On June 15, 2000, I was privileged to attend, along with his family, classmates, and shipmates, and inurnment and memorial for my good friend and mentor, Captain Richard B. Laning at Arlington National Cemetery. The occasion brought back cogent memories of a truly remarkable officer.
It was my good fortune to serve as Dick’s commissioning engineer officer and, later, executive officer on USS SEA WOLF (SSN 575) during the Navy’s first experiences with submarine nuclear propulsion. To have served under his command and tutelage during that 1950s period of technical challenge and development was indeed unique.
SEA WOLF, the second nuclear submarine to be built, was powered by a developmental liquid metal-cooled reactor. There were schedule delays during construction and activation caused by heat exchanger problems, which eventually prevented the realization of the full potential of the design, and contributed to the decision not to continue that development in the Navy. However, the ship was completed and delivered to the Navy with that propulsion plant, and operated for two years without further problems.
During the extended pre-commissioning period Dick’s unique leadership and vision came to the fore. As PCO, in addition to maintaining excellent working relations with the Bureau of Ships, the shipyard, and the sponsoring engineering laboratory, he used the extra time to organize, train, and develop the wardroom and crew. There was continuing attention to the training, qualification, and promotion of each man. He gave individual members and groups of the crew unique opportunities to gain professional training, insight, and experience beyond their Navy ratings. He placed special emphasis on cross-training, broadening of capability, and teamwork. And he built self-confidence and morale.
SEAWOLF went to sea in 1957 with an exceptional crew, trained, self-confident, and ready to meet whatever might be the challenges-and they did just that. At sea, Dick Laning combined his extensive WWII and prior post-war submarine development experience with imagination and determination to achieve operational excellence. Under his unique leadership and vision, the ship established a remarkable two-year operating record, breaking new ground in the tactical use of this new type of submarine.
The operation of that ship under Dick Laning’s command was a study in fine leadership. Control of the ship, and the conduct of its internal functions, went on quietly and efficiently. He very seldom took command or gave direct orders. His role was largely that of coach, tutor, and advisor, everywhere on the ship. Each officer and the petty officer was given all of the responsibility he could handle, was challenged to meet it, and praised for doing so. Disciplinary problems were almost unknown. Good humor and comradeship were the order of the day.
I remember Dick Laning as a man of vision and ceaseless energy. Highly educated, and an avid reader, he was in continual pursuit of new ideas and technical innovation. He had little patience with doctrine and established procedures. He had vivid memories of his experience as a junior officer on the aircraft carrier HORNET in the early days of WWII in the Pacific, and as an executive officer on the submarine SALMON during an engagement with the Japanese which nearly caused the loss of that ship. From those experiences he saw and valued technical competence, imaginative action, and innovative leadership.* And he was an inspirational leader. As a great submariner, he served his nation well.
*Editor’s Note: See the following for a bit more about Dick Laning, a teacher to us all.
- SALMON Survives Harrowing Ordeal, Capt. R.A. Bowling, Pg. 101, THE SUBMARINE REVIEW, July 1998.
- Dog Fighting Submarines, Capt. R.B. Laning, Page 107, THE SUBMARINE REVIEW, April 2000.