thirty-one miles to the north. Our orders were to rendezvous with her before we began the long and difficult Arctic exploration.
We closed with the Staten Island after a vertical dive out of the drift ice around us, and tested our iceberg detector and overhead sonar as we went. Close by the icebreaker, we established underwater telephone contact with her, then surfaced nearby. Commodore Robertson, the Royal Canadian Navy’s top Arctic expert, and Staten Island’s skipper, Comdr. Larson, came aboard for a one-day, under-ice demonstration on Sarge. Later, during the night as we cruised close to the Staten Island, the ice thickened directly overhead. Eager to transfer the two officers back to the ice breaker so Sarge could resume her transit through Bering Strait, I found that getting her back up through the heavy polar winter ice cap was no simple problem.
I found very quickly that Sarge couldn’t surface where she hovered, because the ice had made up and shifted directly over her. Carefully, probing was begun upward with the sonar designed to show us the profile of the ice over Sarge. Mostly, heavy ridges of ice were found, crushed downward by pressing — thus extending 15 and 20 feet beneath the ocean surface, but there was enough room to take Sarge to the surface.
Cautiously, Sarge was maneuvered below the center of the icy plain and began a vertical ascent with pumping and flooding of ballast to control her upward rate. (If the overhead ice was hit too hard, serious damage to the sail with its periscopes, masts, antennae, and other indispensable equipment might occur. If Sarge didn’t hit hard enough, she wouldn’t break through.)
Sargo bumped the underside of the ice. Nothing happened. She hadn’t broken through. The sonar showed one of the 25-foot deep ridges of ice was closing in on Sarge rapidly. Quickly negative tank was flooded and Sargo dropped to a keel depth of 120 feet.
Again the surface ice was observed from below until a flat spot was found that seemed a likely exit hole. And again tanks were blown cautiously until with an echoing bump Sargo rammed sail-first through the overhead ice. Then there was nothing. Sargo was hung up. I ordered Lt. Fred Stelter to blow the ballast tanks. Almost immediately, with grinding and crunching sounds all around her, Sargo broke the rest of the way through the ice and into the air near the patiently waiting Staten Island.
I raised the periscope and saw the icebreaker 300 yards on Sargo ‘s starboard beam. The only other thing I could see was solid ice all around. Opening the upper hatch, I went to the bridge and all but stumbled over the cockpit full of thick ice. When the cockpit was cleared it was evident that Sargo had broken through two feet of ice, the thickest any submarine had ever penetrated. On the after deck was an enormous block of ice five feet thick and measuring 15 by 20 feet — a 13-ton ice cube.
After letting the Commodore and the Commander walk over to the Staten Island, Sargo was submerged. Full of confidence, we flooded tanks, dropping vertically toward the bottom, and steered northward. At dawn the next day, Sargo cracked through the ice forty-one miles off Saint Lawrence Island for a final navigational fix before running submerged through the shallow Bering Strait. The day was bright and so clear that the hills of Saint Lawrence Island could be seen. One long last look at the world above the surface was taken. We were not to see the sun again for twelve days after Sargo dropped out of this frozen polynya and headed into the Arctic night.
Slowly, Sargo cruised northward toward Bering Strait, keeping a keel depth of 100 feet. But the sea grew shallower and shallower as Sargo approached the fifty-mile strait that separates the u.s. from the U.s.s.R. By midnight she had crossed the 25-fathom curve and the soundings shoaled rapidly up to 126 feet. Sargo was passing under 20-foot ice ridges and avoiding the deeper ones thanks to the effectiveness of the iceberg detecting sonar. Adding to the problems was the scarcity of soundings in this area. As Sargo cautiously cruised along with barely more than 25 feet above and below her. it was a matter of groping her way along to find a way through.
Then the overhead sonar failed. This left us totally blind to what might be above Sargo. The deep icy ridges that so frequently had threatened Sargo. as she wove her way northward toward the shallow Bering Strait, could no longer be detected. The ocean depth was a scarce 126 feet, leaving little leeway, so I gave the order to reverse course. With infinite care, our planesmen and helmsman brought Sargo about without tilting her. Sargo was backtracked for two miles before finding her way around the danger spot. With expert handling. Sargo turned 180 degrees without shifting her angle in relation to the sea bed. The slightest tilt could have resulted in her propellers grinding into the ocean bottom leaving her seriously disabled under the pack ice.
All this time the sonarmen worked feverishly to restore the all important overhead “eyes”. And they were up to the job. With repairs completed, Sargo moved on threading her way at very slow speed among the treacherous icy ridges above, as if penetrating a minefield. For the next thirteen hours Sargo twisted and turned tortuously in an ordeal of ice. As the ridges got deeper, Sargo eased down to within 20 feet of the bottom. Sargo passed under some ridges as much as 52 feet deep and avoided many deeper ones. At the end of that thirteen-hour trek Sargo was nearing the Bering Strait. I decided to surface — if we could find a spot in this shallow sea.
The depth was 170 feet. I began maneuvering Sargo for a position to make a vertical ascent through a flat spot in the overhead ice. As Sargo moved, she suddenly began losing depth control and started sinking rapidly toward the bottom. Quickly, I ordered the main ballast tanks blown to check Sargo ‘s descent. Then I ordered the vents opened so Sargo wouldn’t bob corklike to the surface with its three-foot-thick ice. But the huge air bubbles which escaped so distorted the pictures of the overhead ice on the sonar that I ordered the boat down again to seek another skylight to burst through. It was two hours before one was found — in a shallow 170 feet. This time Sargo made the vertical ascent smoothly.
Up she went and her sail hit the ice. Just as before, she stuck I Fred Stelter, our diving officer, ordered the ballast tanks blown – but gently. Sargo ‘s sail then broke through three feet of ice. A new record. The hull took an up angle, then a down angle, then an up angle again and the bow crunched through the solid ice. Sargo ‘s stern, however, remained below and she came to rest with a 4 degree up angle.
On the bridge I found the ice scattered about in huge chunks. Aft, the ice was even thicker, and it was this heavier ice that prevented Sargo’s stern from coming up. But it was a great relief for us all to be above the ice again, even if briefly. We were only halfway through our shallow transit and the pressure on the entire crew was great.
A radar fix on Cape Prince of Wales, the westernmost point of mainland Alaska, was acquired. Next morning Sargo made a vertical dive from a standing position in the ice. Fred Stelter expertly dropped her down and leveled her off at 120 feet — but the many hours in the ice had frozen the bow plane controls so they couldn’t be used for the intricate depth control and trimming needed. Even using the bow planes, it was difficult enough to maneuver and maintain position. Without them it was almost impossible.
A new technique was developed very quickly. . Sargo was cruised at higher speeds than heretofore and a maximum rudder angle of only 3 degrees was used. If a faster turn was required, resort to 5 or even 10-degree rudder might be made to dodge the rock-hard ice ridges overhead. But this meant blowing ballast tanks to keep off the bottom and counterflooding negative tanks to keep from smashing into the ice above. It was nerve wracking.
Once Stelter had Sargo down, she was jockeyed about warily for half an hour before a clear corridor could be found which headed in the general direction desired. Then for the next three hours, the depth continued at around 140 feet. About 20 feet of water between Sargo’s keel and the bottom was kept until suddenly the soundings decreased to 10 feet below her keel. Then, just as suddenly they sloped sharply off to 55 feet before shoaling up quickly again to 40, 30, 20, 10 feet. The bottom was still rising when the diving officer on watch, Lt. Dave Phoenix, ordered the boat up 10 feet — just in time. As he blew the main ballast tanks with the vents open, the boat surged up 10 feet. At the same time the fathometer registered only five feet below Sargo’s keel. We braced ourselves to bounce off the bottom but the soundings went deeper again before Sargo could hit bottom. Many sighs of relief were breathed. The planesmen named the sea mount just crossed, “Tall Gonzales”.
Immediately after the climb over Tall Gonzales, word got to the crew quickly of our narrow escape. After that, virtually everyone huddled around the iceberg detector to watch Sargo being conned around the overhead ice ridges. Alternating at the conn with me were my executive officer, Lt. Comdr. Bill Yates, and my engineering officer, Lt. Comdr. Ned Dietrich. Watching the ice detector reassured all hands as they saw how ice ridges were spotted and a course was plotted with each one.
With the tight squeeze behind, Sargo transited Bering Strait late in the afternoon and by early evening had crossed the Arctic Circle without ceremony. Our objective, the North Pole, was still 1,400 miles off. Sargo ran north all that night, and on the thirteeth day out of Pearl Harbor things went routinely for the first time in a week. As Sargo continued north the water got deeper — 180 feet. Seldom had 30 fathoms looked so invitingly deep to a submariner. With the deeper water and the simple transit, the bow planes were worked – trying to free them from their icy bonds. Frequent manipulation was used to loosen the frost-bound controls. But it wasn’t until later that the bow planes were finally freed.
The next day was the fourteenth out of Pearl and a navigational fix was needed. But at this point, the bow planes still weren’t freed. Without that gear we had to resort to frequent blowing of ballast to make a vertical ascent. The air bubbles unfortunately threw off the sonar so that when Sargo tried to surface through what appeared to be thin ice, she couldn’t poke through. The ice was thicker than the instruments indicated. Sargo was dropped out of that spot, and some hours later, after the bow planes finally were working properly, and after one more unsuccesful attempt to crack through the ice, she surfaced through a skylight only 13 inches thick.
The brief time on the surface allowed a navigational fix, radio reports were made, and two of our divers plunged into the 29-degree water for 22 minutes. It was their first cold water dive. While in the water, they checked the malfunctioning garbage ejector and removed a flattened can that had jammed it closed. Later they made other repairs.
Next day, Sargo resumed her northward course. The bow planes were again frozen but this was of little worry as the 50-fathom curve and then the 100-fathom curve were passed. Speed was increased to 16 knots as Sargo zigzagged her way toward the top of the world.
Shortly, the iceberg detector failed. So on the following day Sargo was surfaced through 7 inches of ice in a 600 by 2,000 yard frozen polynya. Repair of the iceberg detector was then begun. Working in twenty below zero weather, two men at a time worked in half-hour shifts to dismantle the train mechanism and get it below for repairs. The heavy support beam under the detector had to be cut before it could be lowered to the deck below. During this, there was a screeching and groaning of ice as it was being forced up and over the Sargo ‘s main deck. After 40 hours, with the training mechanism finally gotten below, Sargo dove and continued on towards the Pole.
At 0934 on February 9, Sargo passed 350 feet under the North Pole, searching for an opening. A small one was discovered and Sargo smashed through 3 feet of ice and surfaced just 25 yards from the Pole. It was 33 degrees below zero as we raised the Hawaiian State flag alongside Sargo. When Sargo attempted to dive that night she was frozen in solid. It took 30,000 pounds of extra ballast to tear her loose and start her plummeting toward the bottom. But a trim was gotten easily as Sargo circled the earth in seven minutes. That’s real easy when so close to the Pole. Then Sargo headed South — the only possible direction to go.
Enroute South, the ice detector was jury rigged with another sonar, and later Sargo rendezvoused with Ice Island T-3, drifting in the Beaufort Sea and manned by a crew of scientists. After a few tests with the scientists, Sargo headed back for Bering Strait.
Just before entering the Strait, Sargo was surfaced through thick ice and a navigational fix taken. Then Sargo dropped out of the ice into 155 feet of water and cruised at 7 knots into Bering Strait– 24 feet off the bottom. The deep ice ridges began to appear, but evading them was tougher because of the shortened and distorted ranges provided by the jury-rigged detector. Later, when a pair of deep ridges were spotted 500 yards ahead, I ordered a course to take Sargo between them. At 125 yards, the ridge off the port bow looked very deep while the one on the starboard side had disappeared. I altered Sargo’s course 15 degrees to starboard and WHAMl The boat heeled to port as it was shoved down 25 feet, with a 6 degree down bubble. The collision alarm was sounded and conn rang up “‘all stop”. With the depth guage reading 148 feet — almost on the bottom — I ordered “back two thirds” then ordered ballast tanks blown while leaving the vents open. As Sargo came up, “ahead two thirds” on one shaft was rung up and depth control was regained. Sargo was clear of the ridges and all compartments reported “no damage”. It was a close call.
After that, the iceberg scope was left on long scale, and ice ridges were maneuvered around while still 600 yards away. Additonally, Sargo cruised 16 feet off the bottom. But late on the next day, a solid wall of ice was spotted 800 yards ahead. Scanning the huge ice ridge showed no openings, so Sargo was steered parallel to the ice wall for a long period until she was able to skirt around its end — and resume base course.
There was just one trouble spot left — Tall Gonzales. I planned to leave this pinnacle 5 miles off but then the inertial navigational system chose to get out of line a bit. Despite my calculations for set and drift to compensate for the system errors, soundings showed the bottom shoaling up rapidly under Sargo. So I reversed course and headed for deeper water just as the boys put the inertial navigator back on the line . The corrected equipment showed we were clear, and although another field of heavy ridges loomed ahead, Sargo dodged her way through and out into improved ice conditions, where she later surfaced for examination of the damage to the sail. The top of the sail was dished in, one of the scopes couldn’t be raised, and the side of the bridge cockpit was pounded aft and in. We were just plain lucky.
On February 25, Sargo cleared the ice pack after 6,003 miles and 31 days under the ice. At which, one crew member said, “The only ice I want to see for a long time is in a tall glass.”
The success of this risky peacetime mission could only be attributed to the many high skills, courage and well trained reactions of many officers and members of the crew of the Sargo.
John H. Nicholson
(Ed. Note: An advance copy of Admiral Nicholson’s article was sent to F.C. Lynch, Jr. for his comments)
Nicholson’s paper on under-ice operations is exceptionally good. How valuable it would have been for us in 1940 if we had something like that to tell us what sort of problems we were going to face, and how one boat was able to handle them.
I have done a lot of thinking as to the proper role of the Submarine League, and in what way it can be of help to those on active duty. I have written many drafts in trying to express my ideas. I am dissatisfied with what I have produced, however I am beginning to get a focus on a solution.
This focus is illustrated by Nicholson’s paper. I suppose it has something to do with tradition- or the problems others have faced, and how they handled those problems. And how, in retrospect, those problems appear to us now and, again in retrospect, how we think those problems should have been handled.
Perhaps the greatest penalty being paid for all the spectacular advances in technology is that the greater the advance the less applicable the past appears. Tradition has gone by the board; it is a brave new world with no emotional linkages to the past.
This is a penalty in that it practically assures that the same mistakes will probably be made all over again. But it is not wholly the fault of the brave new world. What they have been told of the past is mostly in terms of successes; the problems and the failures have not been covered in the history that they know about.
And then there is the problem of knowing how to behave in battle. This is a new kind of history for us, although the English in particular have used it as a training device for centuries. Pride in combat tradition has been an important element in the success of British arms over those centuries.
This is not to say that the British are braver than we, but it is to say that they have far more and better combat role models than we. Our military history tends to glorify rather than critique. We have glorified some submarine skippers in WW II, but they are not role models. What they did and why they did it are not presented in such a manner that a skipper of today can identify with one of them when he is faced with a combat decision.
This is an area in which the Submarine League could operate effectively. It should be the curator of submarine history and traditions. This doesn’t sound very sexy, and I doubt if the interest in it would be very broad. But it is badly needed.