Mooring Alpha at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard is the last port of call for the U.S. Navy’s nuclear Submarine Force; the place where nuke boats from both coasts and Hawaii come to finish their careers. On any day the long pier at the west end of the shipyard may berth as many as 25 to 30 submarines waiting their tum to be recycled in drydocks less than half a mile away.
As the Director of the Naval Undersea Museum at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in nearby Keyport, I make occasional visits to the submarines at Mooring Alpha to look for artifacts from particular boats. I like these visits because they allow me to walk the decks of ships that have made naval history, and the visits have a positive aspect, for the items I find and have removed will be preserved to represent the U.S. Submarine Force to future generations. The downside is that only the few things that I and a few other visitors claim will survive, for the submarine here will, in time, be reduced to scrap metal.
One wet morning in the Spring of 1996, at the request of the Naval Historical Center in Washington, DC, I went to Mooring Alpha to look for exhibitable items from USS NATHANAEL GREENE (SSBN 636). The shipyard closely limits access to the area, so I made arrangements to be escorted through several vessels. Shipyard personnel were, in my previous visits, helpful and cooperative. I signed the visitor’s log in the small office at the head of the pier and my escort gave me a hard hat, safety goggles, and a flashlight.
A chart on the office wall showed the location of all the submarines berthed there. I asked about PATRICK HENRY. My escort paused: “What’s her hull number?” When I answered 11599″, he said, “Oh, the 599 boat. Right over here”, and pointed out the window to a strangely truncated black hull. I realized then, and often later during the day, that shipyard personnel know these vessels only by hull number, not by their names. As the submarines mark time toward oblivion, they are losing their names and histories.
The black hulls glistened in the light rain as my escort and I walked through the security gate and onto the pier. The submarines were almost anonymous: no in-port numbers, no name boards, no brow canvases. White graffiti-like numbers. spray painted on the sails, identified the boats. Despite the presence of so many ships, Mooring Alpha without submarine crews had none of the vitality of the submarine piers at Groton or Norfolk or San Diego. Seagulls and electronic monitors stood watch over what was, 30 years ago, the pride of America’s Submarine Force.
My escort guided me across the spindly aluminum bows which bridged the gaps between hulls, The boats lay close together, bow to stem. tightly packed in, three deep and as many as eight abreast. We walked in the light rain among what is probably the world’s third or fourth largest nuclear Submarine Force. Power cables and mooring lines snaked from boat to boat and twisted around the sails. The tops of the sails bore yellow lights never carried on active duty. “Towing lights?” I asked. “No,” my escort said, “alarms in case of fire or flooding.”
Some of the submarines looked out of kilter. I stared at the odd appearance of GEORGE WASHINGTON (SSBN 598), the nation’s first nuclear fleet ballistic missile submarine; the bow didn’t look like a bow, but it was too short to be the stem. My escort explained the reason for her strange appearance: both the reactor compartment and the missile compartment had been removed and the remaining bow and stem sections wedged together. The steel surgery was history with a vengeance. This submarine began construction as a fast attack boat. but during building the Navy inserted a compartment to house 16 Polaris missiles and sent the renamed submarine to sea as GEORGE WASHINGTON. Now the recent amputation had left the decommissioned GEORGE WASHINGTON smaller than the original attack boat ever would have been.
As we walked through the fleet, I could see pigeons roosting on the sails and in the sails and in any recess that provided shelter. Seagulls strutted unconcernedly where, I felt certain, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover had once grilled nervous commanding officers.
We reached NATHANAEL GREENE and my escort hung a sign topside indicating people were onboard. He plugged in the interior lights, and we went below, clambering down the ladder into a compartment where no one greeted us. We were warmer there, out of the wind, and the sea provided some warmth to the hull.
Strings of work lights illuminated the passageways. Our hard hats bumped on ventilation ducting as we ranged from deck to deck, our flashlights searching the dark comers of compartments. Much of the boat’s equipment had been removed, making the interior seem larger than it was on active service. The absence of the crew contributed to a feeling of spaciousness, and compartments that once sounded with orders to the helm or the throb of machinery were quiet. I paused, listening for the echoes of diving alarms, trying to feel any residual tension of ORSEs or SPECOPS, but they were gone. When the crew left, they toot the life of the vessel with them.
I looked for artifacts that represented the essence of the submarine and its mission, but I didn’t find much. I was surprised that so much equipment bad been removed. The diving stands and periscopes were gone. So were the missile launch panels and sonar equipment. And the numbers on the torpedo tubes. Anything with the ship’s name or hull number had been removed, either by the decommissioning crew or later visitors-perhaps people like myself.
I pointed to a console and asked if the History Center could have it. “It’s not hatchable”, my escort said. Hatchable meant a shipyard worker could unboat it and take it up through the hatch we climbed down. Parts were free, but their removal cost money. Not hatchable meant impossibly expensive for museum budgets. We continued to look. Growlers and dial telephones littered the decks, apparently the only thing left behind when equipment was removed. We left them too, for a beige wardroom telephone said nothing about the mission of this vessel or the accomplishments of the men who drove her through the deep. Finally, back between the main turbines I found the main steam valve wheel, the only hatchable item onboard which remotely suggested the purpose and efficiency of these mighty vessels. We tagged it for removal later.
We went onboard ex-USS TRITON (SSRN 586), the only U.S. submarine with two reactors. In 1960, under the command of Captain Edward L. Beach, TRITON followed in the track of Magellan and became the first submarine to circle the globe submerged. Time and the Navy have treated her with dignity and respect, and though she was some 20 years out of commission, her interior remained clean, dry, and well preserved. Walking through TRITON was akin to entering a hole in time and emerging in the first decade of nuclear submarining. I scribbled a long list of equipment as antique as anything I bad seen, including a sonar set that looked like a shoestore fluoroscope. Some equipment was batchable and could be removed soon. Most was not, but within a few years TRITON will take her turn in the breaker’s yard and hatchability will cease to be a concern.
My escort and I left Mooring Alpha and went to the nearby drydocks. From the edge of the dock I peered down into the pit at four submarines in various stages of recycling; the word sounds more genteel and productive than scrapping, but the results are equal. Ignoring the light rain, shipyard workers in bard hats, safety shoes, gloves and badges were working methodically and skillfully. The reactor compartments go first. Then workers with cutting torches carve into the hull, lay bare the ribs, and expose the innards like medical students dissecting a cadaver. Torches seared through HY 80; the process was strangely fascinating-like watching a cow being tom apart in slow motion by piranhas. Cranes lifted metal from the bottom of the drydock to waiting railcars; some of the pieces were recognizable, but most were only chunks of steel.
I returned my hard hat and gear to my escort when we finished. Mooring Alpha’s population will have changed by the time I next return; recently decommissioned submarines will have arrived and some of the boats there during my visit will have moved through the recycling process. The submarines there, and those that have gone before them, provided sea control and security to the United States in a dangerous era. They and their crews accomplished their mission during thousands of patrols and operations. Now they have steamed their final mile and are disappearing in the mists of a Puget Sound spring.