On 5th November 1951, the submarine SEA DEVIL, with orders to conduct an Operational Readiness ASW exercise for the planes of a VP Squadron, hurried to get on station by 18-200 hundred miles off Swiftsure Light, which was sited at the entrance to Juan De Fuca Strait-at the top of the State of Washington The four-foot seas encountered forced her to cut to two engine speed. Many of the submariners were seasick.
It was imperative that she start the ASW problem with a fully charged battery and 3000 pounds of high-pressure air in the air banks-necessary for blowing the submarine to the surface frequently.
The exercise consisted of at least three VPS at all times, trying to prevent SEA DEVIL from arriving at a point 50 miles off Swiftsure Light. There, she would simulate the firing of missiles against an 80-mile segment of the Pacific coast south of Swiftsure Light.
It was the VPs’ objective to exhaust SEA DEVIL’s battery and high-pressure air before she could reach the launch point for her missiles. The submarine would have to traverse more than 150 miles of ocean in her approach, and not be sunk by simulated depth charge attacks by any of the VP ASW aircraft. PDCs (small grenades) were to be employed, to mark by their explosions the possibility of the submarine being hit by these hand-dropped weapons from the aircraft.
A Lieutenant Commander Good, from the VP Squadron based at Whidbey Island (at the eastern end of the Strait of Juan De Fuca) was riding SEA DEVIL as an observer. But as he admitted, he was actually on board to make sure the VP attacks with the PDCs were honestly appraised by the submarine’s personnel. He felt that he’d be able to tell by the loudness of the explosions of the grenades whether or not they would be lethal-if they were actual depth charges.
Good also inferred that his VP people were concerned about the tricks that a submarine might play to defeat an ASW aircraft’s attempts to attack a sub with a high chance of success. But as the skipper of SEA DEVIL, I was equally worried about the ways in which the VP pilots might circumvent the rules for this exercise.
And rightly so!
As Lieutenant Commander Jake Vandergrift, the skipper of the submarine TILEFISH that had been relieved on the arrival of SEA DEVIL at Port Angeles (70 miles down the Strait) explained over some drinks prior to our being a target submarine for Whidbey Island VP aircraft: “You can count on the fly-fly boys fudging the rules on every ASW exercise. So you should pull out all the stops with every good ruse you can think of. Otherwise, they’ll get a grossly exaggerated and unwarranted sense of their capability to kill submarines as they please.• Then, getting very patriotic he added, “It’s for the best interests of the U.S. national security that the superiority of the submarine over the ASW aircraft be recognized.”
Becoming very specific about VP malfeasances, Jake outlined what I could expect when I provided my submarine as an ASW target for a VP exercise. “First of all”, he noted, “the artificialities of these ASW exercises will make you sick. But just go along with this aviators-they’re just trying to look good.” Jake observed that the VP pilots will stick close to the submarine as it proceeds to the starting point for an exercise. “They’re not supposed to know where you are until after you first dive the boat. But they’ll be hovering over the sub, or flying in a one-mile circle around it. The pilots will have illegally learned the radio frequency of the umpire circuit and they’ll have one of their receivers always monitoring it. Thus when you’ve got to come to the surface every hour and send a ‘surfaced’ message they’ll know you’re up somewhere on the ocean. Home Base wants this message sent ‘for safety’s sake. But that’s only an excuse to give the VP people a break. And then when you’re driven down by an approaching aircraft you have to send ‘diving’.” Jake then generalized about VP operations, noting that at least three VPS will always be in use. And that they’ll cover about a 10-mile circle around the sub’s diving position to ensure that at least one will be close enough to detect the submarine on its surface-search radar even in the heaviest weather and be able to deliver a PDC just after the submarine submerged. “Your submarine won’t be able to get in more than a 20-minute emergency charge on the batteries even if you use the ploy of taking a course away from the coast and do it at night. In the dark, a VP can’t visually identify a black, bobbing craft on the oceans as a submarine even if he shines his searchlight on his radar target” Jake explained. ‘they’ll have your battery exhausted before you get halfway to your missile launch point. To lick them you’ll have to play a little dirty pool.”
After more drinks with Jake the next night, I learned from Coast Guard aviators that Jake had embarrassed the VP flyers time and time again by not playing by the rules. One sorehead from Whidbey Island gratingly said, “And he laughs about it!”
Thus at 1801 on the 5th of November, I put Jake’s advice to the test. Within seconds after diving to start the problem, a loud bang was heard in the wardroom. Lieutenant Commander Good gloated: “That grenade was right on. He got us on that attack.” To this, my Gunnery Officer angrily retorted : “That’s the last time you’re going to hear the grenade’s explosion that close. After this all you ‘II hear is a muffled pop from a PDC at least 500 yards away.”
And so for the next 26 hours with SEA DEVIL up and then back down every hour, all that were heard-barely-were harmless PDC explosions. But the routine of surfacing, hoping to put a few amps into the battery by heading away from the coast and acting innocent, didn’t work.
By 2000 of the second day SEA DEVIL’s battery was at a specific gravity of 1100–practically flat. In fact, some of the cells had started to reverse and had to be shorted out to slow the full exhaustion of the battery cells. Also, the high pressure air was perilously down to 1400 pounds, hardly enough to blow SEA DEVIL back to the surface. And, SEA DEVIL was still a good 80 miles from her missile launch point. In 26 hours, only 76 miles had been made good towards Swiftsure Light. A ruse was necessary to save the day!
After much discussion by the submarine officers in the wardroom-with Lieutenant Commander Good smugly pooh-poohing all suggestions-a plan to outwit the VPs topside was initiated.
SEA DEVIL was surfaced on a course away from the coast. Her running lights were turned on. And a red light at the top of the shears with a white light six feet below it was lighted. These two lights disguised SEA DEVIL as a fishing boat-Red over white. Fishing at night was well recognized by all seamen. So it was hoped that at least one of the VP pilots knew his seamanship. The radars were turned off and radio silence was observed. Three engines were started up with a loud roar and began pouring amps into the batteries as rapidly as possible. The high pressure air compressors thundered as they jammed air into the air banks. Within a minute the word “diving” was transmitted, with SEA DEVIL remaining on the surface. The people in the VPS should be lulled into inactivity until a radar operator remembered that there was a new radar contact to be investigated.
The men on SEA DEVIL’s bridge bent their ears to hear the sound of an approaching aircraft and kept their fingers crossed.
Then, SEA DEVU.. was steered to a course 40 degrees from that which would head her for Swiftsure Light. That should not brazenly suggest that the target submarine was heading into the coast for a missile launch.
Shortly, a VP winged its way in. And, at a mile’s distance circled SEA DEVIL suspiciously. Apparently satisfied that his radar contact was merely a fishing craft, the VP failed to close SEA DEVIL and shine a searchlight on the black object bobbing on the ocean.
The seas were still running high, so speed was reduced to 12 knots. But that was enough to get SEA DEVIL to the 50-mile firing position off the coast before daylight. The hourly grenade drops had stopped after the ruse was initiated-much to Lieutenant Commander Good’s bewilderment and disgust.
Thus the VPs were unaware of the ruse being employed and were first alerted to its success when: “SEA DEVIL at missile-firing position” was transmitted on the umpire circuit. The follow-on message, also transmitted in plain language, delivered the bad news to the VPs everywhere: “Am securing from the problem and proceeding to Port Angeles.” It was a mission accomplished sort of message.
“Not to worry” might have been added but that would only have rubbed it in that submarines invariably had the upper hand over ASW aircraft.