Commander Dahlgren served as Commanding Officer of USS WOODROW WILSON (SSBN 624) from August 1989 until April 1992. He is now retired in Charleston, SC, and is Vice president of SIGNAL Corporation.
I went topside during the eye of the hurricane and it was dead calm, just like they say. It was dark and it was obvious that Charleston was without power. The three-story crew’s living barge (YTB) which had been moored across the pier was missing, but the most surprising thing was that the pier itself was underwater. Our lines were stretched downward and there was a list on the ship. For a moment, I wondered what might happen when the storm surge subsided, but my attention was drawn to tugboat lights downriver. I could just make out the hull of a submarine banging into barges and piers as a tugboat struggled to get control. I would later learn that this was a deactivated SSBN, which had been ripped away from the pier during ~e first half of the storm.
Two months into my command tour on USS WOODROW WILSON (SSBN 624), I found myself facing a challenge in seamanship which was never discussed in PCO School or at my command qualification board. It was September 21, 1989, in the Charleston Naval Shipyard and Hurricane Hugo was bearing down fast. The community was evacuated, and the base and shipyard were in full-scale hurricane preparation. All of the ships in Charleston which could get underway were long gone, but there were five submarines in overhaul, and none ha.d propulsion capability other than the EPM. My primary concerns had been repairing and testing of the diesel generator, disconnecting shore power and the portable effluent tank, and topping off on pure and potable water. Fortunately, all hull cuts had been closed a few weeks earlier. I had planned for an augmented duty section with extra diesel operators, an extra chief, the Engineer Officer, and extra crewmembers for line handling, phone talking, and damage control. The majority of the duty section were bachelors who volunteered since families were either evacuating or battening down their hatches at home. Most members of this duty section would find themselves on board for four days.
Meanwhile, USS BllFISH (SSN 616) was in drydock and had some unique and pressing problems of their own. The shipyard was racing to patch several hull cuts and get the drydock flooded. They finished in the nick of time, but there were leaks that night and the crew had to wear EABs below decks while gas-powered P-250s were used to keep up with the leakage. The shipyard itself was faced with the insurmountable task of securing many years of accumulated equipment and material throughout the yard. They accomplished much, but ran out of time.
At about 1500 (the eye would pass over Charleston harbor at midnight}, I was leaving the ship to go to a final meeting with the Shipyard Commander and the Naval Reactors Representative. As I crossed the brow, it occurred to me that the shipyard-provided wire lines were plenty strong, but would not provide the flexibility or yield that might be needed when the storm hit. The ship’s nylon lines had been offloaded and were locked in a warehouse some- where in the shipyard. I called for Chief Quartermaster Tony Copeland, and told him to find at least four nylon lines and to install them over the wire lines. By 1800, he had the nylon lines in place (I never asked where he got them!). The Engineer Officer, Lieutenant Commander Mark Speck, reported that the snorkel safety circuit problems had finally been corrected and the diesel was carrying the ship’s electrical loads. I had been pushing the diesel repairs even before Hugo became a threat and it bothered me that the crew had become complacent about the diesel engine because of the shipyard’s fairly reliable dual-source shore power.
I lifted the brow and sealed the ship in the evening as conditions rapidly deteriorated. Amazingly, we were able to listen to the local radio stations until they were abandoned and we had phones until about 2300. We knew we were in for a rough night when flying debris began to pound the hull. Periodically, we heard what sounded like gunfire against the hull, which later proved to be the parting of our own wire lines.
At first light, the conditions improved enough to go topside. The devastation was shocking. It looked like the shipyard had been bombed. The decommissioned SSBN’s wire lines had all parted, but she has now secured two piers downriver thanks to daring actions by the Naval Station tugboat crew during the eye of the storm. Only the top of the sail of USS NARWHAL (SSN 671) was showing, because the ship’s wire lines had all parted and the 119CO decided to submerge in the Cooper River. USS BA TFISH (SSN 681) had lost all her wire lines except the bowline and she was swinging between two piers until the tugs could assist. Luckily, BATFISH was in a relatively protected berth at the landward end of the pier. A shrimp boat was high and dry across the river on Daniel Island. The YTB was found sunken in her berth, having been smashed against the pier by the storm after her wire lines had all parted. The YTB had broken several pilings and knocked large chunks of concrete from the pier, which was impassable to vehicular traffic. There was even a fish on top of a safe which had been inside a small building on the pier. Most of the building was later found underwater between WOODROW WILSON and the pier. All of WOODROW WllSON’s wire lines had parted, but the nylon lines had done their duty. From our exposed position towards the end of the pier, we could have been swept down the river by an 8-knot current and 180 mph winds if Chief Copeland had not found the nylon lines. In fact, any of these submarines could have done severe damage to other ships and piers, could have damaged the Cooper River Bridge, or gone hard aground somewhere along the river during the eight-foot storm surge.
It was a long night, but for the next two weeks, we lived like kings because we were one of the few places in town with power, food, showers, water, and air conditioning. The shipyard, like the city, was out of commission for about two weeks, but our diesel engine purred on. Since there were two crews assigned, the manpower pool was big enough to help the community with several large cleanup and repair jobs including restoration of a junior high school weeks ahead of schedule. WOODROW WILSON was later awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal for assistance to the Charleston area. The lesson learned again is that even modern nuclear submarine crews cannot forget the importance of the basics: advance planning, healthy skepticism, good housekeeping, proper mooring practices, reliable diesel engines, and aggressive chief petty officers. There is also great wisdom in conservative and early dispersal of ships when a hurricane is approaching. These are awesome storms and the duty section will never forget the night they spent riding the storm out.