Fond Encounters with Rear Admiral Eugene B. Fluckey
In January of 1966, I took command of USS PLUNGER (SSN 595), my first command, and at that time one of the most advanced attack submarines in terms of advanced sonar equipment and built from the keel up to be the most quiet submarine operating at sea. The change of command took place in Bremerton, Washington. Our next port of call was Pearl Harbor where we became homeported. Admiral Eugene Fluckey of WWII submarine fame was ComSubPac, the Pacific Submarine Force Commander at the time. We were pleasantly surprised when we learned on arrival that Admiral Fluckey had designated us as his Flag Ship. In the next few years our interaction with him was highly interesting, from which a few stories now emerge.
The first is about the Admiral’s steward who wanted to get back to sea and requested some sea duty, specifically in PLUNGER. I had only two young stewards who were doing a great job, but who turns down a seasoned Chief Petty Officer who wants to ta1ce over your relatively small wardroom? The Fluckey angle: this top steward knew Admiral Fluckey, and the day the Admiral came to the boat for a personal tour, my Chief took charge to ensure a smooth visit. The Admiral and I were leaning into the Ship’s Office chatting with my First Class Yeoman, when all of a sudden I heard a gruff voice whispering in my ear: “Hold still, Captain!” Next, I realized that my slightly dirty white web belt had been whisked off my pants and replaced by a clean belt. Nobody in the vicinity noticed the fast maneuver, and I will never forget how meticulous this Chief could be. No one of his officers would ever be observed wearing dirty clothing as long he was in charge of the wardroom.
The next story demonstrates his quiet post war smoldering following the war with Japan and how tactfully he handled it. I had been advised that the Admiral wanted to take a very important foreign dignitary for a demonstration cruise in PLUNGER. What I didn’t know at first was that this dignitary was a top ranking civilian in the postwar peace time Japanese government. The Admiral and his VIP guest were on the bridge to observe getting underway, when the Admiral directed me to go the long way to the channel, i.e. around Ford Island. Normally any boat leaving the Submarine Base would depart directly south to the exit channel. What the Japanese gentleman didn’t understand is that when a U.S. Navy ship passes the battleship ARIZONA sunk along side Ford Island, the ritual is to render honors-” Attention to port!”, and all hands topside drop what they are doing and salute the sailors perished in the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Our visitor on the bridge was obliged to place his civilian hand over his heart and follow suit during the brief passing ceremony.
The next story indicates how well Admiral Fluckey handled difficult submarine family situations. During my tour of command of PLUNGER a great deal of time was spent on special operations. The wives and sweethearts of the crew never knew when we would sail, where we would sail or when we would return. The deployments were usually months, not weeks. A few days before each return they would be notified and one of the customs was for the wives to get together and create a huge Hawaiian lei about forty feet in diameter to be draped around the sail from the bridge to the forward deck on docking-an aloha custom used greeting people arriving in the islands. My wife at the time came up with a creative idea on one of our arrivals.
Instead of the usual flowers decorating the lei, her gang of girls got together and created a huge lei which was loaded with family odds and ends such as bowling pins, diapers, canned dog and cat food, bras, panties, baby shoes, pots and pans, dish towels; you-name-it. However when we arrived, we were presented with a large lei made up of paper napkins from the Officer’s Club and put together by a some guys who operated the club. This was done on Admiral Fluckey’s orders. It turns out that one or two of the more prudish ladies who disapproved of the homegrown lei and complained to my Division Commander who saw nothing wrong with the homegrown variety. Somehow the controversy ended up in the Admiral’s office. Admiral Fluckey called my wife and invited her up for a cup of coffee to explain his awkward position which he decided to solve on the safe side. He told her and told me later when I viewed the controversial lei stretched out on his large office floor that he felt the lei was a work of art, innovative and humorous. He regretted that he had to make a decision to ward off the complaints of a few ladies with their noses in the air who could make trouble in general over the silly issue.
This final story evolves from a trip with Admiral Fluckey on board to observe a SUBROC test missile firing in the broad Pacific ocean area. PLUNGER was the first to be fined with this (then) new weapon and was designated to conduct many test and evaluation firings of which this was only one. At the end of the exercise, we surfaced and rendezvoused with a helicopter to fly the Admiral and several staff officers to Wake Island for return flights home. When all were assembled on the bridge for the transfer wearing life jackets, one of the young staff officers stepped out on the sail plane to receive the helo harness. Past experience had shown me that this would be a hazardous operation since the helo pilot has nothing to maintain station on with most of the hull underwater and the sail directly beneath out of sight. After securing the harness the helo lifted the officer, but he precariously swung back and forth, almost striking the sail. Admiral Fluckey immediately changed the recover plans, directing those to be transferred to dive into the water, a good twenty foot dive into choppy seas, and thence be picked up by helo where any mishap would only result in the high jump into the waves-a great idea and very successful. An interesting twist to this true story is that Admiral Fluckey later testified before Congress supporting submarine pay for submarine staff personnel who routinely go to sea in support roles when the submarine is home based. He cited this incident, among many others as evidence of hazards experienced by submarine staff personnel from time to time. Obviously the testimony was successful since shortly there after seagoing staff personnel started receiving their well deserved submarine pay.