The following story was recently remembered when Captain Ransom was a Lieutenant aboard USS SEADRAGON from March 1961 to January 1963.
SEADRAGON had enjoyed one of the best liberty weeks possible in Seattle in September, 1962. But it was over, and we were steaming out of Juan de Fuca Strait late in the afternoon, commencing our return trip to Pearl Harbor, where we expected-and got-a mildly heroic welcome from our precedent-setting Arctic run.
Several things aboard the boat had changed. For one, our exec, Wes Harvey, had been relieved and was on his way to command THRESHER, and subsequently to meet his tragically early death when she was lost with all hands about a year later. Bob Weeks had taken the reins. Bob had been a nuclear school and prototype classmate, one of the last real characters in the Submarine Force.
Roy Adler had relieved me as Gunnery Officer, and I was to relieve Bill Greene as Navigator during this seven or eight day cruise to Hawaii. But, as we pointed our bow westward into the graying fall seas, I was still Communicator, Sonar, and Electronics Officer.
I had come to love the Communicator’s job, and spent more time than I probably should have in the radio shack with my chief radioman, John Evans, and the first and third class RMs who assisted him-all very good men.
The ship was settling into the underway routine, not without difficulty after a great liberty in Seattle, and I was in Radio for two reasons: first, to ensure we were properly set up for the rendezvous with a P5M patrol aircraft out of Whidbey Island with whom we were to exercise at the start of our transit, and secondly to break an encrypted message received on the first broadcast copied after our sailing.
These were the days before satellite links and on-line broad casts, in which the messages are automatically unscrambled by the receiving apparatus. The broadcast was transmitted on VLF in morse code and copied manually on the typewriter by the radioman as he listened to and translated all the dots and dashes. Coincident with copying the messages (which we also audio-taped as backup for possible re-reading at leisure), the RM was cutting a paper tape of the encrypted message. The first several groups of the message gave us the necessary one-time setup for the decrypting machine, which also had to be set up with the daily decoding key list. The paper tape was then fed into the machine, and like magic, another tape was generated with the resulting decoded message. If the broadcast tape was not working, for whatever reason, the decoding officer could type in the five-letter encrypted groups manually.
There were at least three of us, maybe four jammed into the tight spaces of the radio shack, me being there primarily to decrypt the incoming message, while the others copied the broadcast and readied the voice circuits for the aircraft rendezvous. The ship was still on the surface, and beginning to be thrown around a bit as we left the protected strait and entered the Pacific Ocean with its wind, waves, and swells.
I set up the machine, and fed in the tape which Chief Evans had generated as he copied the morse broadcast. The message broke cleanly for about the first half, then lapsed into total garble.
I tried a second time, without success. I then embarked on a series of attempts to fool the system into coughing out a complete message: have the chief generate a new tape by recopying the message from the back-up audio tape, type in the encoded groups by hand instead of feeding in the tape, and probably a few others. No luck. The message only broke to the halfway point. It was an action message to SEADRAGON and another submarine-a mutual interference advisory which it was mandatory to copy and take action on, lest we find ourselves submerged in the same piece of ocean as another boat, always bad rice. But who was being told to do what? I informed the commanding officer (who was in the Conn impatiently waiting for radio contact with the airplane so he could find out what they wanted us to do and submerge the boat away from the mounting sea) that we had received an incomplete action message about impending submerged mutual interference. He was not pleased, and I got The feeling he suspected chat we were doing something wrong back there in Radio. He did chat sometimes, as skippers are wont (and I suppose entitled) to do, not at all a result of his real experience with our radio crew. We were good, and he admitted it, even while suspecting that we were about to make the big mistake.)
Finally I checked the message group count (each group contained five letters), and noted that the message was ten groups short of the count listed in the message heading. The dummies at the originating station had left ten groups out of the middle of the transmission! Armed with this new knowledge, I retyped the message into the machine as far as the good groups went, then typed in ten random groups in place of those missing (resulting in garbage for those fifty characters), then went back to the message groups to pick up the end of the message, which broke perfectly. I had fooled the system, but we still had fifty missing characters in the middle of an otherwise complete message. In essence, this is what we had, addressed to SEADRAGON and the other boat-which I’ll say was CATFISH; I really don’t remember-from the SUBOPAUTH (Submarine Operating Authority, the guy who directed and controlled submarine movements, in three dimensions, within his area of responsibility):
” …….. TO AVOID MUTUAL INTERFERENCE BETWEEN SEADRAGON AND CATFISH DURING THE PERIOD 031200Z THRU AJSUTG SIUJTOPWMFIRU JEHCTRYEICNSJID NFIMSHTURISNU REMAIN ON THE SURFACE DURING THIS ENTIRE PERIOD.”
Here one of us was being directed to remain surfaced for an unspecified period which was to begin in about two hours, to keep from running into each other at depth, and we could not be certain who was to do what.
About that time, the P5M arrived on station and contacted us by UHF (fairly short range) voice. We in Radio established a two way link, and asked the pilot what he wanted us to do. His request was simple: continue on our transit submerged. He would attempt to track us for his four hour allotted on-station time, and then would be relieved by another aircraft for the second four hours. No, there was no need for us to come to the surface at the transition time or at the end of the final four-hour period. Basically, we could just dive and head for Pearl. I replied that we would comply, and would be diving shortly-clearly a hope on my part, not necessarily reality.
I proceeded co the Conn to inform the skipper of the latest developments in the wonderful world of communications-the pilot’s simple request, and our dilemma with the manual interference message. I also recommended that we stay on the surface or at periscope depth for a short time and copy the next broadcast, which was coming up in about ten minutes. Hopefully, someone would have caught the mistake on THE message and they would transmit a corrected copy this time. (We had to have our antenna at or near the surface to get a good copy. The broadcasts were repeated every two hours, so you see that we had been wrestling with this damned message for quite some time.)
He grumbled a few words better forgotten, but acquiesced, reluctantly electing to stay on the surface since we could make better speed there than at periscope depth.
Back in Radio, I settled into a corner waiting for the next broadcast to commence. This transit was NOT getting off to a good start. There were several receivers tuned in to several circuits, including the UHF net with which we had communicated with the aircraft-background noise. The chief was getting ready to copy the broadcast.
Then we heard it, weak but insistent
It was so transitory that we weren’t sure we had really heard anything.
“Did you hear that?” I said, suddenly alert. “What circuit was that?”
Yes, they had heard it; no one was sure which receiver it had come from.
I called the Conn on the intercom. “Conn; Radio. We just heard a MAYDAY over a voice net in here. No call sign. Don’t know who it was.”
The captain grabbed the scope, and spun it around, just in time to see an aircraft dive into the waves less than a mile away!
As it turns out, the aircraft had had some sort of major engine failure while at low altitude. The pilot had been able to do no more than yell “Mayday!” into the circuit he was already on (our UHF net), and minimize the impact with the sea. He had no chance to come up on an HF net to tell anybody ashore that he was in trouble. Although the PSM was a seaplane, it was not designed to impact heavy seas at relatively high speed. The keel of the plane was broken on impact, and the aircraft sank in less than a minute. All of the crew escaped to a raft or to the open sea.
SEADRAGON immediately vectored toward the spot where the skipper had seen the plane go down, calling away the Rescue and Assistance Detail. It was getting increasingly dark, but we managed to find the raft, and with some difficulty managed to pull all of the plane crew on board. Several were badly shaken up, but none of their injuries was serious.
In Radio, we hooked up and brought a transmitter onto the proper ship-to-shore circuit to report the event (by FLASH precedence, something I have used only a very few times in my vast and distinguished Navy career.) A short while later, we were directed to rum around and head back to the harbor at Port Angeles, on the eastern end of Juan de Fuca Strait, to transfer the plane crew ashore. In the meantime, we treated the aviators to warm food and drink in the Wardroom and in the Crew’s Mess. We may have even opened up some of the medicinal brandy for them!
I was busy coming up on the appropriate radio circuits and sending the various operational messages associated with our change in routing-permission to enter port, logistics requirements (transfer rug, etc.), and a change to our MOVORD (Movement Order). In the meantime, we received and decrypted a corrected copy of the mutual interference message, which it turns out had directed CATFISH to remain surfaced, and which now had become moot, our transit having been interrupted for a mission of mercy. Then the skipper called me up to the bridge to be the OOD during our after-dark entry into Port Angeles, probably because I had conned the ship into Port Angeles during our daytime arrival some week earlier, to pick up the pilot for Seattle.
The entry into Port Angeles was hairy, partly because it was pitch-black dark, and partly because of the hundred, maybe thousands, of logs floating in the harbor. Most of them were somehow tethered or confined in the end of the harbor (formed by a stone jetty in the shape of a hook) away from the narrow entrance. But we did do a lot of backing and filling to avoid those spotted floating around loose. Fortunately, and unlike later classes, SEADRAGON was a twin screw ship!
The aviators were duly deposited in a boat for transfer ashore, expressing genuine gratitude for our presence and actions, and in exchange for many gallons of ice cream delivered by their squadron mates-a traditional reward for picking up a wet aviator who had been unexpectedly separated from his airplane. Seemed like a fair trade!
We then turned around to resume our transit home, with a new series of messages needed to set up our time-revised track. Then the process of re-rigging the ship for dive, and a re-scheduling of internal ship business, the surfaced transit back out the Strait, and finally diving to the depths for the routine transit ahead. All in all, it had been a long day.
I have often thought how Providence intervened in events that day to save ten airmen who might otherwise never have been found. If the infamous mutual interference message had not been garbled, SEADRAGON would have gone deep immediately after the initial UHF communication with the rendezvousing aircraft. We would not have returned to communications depth for at least eight hours, and even then were not required to communicate with any aircraft. The relief P5M would have arrived on scene after dark, and have gotten no answer to its rendezvous calls with the first plane, now at the bottom of the sea. It would have been pitch dark and getting stormy. They did not know where the first aircraft was supposed to be, exactly, and only after their home base reported that it had not returned would a search for survivors have been initiated. The ocean area to be searched would have been wide indeed, since there would have been no way of knowing at what point in the flight the plane had gone down. Yes, the survivors might have had a hand-held radio and flares in the raft, but locating them would still have taken a long time, if ever.
The Good Lord was looking out for those guys that night. Do you suppose it was He who left the ten groups out of that message to SEADRAGON?