I returned to Pearl Harbor for duty aboard USS GRA YBACK (SSG 574) in August 1962. As a former crew member of a conventional fleet snorkel submarine, USS PERCH (ASSP313), and also familiar with Guppy conversion submarines, I was never prepared for what I saw tied up at the Sierra Piers. This was the ugliest submarine I had ever laid eyes on. For those who had never seen USS GRA YBACK or her sister ship USS GROWLER (SSG 377). imagine two grain silos secured side by side with the domes facing aft on the forward deck, about twenty feet forward of the sail of a Swordfish class submarine. The large forward superstructure was designed to cover two missile hangers, each the size of grain silos and each capable of storing two Regulus I missiles, or one Regulus II missile’. The Regulus I missile, a transonic missile powered by J-33A turbojet engine was capable of delivering a thermonuclear warhead to a target 500 miles distant, at a speed of 550 knots.
The ugliness of this unusually configured boat notwithstanding, this submarine, and the other four Regulus boats were the only submarine Nuclear Deterrent Strike Force in PACFLT. Polaris was not yet a reality in the Pacific and the Soviet submarine fleet sailed from a warm water port to cover targets in Hawaii, Japan, Philippines, and CONUS without anyone, other than us, threatening their front door. In addition, submarines had not yet received the Mk 45 ASTOR Torpedo capability. SUBROC was still on the drawing board. There was very little except a lot of ocean between the guys wearing the white hats and those wearing black hats.
I had departed Subase Pearl Harbor in 1959 after a two year tour at Guided Missile Unit #90 (the predecessor of GMU-10) as a Gunners Mate Second Class (Submarine Service), for Nuclear Weapons School at Great Lakes and Albuquerque, New Mexico. After a three year tour in Nevada, where I frequently replied to the question, “what is a sailor, and more especially a submarine sailor doing in the Nevada desert?”, by telling the person, “We are building a submarine in Lake Mead and will float it down the Colorado River”. Some bought the response, others didn’t. It wasn’t much of a cover story, but it was all I could come up with to distract from the distinctive insignia of rate I wore, a bomb dropping through a helium atom. The crow attracted so much attention that the rate was changed in 1961 to Gunner’s Mate Technician, and the insignia changed to crossed guns.
As a GMTl with dolphins, I was soon to become a member of a very restricted and unique group of warhead technicians who rode the Reg boats (Regulus submarines), and who, in the time of war, would comprise the two man rule, “Two men of equal knowledge, each capable of detecting an unauthorized act by the other”, and arm the nuclear warheads if or when the balloon went up.
The Reg boats carried 120 percent of the crew which we dubbed the Black and Blue Crew, and tried to leave a few selected people in each time we deployed. The selected people were crew members with emergencies or schools, or any manner of problems that could have been impacted by their absence. There were also those who would never be part of the stay-in crew, and I was one of them, as the Captain would soon explain to me as I was introduced to him. When I reported aboard GRA YBACK, I was directed by the Chief of the Boat (COB) to the wardroom to meet Lieutenant Commander John J. Ekelund, the CO. During a short conversation, he mentioned the 120% and the stay-in crew. He also told me that anytime GRA YBACK got underway with Blue Birds (tactical missiles), that he, the Warhead Officer, me, the cook, and the Hospital Corpsmen would be on board, under any and all circumstances. The reason the Warhead Officer and I were required on board when the boat got underway while carrying tactical missiles was because we comprised the two-man rule. When it came to the nuclear warheads, he and I might as well have been joined at the hip. There was no doubt in my military mind that this was going to be long and arduous sea duty, because we would no sooner get into port, have a short refit, shoot Red Birds (Fleet Training Missiles), and deploy again. The average in-port period for a Reg boat was around three months.
Prior to the next GRA YBACK deployment, I was getting acquainted with my new duties. I was not only the Warhead Technician, but also the Deck Force PO. My primary duties were those of the Assistant First Lieutenant. A few weeks after reporting aboard, I was notified that I would be interviewed for the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), which was really a screening process for those of us who have responsibilities for the missiles
and warheads. I was called into the Wardroom with the CO, XO, Missile Division Officer, and COB. These folks comprised the PRP screening process. Considering I . was the only person authorized to make up the Two-Man-Rule with the Warhead Officer, I was asked questions pertaining to how I felt about the mass destruction and death a nuclear detonation would bring to the population of our target area. My response was simply that when I was in the Army during the Korean War as an infantryman, death was more individualized and personal, but in wartime it makes little difference if you kill one or a million, one must keep it in perspective. They seemed to be satisfied so, I was then part of the GRAYBACK PRP.
On 7 October 1962, after the refit and missile training, we slipped our moorings at pier S-9 and headed out for my first, and GRA YBACK’s sixth deterrent missile patrol. The diesel subs made fuel stops at either Midway Island or Adak, Alaska depending on their respective operating area.
We had only been on station a short period when again I was called into the wardroom with the same folks who were present for the PRP screening. This time the Captain and XO were a little more stem faced than before, and for what I was soon to learn, good reason. The steward was asked to step out of the forward battery and both hatches were put on the latch (submariners know what that means). Captain Ekelund stated that we had received a message that the defense posture had increased to DEFCON 3 (DEFCON 5 was normal), and he was to open the sealed Emergency War Orders. The content of those orders, which for the sake of the security oath I swore as far back as the 1950s and ’60s, as well as the one I still serve under, will not be revealed by me. I will say that some of the orders were directed to the Warhead Officer and myself, and what we were to do to prepare the nuclear warheads for arming, and if necessary, missile launch. My task was to remove over 60 Phillips-head screws securing an access panel on the underside of each of the four Regulus missiles, exposing the front of the W-27 warhead2 where the high voltage thermal battery (HVTB) pack was bolted in the inverted (stored) position. I then removed the four bolts securing the HVTB, turned the battery around to the potential use position, reinstalled and torqued the bolts. After doing this to the three other missiles, we were ready for the next order. The next day, thankfully, we received new orders to relax the DEFCON and restored the warheads to their war reserve (safe) condition. Few people alive today have a full appreciation for how close this country (and the Soviet Union) came to what was later to be coined Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). In addition, few people, except for those of us who rode those old Regulus submarines, some of which were literally held together with baling wire, have a full appreciation for the sacrifices made by these Silent Service officers and men, whose usual patrol period was 90 plus days, and occasionally, a back-to-back-out-of-Adak.