Captain Sryer graduated from the Naval Academy with the class of 1948B. He served for two years in USS McKEAN (DD 784) spending most of that time with the U.S. Seventh Fleet as part of Japanese Occupation Forces patrolling the islands of Japan. After graduation from Submarine School in 1950, he served on seven different submarines-two diesels and jive nuclear powered, the latter two of which he commanded. These short stories are centered mostly on experiences on these submarines. He retired after 30 years of naval service in 1978, and now resides in Florida.
My First Skipper and Angles and Dangles
Captain Enders Huey was my first submarine skipper (USS CHOPPER (SS 342) in 1951. I reponed to CHOPPER at the Electric Boat Company Shipyard where CHOPPER was undergoing overhaul. Captain Huey had a beef with the Bureau of Personnel over the policy that the time requirement for an officer to be eligible for Qualification in Submarines, which was one year, could not include time in a shipyard. He believed that was a perfect time for young potential qualified submariners to study the ship’s systems and components as pan of their qualification program. He ordered me to have my Qualification Notebook completed in six months instead of the usual twelve months to be ready for my final examination earlier than the required year. I did that, but as it turned out the Bureau did not agree with his view and I had to re-do my lengthy notebook which was completely rewritten in the following six months. In the meantime, Captain Huey made me make almost all of the landings and under ways as Officer of the Deck for my first six months, much to the consternation of some of the other less junior officers who wanted the experience. The idea was to be ready in six months. I was required to make eight different periscope approaches in practice firings at surface ships, and as torpedo officer spent many long nights supervising preparing the torpedoes to be used in an unprecedented spread of ten torpedoes at our practice destroyer target. I then had to supervise the recovery of those practice torpedoes on the forward deck to be lowered into the forward torpedo room, an exercise normally taken on by small torpedo recovery vessels which had better gear to do the job.
And the angles and dangles part of the story … Captain Huey handled that old diesel boat much like we were able to do many years later when nuclear submarines came along. These latter boats are much more stable during high speed maneuvers. Another of his feats was to submerge the ship while making full speed astern, a maneuver he required all of his officers to accomplish. We all learned how to handle just about any expected emergency through daily drills.
One day in Key West we had an occasion to host a group of naval aviators on a day’s run at sea surfaced and submerged. He pulled a trick on those unsuspecting officers which gave them the thrill of their lives. While submerged in deep water, when these officers were enjoying a cup of coffee in the wardroom, word suddenly came over the loud speaker system: “Rig ship for outside loop!” Captain Huey had briefed the stewards serving the guests in the wardroom. Three of them started running around putting everything away that wasn’t tied down, locking all drawers, and stuffing pillows everywhere to contain any flying object. All the while they were muttering loud enough for the aviators to hear words like, “Lawdy, I wish the ‘ol man wouldn’t pull this maneuver again!!” … And “Hang on , gentlemen!!” or similar comments. Shortly thereafter CHOPPER would slowly be placed in a very steep down angle, between 20 and 30 degrees, and at the very steepest angle the propellers would be placed in reverse and the main ballast tanks blown … an emergency measure called back, blow, and pray. We all had to learn as diving officers to pull out of any unexpected extreme down angles. Needless to say, our aviator guests were impressed, and probably a little bit frightened by these high jinks.
My Encounters with Lord Mountbatten
(Louis Alben Victor Nicholas, First Earl Mountbatten of Burma 1900-79, British Admiral)
In 1951, I was the youngest and most junior officer (grade Ensign), in my early twenties, serving in USS CHOPPER (SS 342). My skipper, Enders P. Huey had led us on a Mediterranean cruise with the U.S. Sixth Fleet-my first deployment overseas. We had occasion to visit a Mediterranean port where Admiral Mountbatten also happened to be visiting. Admiral Mountbatten was invited to dinner in our tiny wardroom.
Toward the end of our dinner and a lot of pleasant and enlightening conversation (for me, anyway}, Captain Huey told the Admiral that he wanted to have a set of Honorary Gold Submarine Dolphins presented to him, and decided (for some reason) that the junior officer on board should make the presentation. I stammered through a few words and managed to pin the Dolphins on the Admiral’s chest without harming him. Finding an empty spot amongst the mass of insignia, medals and ribbons already there was a challenge.
The real meat of the story follows. In 1963, I was serving as Executive Officer (Gold crew) in USS THOMAS JEFFERSON (SSBN 618). We were moored at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., Newport News, Virginia (where the ship was built) when Admiral Mountbatten happened to pass through town. Our skipper, Captain Chuck Priest, had the entire wardroom lined up on the main deck to greet the visiting Admiral when he crossed the bow.
I noticed he was wearing the American Dolphins I had pinned on him 12 years earlier. I didn’t figure he would notice me. To my surprise, he said as he met me in the greeting line, “How are you, Lieutenant Commander Styer? As you can see, I am still wearing the Dolphins you presented to me.” What an impressive memory!
Ted Haselton-Engineer Extraordinare
This story is about my friend Ted Haselton who was engineering office of USS CHOPPER on my second excursion into the fun of Mediterranean cruises under the command of Captain Verner Utlke Ramsing. In those days he was a Lieutenant and I was still an Ensign. Today, he goes under the Internet banner of Imagineering, which also is the name of the company he started up after retirement. Anyway:
Early in our deployment one of our four 8 cylinder main General Motors diesel engines suffered a catastrophic failure of one of the main bearings where one of the cylinder piston arms connected to the crank shaft. The engine was obviously out of commission until we could receive major help from a shipyard facility. A casualty report was sent, and we were told to proceed on our deployment. .. three working engines would certainly handle anything we had to do.
Ted did some thinking and figured that he could repair the engine, which seemed nonsense to the rest of us, but he made a bet with the skipper that if he repaired the engine, the skipper would agree to take the first in-port overnight duty officer assignment when we returned to homeport Key West-an assignment usually reserved for one of the bachelors, certainly not the skipper who never stood in-port watches. Ted then further negotiated and said he would have to be taken off the watch bill (Officer of the Deck for four hours every 16 hours plus Diving Officer Duty when submerged). Plus, two of his trusted Petty Officer Engineering Mechanics had to be freed from routine watch standing. A done deal.
Those guys built themselves a special grinding rig/Rube Goldberg kind of device that would make tiny grinding maneuvers across the damaged (egg shaped) journal bearing surface of the crank shaft whenever they turned the crank shaft a few degrees to accomplish the job. The idea was to make the journal round again and then somehow find an oversized bearing surface to place in the end of the piston rod to safely carry the load of the associated cylinder. They accomplished the job of making the journal perfectly round again in several weeks, and when we made our final port call at Gibraltar, the local British Navy Facility built us a set of babbitt bearings to fit the new over-sized configuration designed and required by Ted Haselton. The end of the story, of course, involves the skipper’s loss of the bet and he did indeed keep his promise, much to the consternation of his lovely wife who had to settle for a nice dinner in the wardroom of CHOPPER the night we moored after a lengthy deployment away from home.
But, not completely … the real end of the story is this: When Ted left CHOPPER for another submarine assignment, I became Chief Engineer. CHOPPER was scheduled for a routine overhaul. My immediate task was to put together all the necessary paperwork to submit to the overhauling shipyard which consisted of a mile high of all the work orders necessary for the shipyard to proceed on repairs the ship needed. The first work order was simple: Replace the main crank shaft on the defective main engine. I left the ship for my next assignment before CHOPPER entered the shipyard, but I learned later that the shipyard turned down my request for repairs to that engine. Instead, they provided CHOPPER several over· sized bearings made to British Specifications.
Penetrating the Straits of Gibraltar
In 1953 I was a member of the wardroom of USS TIRANTE, one of the first snorkel conversions in the fleet. I was headed for my third deployment to the Mediterranean Jed by my second skipper, Captain Jack Barrett. One of the frequent exercises our fleet submarines became involved in was working with the U.S. Sixth Fleet Anti Submarine Warfare Force, which consisted of many destroyers and aircraft. We were directed to make a submerged penetration of the Straits of Gibraltar from west to east at a given time interval when many ASW ships would be hunting for us to detect and make simulated depth charge runs. The penetration usually was done at low quiet speeds and deep depths through this very deep valley between Spain and North Africa. Obviously there was little room to maneuver in this narrow valley of water, so the exercise gave us no opportunity for simulated counterattacks on destroyers once we detected their sonars. Needless to say the exercise which lasted around 15 hours was great practice for both submarine and ASW foes with no holds barred, except the confinement of the Straits.
This was prelude to my fourth deployment to the Med six years later in USS SKIPJACK (SSN 585) with my skipper, Captain Bill Behrens. Captain Behrens had an aggressive approach to submarining, and he had command of the fastest submarine in the world, a fact that he quickly demonstrated to our ASW friends. On approaching the Med, we were provided the same instructions to penetrate the Straits of Gibraltar for some ASW practice with the Sixth Fleet. Captain Behren’s plan was to penetrate this narrow but deep trench at flank speed. As navigator I was a little concerned about how best to accomplish safe navigation. I was allowed a final periscope visual accurate fix on land objects on either side of the Straits and an opportunity to make at least one sounding in the middle of the Straits to confirm our position while at high speed and deep depth. In 15 minutes we were on the eastern side of the Straits at periscope depth watching a group of frustrated destroyers milling around about three miles away pinging their hearts out at nothing. The finale was a strongly worded message we received later from the Senior Destroyer Officer-in-Charge of the exercise claiming foul play. I guess he expected another 15 hour exercise rather than a 15 minute scramble. That was not the last time these folks would be frustrated by SKIPJACK.
My Interview with Admiral Rickover
Many of us have uncomfortable, if not terrifying, memories, of their interview with Admiral Rickover who did the painstaking task of personally taking on the face-to-face interview and acceptance or rejection of every officer desiring to enter the Nuclear Power Program. Mine may not be unique, but as I remember, it was interesting.
At the time I was accepted for interview, I was a Lieutenant on the Instructing Staff at the Nuclear Power School, New London, Connecticut. I was there because Admiral Rickover had decided that the Bureau of Naval Personnel should take over instructing officers and enlisted men in appropriate advanced academics and submarine nuclear engineering systems. Selected by BuPers, I had spent 18 months in Idaho at the Nautilus prototype reactor to qualify as a Reactor Engineer in order to become part of the teaching staff at the new school in New London. The school was under the leadership of Commander Bill Behrens who evenrually became my Commanding Officer in USS SKIPJACK (SSN 585). My total time becoming qualified as a Reactor Operator (Engineer) and instructing at the school came to approximately two years.
When it came time for me to go to sea again, the logical choice was to go to sea in a nuclear submarine. In spite of my encounters with Admiral Rickover in Idaho, which were not infrequent, there still had to be a formal interview and acceptance in the program. Before going to Washington for my interview, my boss, Bill Behrens, who knew both Rickover and Styer like a book, gave me some advice. He explained to me that Rickover did not accept officers who did not stand in the top of their Naval Academy class (which I didn’t), and he explained to me that I would have to do something during the interview to keep his mind off my obvious lack of education.
I made up my mind to go down to Washington and go through (or get killed during) the interview wearing civilian clothes. Admiral Rickover almost always wore civilian clothes, so I knew it must be legal at least in Washington. My first real discomfort came in the waiting room before our interviews with three pre-interviewers and then the final with the KOG (as we referred to him-the kindly old gentleman). I was sitting there in my finest pin-striped suit with about 20 other junior officers all of whom were in uniform and staring at me wondering who the hell I was. My pre-interviews with people of the KOG’s staff went fairly smoothly, but they all warned me that the ‘ol man would see through my ruse.
The interview went something like this: When I walked in and greeted the Admiral with courtesy, he went ballistic and raised his voice more than I had ever heard before when he asked me what in hell I was doing out of uniform. I told him that I was comfortable in civilian clothes, as he seemed to be in the same attire. l also reminded him of our encounters in Idaho and expounded on my obvious qualifications for the program as a result of that Idaho experience. He shifted the subject to my class standing at the Naval Academy. I told him that I stood academically about half way down the class ladder, and he caught me in a lie. He told me that I tried to hide the fact that the class of 1948 was split into two different classes academically during the war, and that I graduated in the class of 1948B (’48A graduated in three years in 1947; I graduated in 1948). He then went on to explain that the B after my class year group stood for Bucket! At that point he told me to get out! I figured I had nothing to lose, and remembering my skipper’s advice, I told him “No, sir, you haven’t heard me out.” The next few minutes was a one-sided story by me that in spite of the fact that I was not up to his high academic standards, he would not find many other officers who would work as hard as I would for the program. I was already dedicated to it, and that I felt that my practical experience was more important than high grades which I failed to achieve as a young man. I rambled on for another few minutes and when I finally paused, he asked me if I was through. I said “Yes, sir”, and he said, “OK, now get out!”
On the way home to New London on the train, I figured I had really messed up badly. But I was wrong again. My wife greeted me and told me to call Bill Behrens, which I did. He said that the Admiral had called asking him if he wanted me on the commissioning crew of SKIPJACK. When Bill said “Yes”, I think the retort was something like: “OK, you’ve got the obstinate idiot.”
I personally thought that was the greatest decision the KOG ever made. In my opinion, it made my career, because Bill Behrens taught me in the two years under his command just about every-thing I needed to learn about running submarines and working the loyalty up and down discipline with the crews that I had the privilege of commanding in future years.
Tweaked by Green Flares
The next story is also about SKIPJACK and how Captain Bill Behrens tweaked an aircraft carrier. Later in SKIPJACK’s deployment to the Med we were invited again to join the U.S. ASW Forces in further exercises. This time we were pitted against a carrier group in the middle of the Med. Our task was to penetrate a formidable destroyer screening group spread out ahead of a large aircraft carrier and try to sink the carrier with practice approaches after passing through the screen. Again this group found that SKIPJACK was indeed a new kind of underwater foe. Once we passed the search destroyers deep and at high speed, we slowed and conducted a conventional torpedo approach on the carrier who had no idea where we were. We made a few normal practice ap-proaches, and when in position to simulate a firing of a spread of torpedoes released green flares. While our position of the simu-lated firings was usually 1000 yards or so on the beam/bow of the surface target, by the time the flare floated to the surface, the flare was usually spotted floating down on its parachute somewhere astern of the target. When the carrier failed to acknowledge that it had been fired upon, SKIPJACK did the unusual maneuver of placing herself directly beneath the carrier matching her course and speed. During one phone exchange, the carrier made a hollow threat to drop an anchor on us. The final coup occurred when we calculated roughly where we should be when we launched our next green flares, taking into account the ascent time of the flares and estimated parachute drop time, so as to place them on the carrier’s deck to really get his attention. We proceeded up ahead of the carrier, took the calculated position and launched our flares. The exercise ended with another cry of foul play, and we quit the fun when we learned that a couple of flares had landed squarely on the carrier’s deck which proved to be dangerous with all the gasoline fueled aircraft sitting around. Needless to say, when Captain Behrens attended the post exercise briefing at the next port of call, he was surrounded by a hostile group of ASW surface officers, some of whom praised his new tactics but asked that future exercises be confined to restricted maneuvers on the part of SKIPJACK. That never happened.