Editor’s Note: See also Dog Fighting Submarines by Captain Dick Laning in the April 2000 Submarine Centennial Issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW and L Remember Dick Laning by Captain Chuck Carlisle in the October 2000 issue.
I reported to SEA WOLF from its West Milton prototype on the day she was commissioned, March 30, 1957. The next 21 months were an opportunity to observe the most extraordinary Commanding Officer of my career, the late Dick Laning.
I had served on a destroyer in the Korean War, a wooden-hulled minesweeper and a Guppy II diesel submarine and had known five commanding officers but none had prepared me for someone like Dick.
My first underway submerged as OOD on SEA WOLF is illustrative. It was a 2000-2400 watch and I was still familiarizing myself with where the phones and indicators were under red lighting conditions. We were operating as opposition to a carrier and her destroyer screen. COMEX was given and I so reported to the Captain. He said “Proceed”. It dawned on me that I was in charge and that I had better start thinking like a commander. The next few hours were a blur of activity. Dick Laning monitored from his stateroom and never gave me any instructions.
As I got to know him better I realized that a great deal of his operational philosophy came from his pre World War II experience. He was extremely frustrated by the emphasis on Battle Efficiency Competition that had the effect of restricting submarine diesel engines to four hours at full power per year and conducting torpedo firings under the most favorable conditions. He vowed as Commanding Officer of our second nuclear submarine that he would operate SEA WOLF at her limits to prepare for war.
A few days after my operational baptism, SEA WOLF embarked a large number of observers and went to sea to demonstrate her capability against a variety of our newest destroyers and frigates. Robert (Yogi) Kaufman, our Executive Officer, was in charge of a
most realistic demonstration of our ability to shoot torpedoes accurately and often. Dick’s function was to describe what Yogi was doing-almost as a disinterested observer. It was an extraordinary performance that reflected on the talented officers and men assigned to SEAWOLF, as well as the many hours spent at the Attack Teacher at Submarine School.
Dick lived and breathed submarines and dreamed of the future of submarine warfare. No meal with him in the wardroom ever lacked for intellectual stimulation and challenge. How would we fight the Russians and the sheer number of ships they would build in the future? Should we have a fleet of 50-100 small SSNs in a barrier in the GIUK gap? Could we deploy remotely-controlled airborne weapons from submarines? All this in the mid ’50s.
Dick had an infectious exuberant personality and would quickly make a lasting impression on people he met. A group of high level U.S. Air Force personnel toured SEA WOLF to become exposed to our technology. The Air Force was seriously embarked on building a nuclear powered airplane and was evaluating a sodium cooled engine. Dick managed to get a reciprocal invitation to visit Westover Air Force Base to be given a tour of SAC’s B-52 bombers. Shortly thereafter we went and, in short order, became convinced that our bombers could penetrate the Soviet borders and were a credible deterrent.
Besides being a visionary, Dick was frequently a maverick. Once he received a request for contributions from all hands for the construction of the Navy-Marine Corps football stadium at Annapolis. He responded that he thought it inappropriate to solicit Sailors and a far better cause would be a fund drive for a new submarine torpedo! In another arena he rejected an NR inspection team as not having the right technical background to examine the SEA WOLF engineers. On a more personal note, as the eighth senior officer on board, I was surprised to be assigned as Navigator. Subsequently Dick was questioned at an Administrative Inspection for his noncompliance with Submarine Force Regulations which stipulated that the Navigator should be the Executive or Third Officer. His reply was characteristic. “If you wish to assume responsibility as Commanding Officer, then you can name the Navigator; otherwise I will select whomever I wish.”
The most vivid memory I have of my being Navigator was coming back from a month long operation only to surface south of Long Island in a dense fog. It was a Sunday afternoon in May and our ETA was in late afternoon. Dick did not like to miss ETAs. After establishing a finn position by radar and soundings, Dick ordered full speed. The next two hours seemed like a lifetime. The OOD could barely see the bow but could hear the buoys, which I would alert him to as we passed by. We never saw Race Rock but finally saw Southwest Ledge at about 100 yards when we slowed to 10 knots. Dick listened to all communications from his stateroom and never interfered. My greatest concern was not position but happening upon a sailboat not detectable on radar. Fortunately there was no encounter and Dick had made his point: using all our sensors we could prevail.
Dick had the honor of embarking President Eisenhower in SEAWOLF at Newport, Rhode Island in September 1957. We were told the President had only an hour for the cruise but would like to submerge. Dick said “Fine, we could do that”. We were rigged for dive when he came aboard and we quickly took him to periscope depth as soon as we had the minimum depth to submerge. It turned out that SEA WOLF was not his first submarine trip. He had embarked on a gasoline engine powered submarine when he had been stationed in the Canal Zone early in his career. He said he felt a lot safer on SEA WOLF. The President’s warm personality and ready smile made it clear how he managed to get disparate allies to work together to win the war.
Later in December 1957 the ship became involved in NBC’s Wide Wide World TV program which appeared live on Sunday afternoon. The program was ambitious, highly rated, and generally covered three stories at different sites throughout the U.S. With Dick’s enthusiastic support we were outfitted with a TV transmitter on one of our masts, embarked an NBC production unit, lots of equipment, and several cameramen. The theme of our segment was to demonstrate a dive on live TV and to transmit interviews with Dick Laning and Dennis Wilkinson, the CO of NAUTILUS. I was assigned as ship’s liaison and son of Assistant Director.
SEA WOLF proceeded to a position off Province-town, Massachusetts on Cape Cod where we could safely submerge within a mile or so of land. TV transmission distance was limited, forcing us to be very constrained operationally. 1957 was well before the days of hand held cameras so we had four large dolly-mounted cameras. We located them in the Conning Tower, Control Room, Crew’s Mess, and Torpedo Room. A script was produced and we ran through several rehearsals. A final dress rehearsal was fed to New York via Provincetown and Boston. All was well until about a half hour before the program was to begin, when one of the cameras failed. We had to rewrite the script for three cameras. There was not time left to practice so the producer in New York had to decide whether to go with the video of the dress rehearsal or hope the live feed would go well. Everyone decided to go live and NBC got a fine segment. The young TV reporter who interviewed Dick and Dennis was the late John Chancellor who eventually became NBC’s anchorman. Years later I met him and asked if he remembered his experience. He said he would never forget his bunk in the Torpedo Room and the thrill of being on SEA WOLF.
The summer of 1958 was an extraordinary time for nuclear submarines. Bill Anderson in NAUTILUS made the trans-polar voyage and Jim Calvert in SKA TE surfaced at the pole. SEAWOLF’s contribution was the 60 day continuous submergence during the first nuclear submarine special operations. In 1958 we carried enough oxygen for about 21 days.
In the early days of nuclear attack submarines we carried a doctor, Jack Ebersole, and he and Dick came up with a plan as to what to do when we used up all our oxygen supply. We had the early models of a CO-H2 burner and a C02 scrubber but no oxygen generator capability. Dick’s research led to coal miner’s use of oxygen candles in times of emergency. He was able to determine that the use of one candle per hour would support the oxygen requirements of 100 men. Somehow he procured several hundred candles and distributed them throughout the ship.
Everything went well on our long submergence. The candles, scrubber, and burner worked; but, at about the 40th day, our trash disposal unit (TDU) jammed. We were unable to get the outer door shut. This casualty gave us obvious operational limitations, as well as an ever increasing amount of trash and garbage that had to be frozen or stored. After several days of futile efforts to solve the problem, Dick proposed a bold plan-pressurize the Operations Compartment at periscope depth, equalize with sea pressure, open the inner TDU door, clear the outer door and restore the TDU to operation. Sounds simple, but it wasn’t-it took careful planning and meticulous execution.
Detailed Reactor Plant Manual-type procedures were prepared for all compartments and participants. Everything that could be effected by increased pressure had to be removed from the Operations Compartment, e.g., canned goods, cathode ray tubes, etc. When Dick was convinced that the plan was sound, we waited for a calm day without too much swell. Obviously depth control was of paramount importance or a catastrophe could occur with sea water pouring into a compartment that contained the battery.
In a few days conditions were favorable. We were at Battle Stations, it was daylight, and the operation commenced. When the Operations Compartment was pressurized and equalized to sea pressure, the inner TDU door was opened and a cleaning brush was found jamming the outer door. The brush was removed but before shutting the outer door, we jettisoned all the built up trash and garbage to sea. It certainly went quickly with both doors open. Observers at the TDU stared in fascination at the rise and fall of seawater in the tube. There was a slight swell but our planesmen’s control had been superb.
With the TDU operational we were in the final days of our 60 day submerged goal but we had used up all our oxygen. Dick and Jack’s plan went into effect-to slowly bleed high pressure air from the ballast tanks into the ship to raise the partial pressure so that enough oxygen to sustain life was provided. The pressure was eventually raised to 40 inches of mercury. As the real percentage of oxygen diminished, matches and lighters would not sustain combustion, so our intrepid smokers designed the equivalent of automobile lighters to ignite their cigarettes.
As we were headed home, we lost the use of one of our turbine generators due to the electrical failure of a circulating sea water pump motor. This casualty had the effect of preventing the ship from making full speed. Once again Dick chartered a plan to provide another source of seawater cooling. A modification was designed using a 2-112 inch fire hose. It was implemented, the rig subjected to test depth pressure, and enabled the ship to operate at full speed submerged.
When SEA WOLF surfaced after this historic voyage, all hands were at Battle Stations to insure everyone could be observed as we equalized with atmospheric pressure and quickly ventilated. Momentarily oxygen content was very low but there were no ill effects. Some weeks later, upon review by the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, they said “Don’t do that again”. Fortunately oxygen generators were developed, became reliable, and long unlimited submergence became routine.
Dick operated SEA WOLF during those 60 submerged days as if we were on wartime patrol. His planning, resourcefulness, and imagination enabled us to overcome adversities and accomplish our mission goals.
Admiral Rickover’s decision to abandon the sodium cooled nuclear reactor was made when I was still at the prototype and was based on two elements. The pressurized water design was successful and was easier to build and operate. The sodium cooled reactor had inherently greater risk stemming from both nuclear physics and chemistry. As high school chemistry students know, sodium and water are an explosive mixture and difficult to keep separated in a naval steam generator. Also, sodium, as it passes through the reactor, becomes highly radioactive and decays at a half life of 15 hours following shutdown. Pressurized water also becomes highly radioactive but decays with a half life of about seven seconds. Therefore, any son of casualty requiring access to the reactor compartment is easier and safer to do on the pressurized plant. No one knew how well the plant would operate, but it turned out the reactor plant was trouble free and no access was required during her entire commissioned service. Nevertheless, a decision was made to convert SEA WOLF to a NAUTILUS-type pressurized water plant starting in December 1958.
After our return from the 60 day submergence, Dick went to Washington to brief the CNO and others on our trip. At the time, we had just a handful of nuclear submarines and Dick pointed out the reliability of the ship and that fuel for SEA WOLF existed that could extend her operation for another year. A short time later, the CNO made the request to extend operations to Naval Reactors. The response was “the plan was not feasible as the fuel had been reprocessed!” Dick’s command tour came to end shortly thereafter, and he went on to use his ingenuity and skill in the Polaris program commanding PROTEUS.
I remained with SEA WOLF and became the Engineer Officer for her conversion. My encounters with Dick in the ensuing years were infrequent. Whenever or wherever it was-a technical conference or at Submarine League meetings-he was always a presence, an innovator, a questioner, a man always ahead of his time.
I last saw him at a wonderful SEA WOLF reunion in San Diego in August 1997 that attracted officers and men from her 30 years of service. Dick was forced to carry a small oxygen bottle with him to cope with his deteriorating health. He dismissed this discomfort as a mere inconvenience and turned his attention to the future and his next project, remaining as ever; indomitable, enthusiastic, and courageous. Dick once told me, “Never run your submarine the way I did; you won’t have the talent”. Fortunately for once he was wrong. I was assigned as the first Commanding Officer of NARWHAL and was entrusted with a very talented crew. I was fortunate to have been given the example of such an outstanding leader and friend. We will miss him-truly a man for all seasons.