The U.S. Navy’s FBM Submarine Base in Holy Loch, Scotland is now decommissioned. The base had been operational since early March 1961 when the USS PATRICK HENRY (SSBN-599) moored alongside the submarine tender USS PROTEUS, which was secured to a buoy in the middle of the loeb. Captain Hal Shear commanded the Blue Crew, which had been on their first deterrent patrol, having left New l.ondon, Connecticut in late December 1960. Commander Bob l.ong was the skipper of the Gold Crew, which was about to conduct the first crew exchange and submarine refit in the Holy Loeb. h an engineering division officer in the Gold Crew of the PATRICK HENRY, I bad the pleasure of participating in that first refit in the Holy l.och and other significant events of the early FBM Submarine Service. Because Holy Loch bas now passed from the U.S. Navy scene and because that place and FBM submarines played such an important part in many of our lives, it may be of interest to share some observations and experiences of those early FBM years.
The PATRICK HENRY was the second SSBN to slide down the building ways. She was commissioned in April 1960 and soon after commenced Demonstration and Shakedown Operations with the Blue Crew. The first turnover from the Blue to the Gold crew took place in Port Canaveral, Florida at the U.S. government wharfs on one side of the harbor. Civilian facilities are on the other side. During the crew turnover the Gold Crew was billeted at Patrick Air Force Base down U.S. Highway AlA past the Cocoa Beach strip of bars, night clubs, hotels, etc. During the 60’s, with all the missile and space activity, the Cape was a Go-Go place. There was plenty of action and distraction for our sailors during their liberty hours.
Prior to completion of the crew exchange, we in the Gold Crew had an opportunity to witness the submerged launch of a Polaris missile by the Blue Crew. We embarked on the USS OBSERVATION ISlAND, a missile tracking ship, and followed the PATRICK HENRY out to the launch area some twenty miles off the coast. PATRICK HENRY submerged to about 100 feet keel depth in preparation for the launch. The OBSERVATION ISLAND was lying-to a couple of miles from the SSBN.
We could see the top of the tall telemetry mast that had been temporarily installed for these test shots. Also, there was a U.S. Navy destroyer on station a few miles away with the duty to fend off trouble from whatever source (Soviets, demonstrators, etc.). When all was set with the count-down, including range safety, the missile was fired. The missile popped out of the water but its rocket motor did not ignite. The missile hung for a split second and then down it went, crashing back into the water on top of the PATRICK HENRY. The next thing we saw was a huge explosion like a shallow-set depth charge going off. I thought to myself, my God, the ship is doomed! Immediately after the explosion the second stage of the missile broke loose from the first stage, ignited, and came shooting out of the water like a runaway toy balloon with all of the air suddenly released from it. At one instant the errant missile was headed directly at us on the OBSERVATION ISLAND. Most of us were diving for cover. Not the camera man though. He kept his camera on that missile and got a remarkable film of that missile’s antics before it crashed into the ocean a few miles away in the direction of the accompanying destroyer. Fortunately, the damage to the PATRICK HENRY was superficial. Just some missile deck plating was smashed.
A few days later the Blue Crew fired a missile that worked and then it was our turn. The Gold Crew operation was to be something special. We were to fire a series of missiles at short intervals similar to how they would be fired in a wartime scenario. This was to be a step up in testing the capability of the total system.
We got underway with seven admirals on board to witness this momentous event They included Admiral Arliegh Burke, the Chief of Naval Operations, Vice Admiral Joe Grenfell, Commander Submarine Force Atlantic, and Rear Admiral “Red” Raborn, Chief of the Special Projects Office. Like a lot of momentous occasions, this one was a huge flop. The first missile exploded as it broke the water and our skipper, Bob Long, called a hold on firing the next missile. After some conferring, it was decided to continue the test Well, the next missile went awry and exploded too. That was too much. The operation was stopped and we gloomily headed back to Port Canaveral to try and figure out what went wrong. Admiral Burke addressed the crew with some kind words. He said that the experts would find out what went wrong and that we would get another chance. But to us, that day was Black Friday.
The Polaris A-1 missile never was very reliable. But the immediate problem had to do with the range safety missile destruct system not working properly. Our crew did get another chance and several weeks later we took the ship out several hundred miles into the Atlantic Ocean and fired four successful missiles down range. This was the first broad ocean Polaris missile firing and it was done in an operational environment similar to the real thing. We all felt vindicated and proud of our ship and crew.
The PATRICK HENRY commenced its first patrol in late December 1960. President Eisenhower had stated that there would be two Polaris submarines operational and on deterrent patrol before the end of his term. And so it happened that the GEORGE WASHINGTON and PATRICK HENRY were on patrol covering strategic targets before Ike turned over the reins of government to John F. Kennedy.
The GEORGE WASHINGTON returned to New London, Connecticut after her first patrol. The PATRICK HENRY ended her first patrol at our newly acquired base in the Holy Loch. The USS PROTEUS, a WW II built submarine tender modified to handle Polaris missiles and nuclear submarine requirements, was moored to a buoy in the middle of the loch ready to take the PATRICK HENRY alongside. The Gold Crew met the ship there and commenced the first Holy Loch crew exchange.
Transporting the relieving crew from our home port of New London was quite an ordeal in those early days. We were bused from New London to Maguire Air Force Base in New Jersey where our crew of 140 officers and men was divided into two groups to fly in two prop planes under contract to the U.S. Air Force. All the various ratings and specialists were carefully divided in case one of the planes went down. We would then have a core group to build on with replacements if a disaster happened. Happily, we have never lost a plane in the thirty years of flying those crews. The two plane airlift was abandoned with the advent of the larger and more reliable jet airliners. On the early flights, the planes landed in Gander, Newfoundland to refuel for the final push across the Atlantic.
Our first impression of Scotland in March 1961 was of the typically gloomy and misty day, not one to heighten our spirits. We landed at Prestwick where we were in for another long bus ride. We loaded on to three of the familiar British two decker buses for the trip to Greenock on the south side of the Firth of Oyde. At the time few of us appreciated the fact that we were in the heart of Robby Bums country or that we were right next to the famous British Open golf courses of Troon, Turnberry, and Prestwick. Not until later did I come to understand and appreciate Scotland better. At Greenock we again had to load ourselves, our luggage, and crew records into boats for the 45 minute ride across the Clyde to the Holy Loeb and the PROTEUS.
No one was sure how long a proper crew turnover should take. Some people said it should be two weeks with both crews working together to help speed the refit. Our first one there was ten days and that was too long. The offgoing crew was eager to go home and the oncoming crew did not want them around after a few days because the ownership role bad changed too. Soon after this initial crew exchange overseas the turnover length stabilized at four days.
The PATRICK HENRY entry into the Holy Loch was enlivened by greeters other than the Gold Crew. Hundreds of anti-nuclear demonstrators were on hand along with the press to complicate the crew relief. Some of the demonstrators paddled out in kayaks to harass or even board the ship. We had to develop new procedures to handle this kind of activity. Our Repel Boarders Bill was too violent and deadly for demonstrators. We warned the demonstrators not to touch the ship and if they climbed aboard we were instructed to take them into custody and then hand them over to the British Constabulary. We also greased the top of our upper rudder to foil their attempts to climb up and perch on il The majority of the demonstrators sat down outside the gate to the British government pier at Sandbank on the Holy Loch and tried to block access. The British constables were quite efficient and the demonstrators were mostly peaceful, most of them sitting and shouting “No Polaris” as we picked our way through them, either going ashore or returning to the ship. (One of the demonstrators, an avowed Communist, later was a math teacher for one of my children in the local schools.)
The Holy Loch and the little towns of Dunoon, Sandbank, and Kilmun that border the loch were not strangers to naval personnel. During World War II the loch was home to a Royal Navy submarine squadron. The British Depot Ship (Tender) was moored to buoys at the same location as PROTEUS. Most of the Scots were very kind and hospitable. They recognized the need for our presence. They also could see a resurgence in their loeal economy. For example, anti-nuc demonstrators had painted in large letters on the Kilmun sea wall the words “POLARIS SPELLS DOOM.” A local wag had changed the “D” in doom to a “B”. Of course BOOM could be interpreted two ways, but to the local merchants it definitely spelled dollars.
The Holy Loch, the Firth of Clyde and the surrounding Scottish country is remarkably beautiful and enchanting. Many people are put off at first by the rainy weather and the short winter days. Some of our sailors griped that the beer in the local bars was served at room temperature and that the bars closed at 10:00 pm. Also, we had to time carefully our evenings ashore with the liberty boat schedule. But for those who took the time to explore the country and got to know the local people, or lived there as I did later with my family while on the Squadron Staff, Scotland was a wonderful experience.
My turnfor command of a submarine came in 1967 as CO of the USS SAM HOUSTON Gold. However, I had to share the ship with another skipper, the CO of the Blue Crew. During my first year it was Zeb Alford, a gracious Southerner from Mississippi, a pleasure to work with. Zeb was relieved by Hal Glovicr. He also was an excellent skipper and we got along just fine – most of the time. Whenever the situation looked like it might get a little tense we would go up to the handball court erected on the large open deck above the pilot house of the then resident tender, USS SIMON LAKE. There we would take out our frustrations with a few brisk games. It worked like a charm. We are still friends.
The first skipper of the SIMON LAKE was Captain Jim Osborn, known as “Oz.” Oz also had been the first CO of the GEORGE WASHINGTON. Oz liked to play handball and squash. So while the SIMON LAKE was being built he had this wonderful handbalVsquash court erected. It was a great idea as a recreational feature on our mother ship, especially for us jocks. But alas, several years and another skipper later it was decided to use this wooden structure for purposes other than sports. It was to be used as a temporary office for some contract workers sent over from the States. I led the protest against this action. We complained to everyone saying it was a bad precedent and not in line with the Navy’s physical fitness program. Eventually the SIMON LAKE’s CO backed off. I detected victory when the XO of SIMON lAKE called down to our ship to say that Captain Ben Sherman, the Squadron Commander, was in the handball court and why wasn’t I up there playing handball?