[Ed Note: For all those who have served in submarines, this is a rare view of our world from one who has visited, and used his own experience in other walks of life to characterize ours. Lany Blair is a spokesman on television and radio commercials; narrator for corporate communications productions; author of articles on maritime subjects. He has been a director/writer/host in TV and radio. The underway visit he describes was done at the invitation of the Navy.]
Webster defines greatness as: eminent, distinguished, markedly superior in character. These are appropriate descriptions of the men of the United States Submarine Service. Boats the crews drive are marvels of American technology. It is, however, the dedicated personnel who possess total expertise at their art which makes for greatness.
The perfect blending of man and boat conforming to each other brings to mind the analogy of a symphony orchestra. Endless rehearsal culminates into exactness and order as each instrument section and solo melds into one cohesive perfor-mance. From the captain (conductor) to executive officer (concert master), down through the ranks of junior officers and sailors (musicians), there is a melody produced by man and machine which forms a sonorous duet. Unlike the short length of a musical piece, submarine patrols must sustain tempo and harmony 24 hours a day. Those who serve aboard surface craft are no less efficient. However, if the dimension of the unforgiv-ing underwater environment is added, this injects a cacophony of destructive elements just waiting to happen. As with the musician, but with a life or death outcome at stake, each submariner incessantly relies on the shoulder next to him to perform at the highest peak of tonality.
The LOS ANGELES class attack boat USS AUGUSTA (SSN 710) under Commander Edward J. Rutkowski eased away from her berth at the New London Submarine Base. The gray lady slid gently down the early morning calm of the Thames River; past New London Ledge Light, through The Race; to somewhere east of Fishers Island in Block Sound. Twenty-five guests had the distinct honor to ride her for a daylight Navy VIP Cruise. hosted by Rear Admiral Howard W. Habermeyer. Commander Submarine Group Two.
Ballistic missile submarines with their Trident I and IT nuclear tipped warheads transit to specific stations and remain deep until ordered to fire their weapons. Attack boats. however. purposely go in harms’ way. Among their many sea control missions: they guard SSBNs. attack submarines and surface ships. lay mines. protect carrier support groups and embark SEAL teams for reconnaissance and guerrilla warfare operations.
Traveling on the surface to an assigned area. twenty-four men and one woman comprising the observer group were ushered into the enlisted messroom. The overture was about to begin by way of an introduction to the boat. The first solo was taken by Chief of the Boat CJ. Dreer. All eyes and ears were captivated by the sub’s senior enlisted man as he went through chapter and verse on safety measures to be taken in the event of fire or flooding. A rehearsal was held, audibly presenting his new charges with the various alarm systems. He also staged a run-through of the donning and hooking-up of the Emergency Air Breathing masks. They would be a lifesaver and first line of protection should an interior fire break out.
Q&A session followed with AUGUSTA’s acting Executive Officer Michael Higgins taking the lead. On this cruise the VIPs represented a cross section of civilian executives. with a sprinkling of diesel boat sub vets. The majority had no connec-tion with the submarine community, let alone ever served on a sub.
After an overview of coming events by Admiral Habermey-er’s aide. we were split up into groups of five, each to be led by a Chief Petty Officer. Our team was assigned to Chief Hospital Corpsman R.M. Antilla. He deftly conducted a tour of the various forward compartments. explaining in great detail their functions. Due to the classified nature of the Engineering and Reactor sections. these aft spaces were off limits.
A highlight of the walk-through was the Torpedo Room. All evolutions of flooding. firing and venting the tubes are executed at a computerized panel centered between the two port and two starboard tubes. One of the Torpedoman forewarned us of the high intensity sounds to come. His suggestion to cover our ears
was accepted by a few as two individual water slugs were fired, simulating the real thing, minus the ordnance. A resounding bass drum thud was followed by injection sounds of high pressure air to clear the tube of water. Wide-eyed, we all agreed the performance was most impressive. Attack subs carry a mix of torpedoes, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and the now famous Tomahawk missile. These were used for the first time in combat by submarines USS LOUISVILLE and PITTS-BURGH during Operation Desert Storm. Missiles on early Los Angeles boats are forced from torpedo tubes. The newer SSNs (Improved, or 688Is) have vertical launchers in the bow section.
By the end of our lunch break, the diving alarm sounded from the Control Room/Attack Center. We all scurried for a front row position by the diving station to witness this complex and intense facet of submarining.
Now on center stage was a quartet who would play out their portion of the work. Conducted by the Diving Officer situated behind and between the Planesman and Helmsman, our 6200 ton behemoth began her submergence. He stood, eyes trans-fixed on myriad gauges, dials and panels of Christmas tree-like red and green lights issuing calm, clipped commands to the Officer of the Watch to his left. The Chief responded instantly; alternately flooding and venting ballast tanks from his control board. Proper and precise trim, or balance, of the boat for positive, negative and neutral buoyancy is crucial.
At the same time, stationed at airplane-type steering columns, the Planesman controlled all vertical motion, while the Helmsman maneuvered for port and starboard movement. Each of their actions coincided so as to propel AUGUSTA twenty degrees down bubble (reference to planesman’s inclinometer which registers incline and decline). With trim complete at periscope depth, the submarine began to track back and forth for an hour and a half. The time allowed all of us to take turns at manning the attack scope.
We became totally absorbed in the multiple activities going on around us. I for one found myself going from diving station to navigating board to sonar every few minutes. Some lingered at a particular station, while others stood off to the side taking in as a whole all the audio/visual input. Caught up in the concentration of it all, 90 minutes seemed like 30.
Since leaving port the Navigation Officer and his two assistants kept a running plot of the boat’s direction and location. This is accomplished with Ships Inertial Navigation Systems (SINS), LORAN and other navaides. All electronic data is backed up by manual plots on charts of the area. The human element is never subjugated. Man still overrides machine. As one Quartermaster said, “Suits me fine. Wouldn’t have it any other way. I trust me more than I trust il”
Off in a comer of the Center, seemingly in a world of their own, sat three Sonarmen in a darkened booth. They were monitoring green and red lights coupled to computers which pick up all sounds outside the bull through powerful hydro-phones. They not only sort out sounds in the sea, but also their visual counterparts as they appear on mesmerizing green scopes. Each white speckle saturated within the green represents a sound source. Their well honed senses identify the staccatos and vibratos emanating from any type domestic and foreign surface ship and submarine. They also have the added task of decoding the sounds of what sonarmen call biologics. These are the multitude of receptions from schools of fish and other sea creatures including minute crustaceans such as shrimp.
By mid-afternoon AUGUSTA surfaced and began the fmal leg of our journey. The climax of the trip was permission for us to scale the 30 foot Control Room ladder up to the bridge. Two at a time we did so and were met by the Captain, Admiral, Officer of the Deck and two lookouts. This period began a time of reflection for many on this all-too-short a day. The exhilaration of being some two stories above the sea, wafted by a gentle breeze, while carried on the back of a dormant fighting machine knifing her way home, was truly awesome. Nearing New London Ledge we were cleared to go topside with the docking crew. Some talked, others just stood gathering in the shoreline sights, as weJI as their own once-in-a-lifetime experi-ences of the day. Beyond the Gold Star Memorial Bridge, and a few miles downriver from the base, a tug deposited two harbor pilots aboard. This finale brought an end to a truly magnificent work.
Where do we get such men? These warriors who give up a simpler, safer existence in other branches of the armed forces, or to work a nine-to-five job in civilian life. Not unlike other military men, they come from cities and towns across American and varied socio-economic backgrounds. Here the similarity
ends. First, they are all volunteers. They allow themselves to be sealed for 60 to 70 days at a time in a 360 foot by 33 foot steel tube. Many are at sea 70 percent of each year. Detached from family and friends, they are deprived of the natural sensory experiences to which the human race has been accustomed since birth. Where do we get such men?
Without delving into the psychological aspects of Submarine Medicine, the simplistic answers are as diverse as the men’s personalities. Love of adventure and excitement are notable. Many will tell you it is belonging to an elite service with its special camaraderie. Serving on a small boat rather than a large vessel where they will just be a number is a factor. Part of the profile is their recognition as an individual for the corps and being treated so. The service offers faster advancement along with greater responsibilities. Additional submarine pay and having the best food in the Navy, if not all the armed services, are perquisites.
A very high degree of motivation and self discipline is inherent in both the officer and enlisted personnel throughout their training. The bottom line is reflected in an extraordinary amount of success, very likely due to their overall self esteem and achievement standards. The zenith for them is to obtain the much revered dolphin insignia which denotes Qualified in Submarines. Their drive and ambition doesn’t end here. The perpetual learning and training processes are ongoing up an endless ladder of challenges. This is a constant for however long they remain on submarine duty, at sea or ashore.
For the reader who bas never served aboard one of our ballistic missile or attack boats, or has never been related in any way to the submarine community, rise to the occasion if invited on a Submarine VIP Cruise. To be in the audience and watch the fine tuning and orchestration of all departments, is an experience never to be forgotten. You too will find yourself in the presence of greatness.