I want to tell you about an event which has deepened my conviction of the importance of the people and the training we have developed in the submarine force over the years. You may recall that BONEFISH, the last diesel submarine in the Atlantic, was in the vicinity of the Bahamas three years ago, when a fire in the battery area caused the captain to abandon ship and left us with the problem of recovering and bringing her back to Charleston. I had the privilege to be in charge of the rescue operation at sea, an experience that I won’t soon forget.
I was sent out with a handful of young people (a couple of them BONEFISH sailors who happened to have been on leave or had stayed back in Charleston for training) to see what I could do about bringing the submarine back to port. Recognizing that the ship was taking on water and that the conditions inside the submarine were unbelievably difficult for salvage, I arrived on the scene and was helo-ed out with my party to one of our frigates in the KENNEDY battlegroup which was steaming in the vicinity.
Conditions on BONEFISH were absolutely temble, the air in the submarine was totally contaminated, having been filled with the residue from various laminated formica installations, burned cables, various fluids, hydraulic oil, and battery chlorine. This required anyone entering the submarine to be in a Scott breathing apparatus rather than an Oxygen Breathing Apparatus which was not efficient enough. It was dark on the ship, sea state was five, the ship was taking 30 degree rolls and pitching about 10 degrees, and it was extremely difficult to get back and forth from the frigate to the submarine. The only option was rubber boats with difficult boarding conditions on both ends. The submarine was taking on water in the torpedo room and the stem room, and when we arrived on scene, was about six or seven degrees down by the bow with water up to the foot of the sail.
It was necessary to enter this hellish situation, stepping over dead shipmates, finding the right valves, getting the valves shut, pumps established, and securing the submarine on the surface before we could tow her back to port. The importance of this effort was not only because of the salvage value of the submarine which was perhaps as high as 40 million dollars, and the recovery of the three fellows who had died in the fire, but also because of the obvious ramifications for the rest of the submarine force.
During that two..day time at sea with BONEFISH there were several realizations that convinced me of the irrefutable wisdom of the way we run today’s submarine force. First, Admiral Dan Cooper as SUBLANT had sent me with the authority to do whatever was necessary to save the submarine and he was there to buffer me from the rest of the world I had only to make reports to him in the interim. and only when I was ready to make them. I had to answer to no one else. His role was purely that of support for the effort. That structure in the final analysis gave me the room to do what was necessary to oversee the salvage of the ship with the knowledge that every effort would be made to send help if I needed it. But what I want most to tell you is that the quality of the young BONEFISH sailors in knowing their ship. in knowing those 5,000 valves and switches. in knowing where they were in this pitching, rolling. ravaged hulk in pure darkness. and utterly contaminated atmosphere, were the factors that resulted in saving the ship. Their ability to enter the submarine with seven minutes on an air pack, get to remote areas, operate required valves, establish valve lineups and get the submarine in a condition where we could salvage it were feats only a submariner could appreciate. I have never been more impressed with basic submarining than I was with those young fellows. It was the factor that saved BONEFISH.
Lastly, I have never been quite as touched as I was by the general level of concern for their shipmates demonstrated by the men on the two frigates, the submarine rescue ship, and the carrier that were on scene. I will always remember JOHN F. KENNEDY, a thousand yards off BONEFISH’s beam at a time when we thought we might lose the ship. Kennedy was making a lee for BONEFISH so we could do what was required to prepare for an airblow to the ballast tanks. I will never forget, after two days on station. a muster of the frigate crew at two o’clock in the morning. All of us were dead tired, but the need to get back on board BONEFISH for yet a final effort of damage control was mandatory. Sea state was still 4 or 5, and the boat crews, having performed marvelously for the previous two days, were so tired that they were no longer functional. The captain of the frigate gathered the crew on the fantail of the ship. I explained the situation and asked if there were any volunteers to go to BONEFISH, drive the boats and operate the auxiliary equipment topside, recognizing the very difficult situation that existed on the submarine. I’ll always remember that every man in that 200 man crew raised his hand, and I was touched. It is truly these fine young people who man our Submarine Force and our Navy and the dedicated feeling we have toward one another that makes it all worth while.
The Soviets sailors associated with the lost YANKEE and the MIKE may have found themselves in not too different a set of circumstances than what we found on BONEFISH. My understanding of the way they operate and train is reconfirmed by the fact that their efforts to save their two ships were unsuccessful while ours was successful. And I’m proud to consider myself an honorary member of BONEFISH! I will always remember, with Admiral Cooper, that memorial service in Charleston when we remembered the crew, their efforts and the three shipmates who died in the ship. This touching experience cemented forever my bond to the finest submarine force in the world. It is these kinds of people who operate our TRIDENT submarine program, it is these kinds of people at every level, be it the 3-star or the troops on board our submarines that will ensure for the long term that TRIDENT will remain the keystone of deterrence that it has come to be accepted as at all levels from the President to the Secretary of Defense to the man in the street.