In January 2001, fifteen members of the crew of USS MARYLAND (SSBN 738) (BLUE) crew traveled to Baltimore, Maryland to assist local volunteers in their preservation efforts in the ex-USS TORSK, a WWII fleet submarine. The visit provided a tangible example of continuing projects that can capitalize on the momentum of the submarine centennial. It also highlighted the success and the limitations of restoration efforts aboard these venerable fighting ships.
USS MARYLAND is homeported in Kings Bay, Georgia, the base for all ballistic missile submarines in the Atlantic Fleet. Armed with 24 Trident II missiles, she and her sister ships are the most powerful war machines ever built. Like several other Atlantic SSBN crews, both the Blue and the Gold crews of MARYLAND make it a standard part of their pre-patrol training to make community service trips to their namesake states. With this ongoing commitment, teams of volunteers visit Maryland three or four times a year. These trips are modestly funded by the public affairs office on the staff of Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. The public affairs office provides $1000 per year for one visit by each crew for namesake visits. In the case of crews like MARYLAND that send teams to their namesake twice a year, some of these trips are completely unfunded. Even when funds are available, $1000 shared among 15 crewmembers does not go very far. Fortunately, local groups always provide food and shelter as a pre-condition of the volunteer visit. These trips support the local community, provide an outlet for service-minded Sailors, and generate valuable exposure for the Navy. The visit to TORSK resulted in a prominent article in the Baltimore Sun. The ongoing efforts of both crews of MARYLAND were recognized in April 2000 by Governor Parris Glendenning with a special volunteer service award. The presentation was timed to coincide with the centennial anniversary of the Submarine Force.
The visit to TORSK was the first by a MARYLAND team. Previous visits had been coordinated through the Governor’s Office on Service and Volunteerism. While this form of coordination has effectively supported visits throughout the state, The very obvious tie-in with TORSK volunteers through the Submarine Force called for a more direct liaison. As a key, but small exhibit within the context of the larger Baltimore Maritime Museum, the TORSK Bandits, as the volunteers like to call themselves, arranged for MARYLAND crewmembers to live aboard the ex-USCGS TANEY, another historic ship in the collection.
Accommodations were spartan, but comfortable. Simple, but satisfying meals were provided by the museum out of TANEY’s galley. For our Sailors, this location was appropriate. TANEY was moored close to our work aboard TORSK. At the same time, living in the center of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor provided all of the attractions (restaurants, pubs, museums, tourist attractions) that a guy could want.
The aft battery well of TORSK has been converted into a well-stocked storeroom. Our crew was able to find most of the parts and supplies needed to make a lot of progress on the Bandits’ equipment deficiency list. The local volunteers who came to support us during our stay continually vocalized how impressed they were by the productivity of our team. I learned a long time ago to never underestimate the capability of the American Bluejacket. After three days, we had largely completed the wish list that had been intended to keep us busy all week. The skills of our auxiliary-men proved to be the most useful. Freeing manual valves, greasing hatch operating mechanisms, repairing toilet ball valves-it was just like refit. The twist was that the work they were performing was retracing the efforts of warfighters from past generations of submariners. Every volunteer performed what work his experience and skins would allow. It would be accurate to say we enjoyed it.
Some of us had very little experience in actually refitting a submarine. I, for one, can plan and execute a refit with the best of them, but my crew can only imagine how dangerous I am with tools. I decided to tag along with my Senior Chief Electronics Technician as we tried to refurbish TORSK’s radar. As it turned out, neither one of us was well-suited to repair this type of equipment. Vacuum tube technology is no longer even taught in our service schools. We studied the operating manual on a vacuum tube tester dated 1967. The procedures seemed straight-forward enough. We proceeded to test the approximately 80 tubes in the set, a slow process requiring each tube, in tum, to slowly warm up to normal operating temperatures. The Bandits hoped we could develop a list of tubes that were needed. Armed with this list, they could focus their search on the internet for these rare components. Their overall objective was to restore the radar set to full operation. After two and a half days of testing and cleaning, we determined that about a dozen tubes were probably bad.
It was at this point that the futility of our effort slowly set in. We soon realized that even if we had the tubes, we could never hope to energize the equipment. The radar runs off of 400 Hz power, a distribution system that is completely inoperable on TORSK. This example illustrates the limitations of casual restoration efforts. We put a great deal of time and effort into the task, but without an integrated and expansive plan, without extensive repair parts and technical skills, our efforts were leading nowhere. Considering the stripping-down process that the ship went through during its decommissioning, a lot of the gear considered salvageable at the time was not even present.
The basic question that remains is: “To what extent can and should a ship of this vintage be maintained?” Two basic approaches occupy different ends of the spectrum. One field of thought would suggest that restoring everything to the operational status of its days in commission is the only objective worthy of such a treasure. This is a lofty and idealistic approach, but one that appeals to many people. It is just the kind of grand vision that can energize a group of volunteers. Searching the internet, making foraging raids on the Navy’s mothball fleets in search of rare repair parts (thus the name Bandits), now that is the stuff that makes for an enjoyable volunteer experience. The other end of the spectrum concedes the futility of restoring equipment to its operating prime and focuses instead on making the ship as presentable to the visiting public as possible. This approach focuses on cleaning and preservation (i.e., chipping and painting), the bane of any Sailor’s existence. Hardly the kind of activity that keeps volunteers coming back for more.
The TORSK Bandits largely aspire to the first line of thinking. Regrettably, they do not have the resources to make a truly serious attempt at comprehensive restoration. An intermediate aspiration of the group is to one day host groups of Scouts or students onboard the ship for overnight cruises, tied fast to the pier alongside the National Aquarium. This objective seems attainable. To support overnight guests, a limited number of improvements need to be made. These would include refurbishing the plumbing systems and updating the galley equipment. With this more modest focus, I estimate that the on-going efforts of the Bandits could achieve this goal.
As for other systems, I would discourage costly and time-consuming initiatives to restore electrical systems and electronic equipment. It is extremely difficult to garner the parts and skills necessary to tackle these sorts of jobs. Additionally, energizing sixty-year old cables and equipment that have been dormant for thirty years raises serious safety concerns.
Though not glamorous, the biggest commitment needed to preserve this type of ship is inevitably housekeeping. While the Bandits completed a successful refurbishment of the ship’s wooden main deck recently, the underlying steel superstructure is in need of attention. Areas throughout the ship would benefit from a thorough cleaning. Expanded interpretational displays would enhance the learning experience for guests. Installing lights to give the appearance of operability to electrical equipment, without committing the extraordinary effort to restore functionality, would be an achievable goal that would add to a visitor’s appreciation of what the ship looked like in August 1945 as she inflicted the last shipping casualties of World War II.
The efforts of the Bandits and volunteer groups throughout the country are laudable. Working on a shoestring budget, typically supplemented by their own money, these workers engage in a labor of love as they strive to perpetuate the memory of our decisive Silent Service. Many of these volunteers have never served in submarines; most were not old enough to serve during WWII. Nevertheless, these patriots strive patiently, usually on weekends and during their vacation time, to keep the memory alive. They deserve all the support we can give them.