I have been telling this story for so long, I thought I’d finally write it down.
It was a very dark. very damp, very cold night-about typical for the Holy Loch in March. We were getting ready to breast out from the tender to allow another SSBN returning from patrol to berth alongside.
My ship was in her first pre-patrol refit since completing a lengthy refueling overhaul. We had a new CO and a new. young Officer-of-the-Deck. The CO asked me to be up on top of the sail with him to keep an eye on the inexperienced OOD.
This was my second submarine. the first having been a hot-running SSN, and I was detaching to report to another SSN after this one patrol. I had gone through the SSBN overhaul and had served as the duty OOD for virtually all the post-overhaul trials and testing-I thought I was pretty hot stuff!
Prior to the skipper’s arrival on the bridge, I had donned an orange thermal pumpkin suit and had clambered up on top of the sail, inside the railing, affectionately known as the playpen, that offered the Captain something to which he could hang-on in his lofty vantage point.
About ten feet above me, perched atop a steel pole, was the ship’s masthead light. On a 616 class boomer, this pole was retractable into the sail and was held up by a pin inserted through the aft bulkhead of the bridge cockpit.
Anyway, I recall shivering a bit from the damp cold and chatting with the young OOD, who was down below me in the cockpit, about the preparations for breasting out. The tug had not yet come alongside.
The next part of the story is based on a mix of personal recollection and the reports of my shipmates.
It seems as we were awaiting the Captain’s arrival while continuing with the pre-underways, the OOD leaned against the pin that was supposed to be securing the masthead light pole in its raised position. Not being sufficiently engaged, apparently, the pressure of the OOD’s back cause to pin to depart its bole in the pole and the masthead light, weight about 40 pounds or so, came crashing down toward its fully stowed position-with only my head to impede its progress
The light’s point of impact was on the back of the head with sufficient force to push me forward, first catching my nose and teeth on the forward railing of the playpen and then following through so I essentially did a swan dive into the cockpit. (As I was momentarily unconscious at this point, I can only rely on the word of the somewhat surprised OOD).
The OOD, whose attention was directed aft by the feeling that perhaps the masthead light pin had loosened behind him (I guess!), saw the light hit me in the back of the head, and the blood coming out my nose and mouth as I dove forward. A goner, for sure, be figured.
Somewhat dazed, I came to hanging into the bridge cockpit. I took the OOD’s matter-of-fact advice and went below. The dull ache in my face and the warm, salty taste of the liquid· entering my mouth led me to believe, as a minimum, that I had a nosebleed.
The control room, which I entered upon descending from the bridge access trunk, was filled with crewmembers busily engaged in the routine of the maneuvering watch. And, being nighttime, it was rigged for red, so they couldn’t see the blood. The ship’s hospital corpsman met me there and led me forward out of the control room into the lighted passageway. The way he yelled for a towel and told me that I had better get up to the tender got my attention-as did the expressions of the sailors on the tender as I was escorted up to sick bay.
Along the way, I spotted a mirror and decided to take a peak. It was pretty nasty. Apart from the dried blood plastered all over my face, was my nose, which was also plastered all over my face. That, and the ballooning of my upper lip, made me virtually unrecognizable, which, under other circumstances, might not necessarily be such a bad thing.
My corpsman left me in the tender’s sick: bay-naturally, he had to be aboard our ship during the breasting out. He left me with a very young third class hospital corpsman who he directed to contact a medical officer ashore in case a doctor might like to see me.
The young corpsman gave me a bag of ice and more clean towels to apply to my swollen and swelling face, and then proceeded to do the most important thing-make a medical record entry. He asked me to describe what happened. And he wrote intently as I attempted to explain, through my loose teeth and now gargantuan-sized lips in a most difficult to discern voice, what had happened.
Needless to say, eventually the medical officer showed up and I was x-rayed and taped up. And, for awhile, anyway, was the world’s ugliest naval officer. We even fixed the masthead light.
But, nearly 20 years later-while the SSBN has been decommissioned and deactivated, the CO long since retired, the young OOD now a CO himself, and myself a lot older if not necessarily wiser-the somewhat supernatural legacy of that cold, wet night in Scotland endures in my medical record in the third class corpsman’s scrawl: “Lieutenant Lemkin was struck by a mass of light!”