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Deactivation of USS JOHN MARSHALL (SSN-611)

Vice Admiral Zimble, Captain Konetzni, Commodore Jensen, Commodore Haley, men of the JOHN MAR· SHALL past and present, families and friends.

It’s been 27 years since I last had occasion to talk to the crew of the JOHN MARSHALL, and it’s a pleasure and a privilege to be back with you to celebrate her honorable retirement.

Having my brand new ship, my pride and joy, my JOHN MARSHAlL, retire on 30 years’ service as the oldest submarine in the Navy is, I suppose, not in itself a surprise; it is really no more than I would expect of her. But to have her do it so fast – to have her spend so many years so quickly – such fascinating and significant years in the history of the nation and the world – that really gets my attention.

She was born right there across the river in Newport News. Having been with the. Inspection Board that accepts new ships for the Navy and seen the output of shipyards across the country, I had decided that if the Navy ever gave me command of a new ship, I hoped it would be built in the NNSB&DDC. And behold, not three years later, I found myself on a hot July day standing on the bridge of a Polaris submarine as it slid down the ways into the James River. Ethel Kennedy, wife of the Attorney General, splashed a bottle of top quality champagne all over the ship’s bow and herself and the shipyard president, the band played Anchor’s Aweigh, the crowd cheered, JOHN MARSHAlL took to the water for the first time, and by golly, that was a thrilling moment.

But it is not possible to live on a perpetual high, and after the euphoria of the launching, reality set in. Probably not many of you in the present crew have been through a precommissioning period, and it looks as if not many will in the near future, but I can assure you, it is no picnic. There was a feeling of urgency in the air when we were launched. The cold war was at full heat, only 6 of the planned 41 FBM (Fleet Ballistic Missile) submarines were in service, and JOHN MARSHALL was desperately needed to increase the credibility of our growing deterrent forces – forces, that is, designed to deter the Soviet Union from attacking the U.S. or its allies – to deter them from making good on Kruschev’s threat, “We will bury you.” The Cuban Missile crisis, the highwater mark of the USSR’s threatening moves against the U.S., was under way. The shipyard was working three shifts, with only a 2-hour gap in the early morning when we could get aboard, so we held School-of-the-Boat from 5 to 7 every morning. I can’t say there was no grumbling — it’s a sailor’s prerogative to grumble occasionally — but the effort we put forth paid large dividends in welding together an integrated, trained, competent crew. I’ll give you an example. SAM HOUSTON was the boat immediately ahead of us in the shipyard, so when she went out on sea trials, a contingent of JOHN MARSHALL sailors went along as observers. When some serious problems developed in the missile equipment, it was not the shipyard that fiXed it and it was not the SAM HOUSTON crew; it was the JOHN MARSHALL observers who identified the problem and set it right, so that the sea trial could be completed successfully.

By the time of our commissioning in May of 1962, the men were well knit together as a solid crew. They were proud of their ship and themselves, and in a very nice way, they took nothin’ from nobody. After the commissioning ceremony, of course, we held open house for the guests, starting with a fast walk-through by the official party. The principal speaker for the commissioning was Chief Justice Earl Warren who, though he finished life as a jurist, never forgot that be started out as a politician. As he passed through the control room he stepped up to one of the sailors, stuck out his hand, and said, “Good afternoon, son. I’m Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States.” The sailor, completely unfazed, took the Chief Justice’s hand and said, “Good afternoon, sir. I’m Joe Belliveau, Electronics Technician First Class, USS JOHN MARSHALL” Then they both grinned.

The next one through was Paul Fay, Undersecretary of the Navy, touch football pal of President Kennedy, and a physical fitness devotee. He came up to Joe Belliveau, who, to put it charitably, was rather large, and said, “Son, haven’t you heard of my weight loss program for the Navy?” “Yes sir,” said Joe with his widest grin, “but she’s a feeder.”

JOHN MARSHALL set an enviable record in the shipyard. During the entire time we were there, we never missed our scheduled underway times for sea trials, and we never failed to complete successfully all objectives of the trials. But records are made to be broken — and ours was broken – badly broken – on the last day, when we were to leave the shipyard for the last time and start our shakedown cruise.

You see, my Medical Officer in the commissioning crew was a starry·eyed, downy·cheeked young doctor, fresh from medical school, internship, officer school, Submarine School, Nuclear Power school — long on training and short on experience. He found himself supported by two highly experienced, highly competent chief hospitalmen, Alex Nicholson and Lou Sikes. Like all intelligent young officers, the doctor hearkened to the voices of his chiefs. In the organization of their department, these three sages noticed that the number one periscope, which came down right through the medical office spaces, when lowered, left just enough room beneath it to stow the bed pan. The doctor agreed that this was the perfect solution to getting a little-used appurtenance out of the way of the more important stuff. Well, the night before our final departure, the ship’s duty officer ran through an extensive checklist of equipment tests, just to make sure everything would be in readiness on the morrow. He even bypassed the normal stops and lowered the periscopes to their under-ice position, which moved them down an additional few inches to provide extra shielding for the optics on top of the scope if we should ever happen to go under the arctic ice. No one expected a Polaris to operate under the ice, of course, but it was one of the details in making us a submarine fully capable of performing all missions.

The next morning when we were preparing to get under way, the navigator reported to me that the radar wouldn’t work. It turned out that the problem was that the bedpan was of stainless steel, but the radar waveguide on the bottom of the scope was of copper. When the scope went down those last few inches, the bedpan was damaged, but the radar waveguide turned to spaghetti, and the young doctor thought his naval career had, too. Our departure was delayed for several hours while the shipyard personnel came aboard, earning triple time because it was a Saturday, and reassembled the radar. So much for a perfect record. But the net benefit of starting navy life under the tutelage of two good chiefs is evident from the fact that Doctor Jim Zimble just finished his own 30-some years of service, retiring as a Vice Admiral and the Surgeon General of the United States Navy. And I’m glad you’re here today, Jim. And not only Jim Zimble, but I see more than a dozen JOHN MARSHALL plank-owners, Blue and Gold, sitting in the audience. It’s great to see you guys!

It was really fascinating to compare the operations of our new nuclear submarine to those of the diesel-electric boats particularly wartime operations. From the days of their inventor, John Holland, our precious submarines had in truth been submersible surface ships, able to operate freely underwater for short periods, but faced with the paramount necessity of surfacing every night to charge batteries. In fact, the most significant change since my father’s first command, the A-2 with its crew of six, to the 76-man TREP ANG in which I made five war patrols, had been the replacement of gasoline engines by diesels.

But here suddenly we had a vehicle capable of operating indefinitely submerged, needing only to surface every two years to reenlist the crew. It is in fact a true submarine. I don’t need to detail to this audience all the hidden ramifications of this fact, but there is one I want to mention. One of the prime requisites for a submarine sailor in the old days was a good pair of sealegs, either brought with him to the ship, or developed in a very few days at sea. The boats were possibly the most seaworthy ships in the navy, but next to a destroyer, arguably the most uncomfortable. On our first war patrol in TREP ANG, off Tokyo Bay in a typhoon, I saw an officer, thrown from his bunk in the forward battery compartment, instinctively hang on to his mattress and take it with him. He woke up with his head in the forward torpedo room, still holding his mattress. By contrast, the nuclear submarine, especially the FBM, stays submerged, and a sailor has no chance to develop his sea legs. In JOHN MARSHAlL, I had sailors who would get seasick when we came to periscope depth in a state four sea. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if that were still the acse!.

The Polaris cycle of operations was in some respects very similar to the wartime cycle, in which we would go to sea for a patrol of nominally 30 days on station plus transit time, then return for a short refit, and repeat the cycle. A major difference is that in the boomers, you know just when you are leaving and bow long you’ll be out. You know the exact date on which the mid-patrol dinner of steak and lobster will be served. The most excitement you can anticipate is the scurrying around to repair the inevitable equipment casualties. The first and the last two weeks are endless, but the period in the middle just passes by. But in wartime, the time on station was spent in constant anticipation of combat, at any hour of day or night If you found enough targets, you could fire all your torpedoes and come back for refit and rest camp, which could be the Royal Hawaiian Hotel or a barren atoll in the South Pacific. But for those unfortunate enough not to find targets, the thirty days would pass in a fever pitch of boredom, and the crew would return with frayed nerves and the disappointment of a dry run. I’m happy to say, we got rid of our torpedoes on all five of our patrols in TREPANG, sinking or damaging sixteen ships, including putting a fish into a battleship, and rescuing ten aviators.

The two-crew arrangement which permits the modem missile-carrying submarine to keep a schedule of almost continuous at-sea deployment, while the crew gets home occasionally for a little R&R, is, I believe, unique in the annals of warships. It has obviously been successful in general, and I can testify positively that there was no friction at all between the first Blue and the first Gold crews of this ship. Oh, we had our little incidents. The night after we relieved the Gold crew in the Holy Loch, Scotland, after their first patrol, the Gold officers sneaked aboard at two in the morning, turned the stateroom speakers up to full volume, blocked all the doors, and put a tape on the wardroom recorder of a British army band that started out with the drum major shouting “huh, huh, huh, huh!” I can tell you that woke us up and shook us up. As you might imagine, we spent our whole patrol dreaming up a proper response.

We set our little surprise to go off during the Gold crew’s first dinner after they relieved us. We had hard wired the spare reactor plant alarm into the electrical lines just above the wardroom table, and it sounded off right on schedule. It took them 20 minutes to get it turned off. The Gold Crew admitted that they had been bested by the Blue, and from then on out we confined our competition to striving to tum the ship over each time in better operating condition, cleaner, and with smoother paperwork than we got it. In that competition, we came out about even.

Let me tell you about a small incident we ran into. When we surfaced off northern Ireland after our first deployment into the Med (we’d operated in the Norwegian Sea up to that time), I saw through the periscope what appeared to be a long gash in the deck aft of the fairwater, Investigation showed that it wasn’t a gash at all; in was ten fathoms of blue nylon line, with several six-inch fishhooks attached to it at intervals. I’d love to have heard that fiSherman’s tale of the one that got away. But you know, the more I think about that story the less funny it gets. I’ve lost many a night of sleep wondering what happened to the poor guy who was just out trying to make a living, and suddenly found himself being towed backwards at five knots.

The decision of the Navy’s ship designers to make JOHN MARSHALL a fully capable, all-purpose submarine was amply justified when the Polaris type missile was overtaken by the advanced technology of the Poseidon and finally the Trident. With scarcely a break in her activities, JOHN MARSHALL was able to transform herself into an attack boat, and finally into this new, exotic configuration of Dry Deck Shelter/SEAL Delivery Vehicle. As one who went from the Submarine Force to being an amphibious sailor, I can fully appreciate the potential for such a ship. And the skill with which you performed that mission is attested to by the Meritorious Unit Commendation you earned in the Med in 1989, and your honorable service in the recent Desert Storm operations.

JOHN MARSHALL the deterrent weapons system was a vital piece of one of the most successful strategies in the history of warfare. We were faced with the aggression of an implacable, self-declared foe, bent on world domination and the elimination of our way of life. We embarked on a strategy not of aggression facing aggression, but of deterrence. We faced the enemy with a solid front of our combined physical and moral strength, and in beating him, we did not have to fight. Not since the Biblical times of Nehemiah has there been a record of a strategy and a weapon system so successful. Nehemiah rebuilt the defenses of Jerusalem while standing up to the belligerence, blusterings, and blandishments of his enemies, and in the end, ~ did not have to fight We are told that his enemies were “much cast down in their own eyes,” and I can think of no better description for the humiliation of the Soviet Union and of Communism world wide, than that they are much cast down in their own eyes.

So we have won the Cold War, but until we find a way to repeal human nature, we cannot afford to assume there will be a peaceful, trouble-free world. And as it becomes clear what measures of defense — hot or cold, active or passive – our nation’s policy next dictates, the ones called upon to work first and hardest on that policy will be you young men and your successors in uniform. And as for JOHN MARSHALL herself, as long as any of us who served in her continue to serve, she will still be doing her share.

Thank you, Captain Wegner, and your sixteen predecessors for taking such good care of my ship.

God bless you, and your families, and the ships in which you will serve.

Naval Submarine League

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