September 27, 1996, nearly 28 years after her first sea trial, SUNFISH’s low black silhouette hunkered beside a concrete pier at the Ballast Point Naval Station in San Diego. For the first time in more than a quarter-century, the warrior was unarmed, stripped of the torpedoes she carried through much of the Cold War.
The crew of the Sturgeon class nuclear-powered submarine was the last of a line of sailors that threaded back through time to the day her keel was laid in 1965. Most were seasoned submariners with time in. A few had orders to new commands. Others remained with SUNFISH for a time, watching over her final days as she was dismantled piece by piece. For now, their job was to accompany this proud and noble warship to her final resting place, to close the last chapter of a story that spanned four decades. If there was sadness in their souls I could not see it. Some have put boats to rest before. For them, this is just another job. For me, it was the closing of a circle. I was part of the commissioning crew that took her on the first sea trial.
The crew treated me like a VIP. The XO shared his stateroom. He let me use the upper bunk. I recall that Admiral Rickover slept here during the first sea trial. As a young seaman, I stood to watch outside the door just in case the admiral needed something.
The maneuvering watch was set and on a sun-splashed San Diego afternoon SUNFISH got underway. I got permission to go to the bridge. As SUNFISH headed out of the harbor, a fishing boat was in her path. The officer of the deck called to the boat on a marine radio. We are a U.S. warship outbound, he says. A warship! I like the sound of that. It had been a long time since I was underway on a warship.
The status board above the quartermaster’s station said SUN-FISH’s next dive will be number 1022. I was in the control room to watch. The diving officer asked me if I would like to take the helm for SUNFISH’s last dive. I think I was speechless, but I heard myself say 11Y es!” I was nervous as I marked the course and speed and requested permission from the officer of the deck to relieve the helm under instruction. I slid into the helmsman’s seat and gripped the wheel with sweaty hands. The officer of the deck gave the command to dive. The helmsman leaned over my shoulder, instructing me as I pushed the stick forward. SUNFISH and I slipped beneath the waves together for the last time.
The crew settled smoothly into the underway routine. The captain had cleared me for confidential sea stories. It said so in the plan of the day. I was allowed to visit every part of the ship. I put on my old, faded SUNFISH sweatshirt and wandered around the boat, shooting the breeze and reminiscing.
Dinner was served and the line formed, beginning aft of the crew’s mess and winding down the stairs into the torpedo room. I took a place at the end of the line. A sailor offered to let me move ahead. I declined. I was not a member of the crew, only a rider. I said let the working men eat first.
Watches were relieved. Sailors headed to the mess deck or to the rack. Today’s sailors still have the same preoccupations: food and sleep. The perennial topics of discussion are ‘what’s for dinner and how much rack time they will get. I tried to sleep, but I was too excited. I got up and wandered around the ship. I drifted into the sonar room. I hung out in the control room. I peeked at the chart and listened to the banter and good-natured insults. I went down to the crew’s mess. I sat at one of the padded benches at the forward, starboard comer. The movie screen used to hang here. In the end, there was a TV built into the forward bulkhead. I rested my back against the starboard bulkhead and stretched my legs on the bench. Just like in old times, I got sleepy and nodded.
I headed for the rack. I laid in the XO’s upper bunk with the privacy curtain drawn listening to the sounds of the ship and feeling her vibration. She felt the same, smelled the same. She was humming and thrumming, lulling me gently to sleep. I fluffed the pillow and rolled over, pulling the blanket around me like a cocoon. At last, I relaxed and let sleep overtake me. I had come back to snuggle like a child in the bosom of my beloved boat.
As SUNFISH neared the coast of Washington her license to run submerged expired. Her last trip from the depths was an emergency surface from 400 feet. I asked permission to take the helm. Permission was granted. Slowly, cautiously, SUNFISH climbed to periscope depth. The sea was choppy. SUNFISH bucked and I struggled to control her. I did not want to broach. It would have been embarrassing for me and for SUNFISH. Having confirmed that the coast was clear, we got the order to take her deep. Some of my new friends had come to the control room to watch me bring SUNFISH up for the last time. At 400 feet the order came to the surface. On command, I pulled back the stick. SUNFISH pointed her prow upward and shot to the surface for the last time.
Nighttime, transiting on the surface, SUNFISH made her way along the coast of Washington. The control room was rigged for black. I stood under the trunk and looked up at the dark circle of the upper hatch. “Can I go up to the bridge?” I asked the Chief of the Watch. He reached for the microphone and asked: “permission for the only plank owner onboard to go to the bridge”. A response came that will resonate within my soul forever: “send all plank owners to the bridge!”
The waves rocked her relentlessly. Her prow dipped beneath the froth, cutting through the cold, black water. The breeze wet my face with salty spray. A large wave came up her sail and splashed me. That’s it, I said, I’m going below. In the crew’s mess, the cook served up a cream soup. Grey and oily, it sloshed around in the big pot. I filled a bowl and grabbed some crackers. In spite of its appearance, the soup tasted good! I had a second bowl. I surprised myself by taking the rough seas like a seasoned sailor. Some of the crew did not fare as well. In a scene reminiscent of the first sea trial, the quartermaster threw up on the chart table.
The following afternoon, the last maneuvering watch was set. It was a clear sunny day. I stood on the curved deck with the line handlers as the proud warship sailed into her last harbor. Her job was done. It was time for the warrior to sleep.