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This is a leadership story involving submarines. First: a little backround. As you may know, over the past several decades as our country built our nuclear submarine force, we have sold or given existing diesel-electric submarines (as well as other ships) to allies and friends of the United States. As a result, today many of the ships comprising the naval backbone of several South American countries are vessels which were originally commissioned in the U.S. Navy.

For the nations that comprised the post-World War IT free world, it has been in our best interests to provide naval advice and assistance to go with those ships. This is especially true if that assistance is not seen as intrusive or an infringement on national independence, and was particularly expensive and unnecessarily duplicative. For example, we maintain, located on U.S. soil. but quickly transportable worldwide, several different methods of assisting countries in the event that one of their submarines accidentally sinks.

One way to escape from a submarine is with a diving bell or an escape chamber. This is exactly what you think. A bell-like chamber is lowered down to the submarine (usually guided by a cable which is attached to the submarine on the bottom end and suspended from a orange-colored buoy on the surface). The men enter the bell directly from the submarine, and are slowly winched to the surface. Since trained underwater doctors and divers can be sent down with the bell and oxygen supplied in the quantity needed, injured men can be retrieved and there is a great deal more flexibility in any rescue effort.

We maintain an escape chamber capability for the use of our friends and allies worldwide. The equipment, as well as the trained doctors and divers, have been located in San Diego for some years, and, in the event of an emergency, we fly whatever is needed anywhere in the world.

Another one of those methods to rescue submarine accident survivors is with a mini-submarine. This is an electric-battery powered submarine (with about a day’s use endurance) designed to shuttle transport survivors from their submarine on the bottom to another submarine or to a surface ship. If you saw the film Hunt for Red October, you watched the actors (and several regular Navy men who were recruited for the film) be transported underwater in a mini-submarine between the United States submarine DALLAS and the Soviet RED OCfOBER. A mini-rescue-submarine can go down to several thousand feet and bring back survivors without anyone even getting his or her feet wet, much less nibbled by a shark.

Once upon a time a diesel submarine belonging to one of our South American friends accidently sank. It was later deter-mined the submarine had been inadvertently run over by a surface ship.) The people in San Diego responsible for submarine rescues heard about the accident and immediately started preparing for the rescue. Well … sort of immediately started preparing, and this is one of the important aspects of this story.

In the military units with which I am familiar, since the United States does not have a nearly constant call for warfare (or submarine rescue, in our current example) to be conducted somewhere, we try to invent a job to occupy the people. We want the men and women to keep their skills sharp so that they are continuously ready, so we think of some useful work closely related to whatever they would actually do in combat. This is fairly easy with most naval jobs, for the danger of simply working on the sea is usually enough to keep people tuned. Understandingly, the better we do at devising their peacetime job, the more the people doing the work may think that this is their real reason for existence! In the case of interest, during the 99.999 percent of the time that submarines are not inadver-tently sinking, we have the rescue people work at helping underwater research. We take scientists down to work near the underwater volcanic fissures, and pick up (very expensive or irreplaceable) things which have ended up on the bottom, lay cables for government agencies, etc. All of this is work that requires people to work underwater at great depths, and to adapt to all types of challenges and environments. It is ideal work for people whose purpose is to rescue submariners.

Unfortunately, since their day-to-day work was so interesting and challenging, the group tended to forget its reason for existence. Therefore, when the South American diesel subma-rine went down, we could think of all sorts of reasons why this problem didn’t particularly apply to us.

“It is too far away, we could never get there in time.”

“I’m not sure we have an agreement with that country to provide rescue services.”

“If  we do anything, it will cost money.  Who will pay for it?”

“What if they really don’t have a problem and … (insert any of the above questions)?”

“We have a schedule to maintain.”

‘They’re in pretty shallow water, they can get out on their own.”

Much later we realized “the schedule” was really the origin of the initial reluctance. Gearing up a major rescue operation would completely disrupt all the operations large numbers of people had spent weeks carefully, carefully planning. The make work bad taken on a life of it’s own! It was an interesting lesson: people do not readily discard work in which they have personally invested. As a result, they may not even recognize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

Fortunately, one officer in the organization was a tiger, and, as soon as he was notified of the problem, he recognized the challenge and took over. Our airplanes with our escape chamber (bell), the support equipment, and the trained divers and doctors were in the air – nearly over the South American country – when the last of their trapped submariners made good their own free ascent escapes.

A I recall, only one sailor died, and he died helping save some of his injured shipmates.

Our American unit got a lot of praise for their aggressiveness in getting out ahead of the problem. Some of the troops got an interesting trip to an exotic city they would otherwise never have seen. Everyone in the organization was proud. We gave out a couple of medals. We promoted the tiger in front of his peers. Everyone in the organization had a renewed understand-ing of their purpose. There wasn’t any press coverage, and we didn’t promote any. The country with the problem had handled it on their own and the party in power in that country was not particularly interested in advertising J!!!Y relationships with the North American brother. Wonder how the press would have treated the event if we bad started our rescue preparations only after the submarine’s own rescue attempts had failed?

We did completely destroy the schedule. No planned paper event was completed on time for at least a couple of weeks. Too bad.

We also uncovered some problems in the way the unit was organized and trained, so we were better prepared for the next time, whenever it comes.

A good couple of days. An opportunity for fifteen minutes of glory avoided.

An organization is lost without one, but a single tiger is usually enough. If you have one, ensure he or she is fed and protected.

Let’s permit a couple of months on the calendar to leaf by and we’ll return to that unit and see what other lessons they can teach us.

Remember I mentioned earlier that some of the people who drive a mini-submarine in the rescue unit once got the role of acting that same job in a movie? Well, several months after the movie came out, some of these sailor-actors were at sea in their mini-submarine practicing putting in an underwater cable (the submarine can be outfitted with different mechanical devices, or “bands’\ making underwater work easier – today they had a cable reel installed).

They were working about a mile underwater, where the pressure is sufficient to crush a tank. It’s dark down there. Light from the surface doesn’t go much below a hundred feet, so there is nearly no vegetation this deep. There are only a couple of portholes in the submarine to see from anyway. Can’t see anything approaching from directly astern. It’s also cold. And lonely. The only contact with humanity is an occasional underwater telephone message from the support ship on the surface. Underwater telephones are hard to understand and each message uses preciotis power, so there aren’t many. The occasional fJSb that swims into your working beam is a welcome fellow swimmer.

The mini-submersible’s crew was working at replacing one of the anchors for a suspended hydroacoustic device. It was slow work. The previous crew bad worked the anchor into place. This day’s job was to connect a nylon cable to the anchor, then slowly back away using the small multiple propellers installed on the very maneuverable submarine, paying out the cable for fifty feet or so, and then slowly ascend, leading that cable up to the support ship. Once the cable was connected, the hydroacoustic device would be firmly anchored, no matter what the sea conditions — the cable was nearly unbreakable.

The previous day’s crew had warned of seeing an old nylon cable in the vicinity of the anchor. This crew bad seen nothing maybe some long fronds, but nothing else. Now, the anchor’s hooked! Only have to carefully back away. Five feet, ten feet, fifteen. Out of the comer of his eye, the pilot saw some long shadows waving in the turbulence created by the mini-subma-rine’s motion. Then the maneuvering propeller suddenly stopped.

Yes. They had backed into another virtually unbreakable nylon line and wound it around their main propulsion propeller. In their initial efforts to break free, their own cable reel came loose and assisted in the entanglement. The mini-submarine was now tied securely to the bottom, nearly a mile below the surface, with less than eighteen hours of oxygen remaining.

The first major obstacle the leader must overcome in these circumstances is that people tend not to believe in the possibil-ity of death to them or their friends. Everyone under the age of thirty believes they are immortal. They also believe their friends are immortal. In this case, with only eighteen hours before everyone was truly dead, there wasn’t a great deal of time to talk about whether the problem was real or not.

The second obstacle is that people are reluctant to take steps which might later prove to have been unnecessary. I don’t know why. I believe it is related to the first problem – people are very slow to recognize a deathly serious situation. In the case at hand, we were going to have to get people out of a casualty situation (which initially is seldom or never clearly understood) without losing more people in the same deadly snare. And we did not have much time. So we obviously should plan on using every tool we could find.

Fortunately, a leader stepped forward and organized:

  • A robot camera which could be lowered down to observe the mini-submarine to determine the true situation and monitor those aspects the men on board could not see (their stem for example). The camera would be there in four hours.
  • A remotely operated vehicle with a mechanical arm which could cut away some types of obstacles. It would be on scene in twelve hours.
  • Another mini-submarine which could be transported to the accident area aboard a submarine. Unfortunately, both of the submarines which could serve as transport vehicles were themselves in drydock undergoing repairs.Therefore we called lOtOOO people into work (it was about midnight) and began making emergency prepara-tions to put both submarines back together and get them to sea: We started cutting corners in order to get the submarines and their important passenger married up within fifteen hours.
  • A crane with a mile long cable aboard a large barge (we hoped to grab the mini-submarine and the offending cablet and wrench them all to the surface). We knew an appropriate crane was somewhere on the coast and began making frantic telephone calls.

It turned out that when the robot camera was lowered down the second time (the first time it failed and had to be repaired on scene)t the individual in the support ship was able to coach the mini-submarine into maneuvers that unwound the nylon cable. With a little helpt and a lot of luck, the people on scene were able to save themselves.

What did we take away from the experience?

Again, without at least one tiger in the organization (and he or she does not have to be very senior to save the day in an emergency) nothing would have happened in time to be helpful. The average person simply does not accept that someone is going to die if some extraordinaty action is not taken. Of course it did not help that the emergency started at night Tired people don’t react as aggressively as people who are already awake — unless they are people who have trained themselves to compensate at night and mentally force their bodies into action.

Once evetyane starts rolling, the people quickly will separate themselves into those who will take their part of the problem and start running with the ball, giving you adequate and timely status reports of their progress and problems, and the other group. The other group will still begrudge any extra effort and will make progress agonizingly slow. In a fast moving situation, you probably don’t have time to replace the latter with someone who has enough specialized knowledge to keep that unit going. Therefore, concentrate all the supervisoty talent you have available on keeping this latter group moving.

After the problem is over don’t waste any pity on the latter group. Shoot them in the bead.

Whenever you have a fast moving problem, you can keep unwanted requests for status off your back, while still keeping the door open for good or new ideas, if someone in the unit is assigned to keep the rest of the organization up to speed. Don’t waste the leaders time screening the output for some-thing as unimportant as spin. If it truly is a life and death situation, no one can waste their time worrying about external impressions. We tasked a small group to hourly report what was going on to eyer:yone external to the unit. The reporting group did such a good job that no one external wasted our time with distracting questions.

If you have a life and death situation, ensure you take whatever measures that will enable you to live with yourself during future rainy nights when the wind moves the trees outside your windows. Also remember that the rest of the organization is watching. They will gauge what the organization would do for them if they were in trouble by what you actually did that night. No number of public affairs programs, or speeches, or company memos will overcome what you did when the rubber actually met the road. One good save is priceless for your organization.

In this particular situation, sevc;:ral young people had done exceptional work, and there were no secrecy problems. The men involved in saving the mini-submarine got their fifteen minutes.  It was the right kind of time.

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