Mr. Hamilton is a reporter for The New London Day covering defense issues. Bob, and his photographer, Tim Cook. were embedded newsmen for the recent war in Iraq. His adventures aboard USS PROVIDENCE appeared in July 2003 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW (p70). The January 2004 issue will contain the third in this series with his accounts of some other submarines in that action.
It had been a difficult couple of months for the sailors of USS EMORY S. LAND. They had been working seven-day weeks in Souda Bay, Crete, to prepare for the arrival of attack submarines returning from the war in early April. The boats would need to be resupplied with food and weapons, pick up their mail, and head back to sea.
Captain David M. Volonino had a predicament. There were just three buses available to transfer people to the nearby Naval Security Activity compound where they could make phone calls, go bowling, or have a few burgers and a beer. He could either send his Sailors, or the submariners. So he called together his first-class petty officers and put the question to them.
“It was unanimous,” Volonino recalled. “They said, to a Sailor, that it was more important that the submariners get a few hours off and they could wait until things lightened up a little bit. When you have one young person do something that selfless, you feel pretty good. When you have a tender full of young people, you feel 1,300 times as proud.”
The attitude on LAND can be summed up in six words: Nothing ‘s too good for the customer. When the LAND’s galley crew learned that one of the boats alongside in April had run out of pancake syrup, they gathered up every drop on the ship and sent it over. The LAND sailors knew they could restock in a couple of days, but the submarine would have to go without for weeks.
At one point LAND had four submarines along its starboard side in Souda Bay during the war. the first time that has ever happened with nuclear submarines. It required some special rigging, because the LAND is built to accommodate only three.
But four boats needed to be serviced, and LAND wasn’t going to tum anybody away. Within minutes of their arrival, the ships all were connected to LAND by booms that ran electrical power, data services, cable television, water and phones out to the boat. The LAND’s security force and Coast Guard cutters patrolled the water nearby. For a time, at least, the submarine crews were in a protected haven.
Most of the boats are in contact with LAND for days before they arrive, providing a list of needed repairs. As soon as each boat was secured, hordes of technicians poured onto the ship and began doing the work. to keep the submarines on their tight schedule.
Normally LAND is anchored in Italy, but the ship got underway just before the war to be closer to the action. It ran right through a storm with 60-knot sustained winds and gusts to 75-knots. The round-bottomed tender made about five knots and handled like a brick. At one point it was taking 25-degree rolls.
“Still, not one thing on the decks budged,” Volonino said … That is a reflection of how well our deck department personnel do their jobs.”
And the move saved weeks of steaming time for submarines that were just going to stay in the eastern Mediterranean.
“I would make the argument that our mission is more important than any individual warship because we make the whole fleet look bigger,” Volonino said. “We’re a true force multiplier, because when we’re doing our job the ships can stay out longer, and be ready to meet any tasking.”
Some submariners are worried about the dwindling number of tenders. The Navy made a decision in the 1990s to decommission many of the ships in favor of land-based maintenance facilities at submarine homeports.
Starting with the World War II-era FULTON in 1991, the Navy decommissioned nine tenders during that decade, leaving it with just two in commission-LAND and USS FRANK CABLE, homeported in Guam. Both were built in the 1970s.
No one disputes that repair work is more efficient and effective when done in a shoreside shop, as long as the submarine is home. The problem is that the Navy’s pace of operations has picked up in forward !l£ea5, and there is likely to be even more demand for services of the tenders in years to come, but there is no plan at present to build a replacement class.
Taking care of the submarines is a job that the LAND sailors take very seriously. Volonino said he’s fortunate to have a crew of bright, energetic young men and women who joined the service out of a sense of national duty.
“It sounds corny, I know, but it’s true. They are not here because of money and they are not here because of glory, because there is precious little of either,” Volonino said. “They are here because they have skills to do a job that has to be done, skills that few people have today.”
“Fixing a leaky valve on a submarine is not like fixing a leaky valve in your sink.” Volonino said. “Everything that we do on a submarine is very technical, very controlled. All that stuff is ready when the submarine arrives and Zam, we spring on board and get to work. Anything the sub crew needs, we provide them.”
LAND is loaded with many of the spare parts that a submarine might need in mid-deployment, such as towed arrays, take-up reels and periscopes. And, of course, there are the weapons, mostly Tomahawk missiles on this trip, to resupply ships that have been in combat. Work continues through the night to pull all the empty weapons canisters from the vertical launch system tubes and the torpedo room.
The VLS tubes are pumped out and tested before the new missiles arc loaded in by crane, a job that moves slowly and methodically. Volonino remembers from his own tour as Commanding Officer of USS NEBRASKA that the longer one of those dangerous industrial processes went on, the more people tended to do it automatically.
“After about the I 0111 one, it becomes repetitive,” Volonino said. “That’s when the accident grabs you. That’s when you walk around making sure everyone is at their peak.”
While the reloading takes place, other LAND Sailors are scrambling to make any repairs the submarine needs. Chief Machinery Repairman Rob Randall oversees 30 technicians who run the 42 manufacturing machines on LA~lathes, milling machines and so forth.
Racks of Dell servers in the bowels of the ship store much of the technical information they need to make repairs, and the location of spare parts they will need. If it’s not in stock, he puts his crew to work to make one from scratch, working at tolerances about one-tenth the diameter of a human hair.
“There is no other ship in the Navy that has the capability we have,” Randall said … , don’t say no, even if it’s something we’ve never done before.”
He said even something as simple as a leaking hydraulic system can make a submarine crewman’s life difficult because it means frequent cleanups and refilling of the system. Keeping those systems operating as they are designed, he said, improves the quality of life on the boat.
He pointed out one young fireman who just graduated from machinist mate .. A” school, and has been working 12-hour days for the last week.
“I have to tell him to get out of here and go to bed, or he’d be on that machine 24 hours a day,” Randall said.
Technical representatives from the Fleet Technical Support Center Atlantic and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center are also on board LAND, ready to lend a hand on an ornery system.
Lieutenant Andre T. Sadowski, a supply officer on LAND, said normally it can take two to three weeks to get something from the States, even something as simple as a tape recorder from Radio Shack that USS PROVIDENCE supply officer requested.
Before raising anchor in Italy LAND set up a special detachment in Sigonella, Italy, that meets all the planes coming in from Norfolk. Va., then puts it on a plane heading for Souda Bay. Turnaround time at the height of the war was cut to about three days.
“This has done wonders for us in terms of supporting the submarines,” Sadowski said. “We have a direct pipeline now.”
Meanwhile, the submarine crews often fan out through LAND, availing themselves of the services they normally do without while on deployment. There is a medical clinic and a five-chair dental suite, a legal office, and a ship’s store where they can pick up everything from anti-perspirant to DVD players.
LAND boasts three gyms, one that has free weights, another with aerobic systems such as bikes and treadmills, and one with a combination of the two. The Leaming Multi-Media Resource Center has 3,000 volumes, but also 15 laptops that allow Sailors to surf the Internet, a wide assortment of music and movie disks, and a section devoted to DANTES, the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support, said Chaplain Michael Tomlinson .
.. We’ve had several people who’ve managed to get an associates degree while on board,” Tomlinson said. “That saves them time and a lot of money when they go home and go back to school.”
Command Master Chief Terry Miles said an aircraft carrier deploys 5,000 sailors for six months at a time, and then they get to go home for 18 months. But tenders are based overseas, and people are away from home three years or more for each tour.
“Our young people, early on, get an enormous amount of responsibility, and accountability. and with that comes a sense of maturity,” Miles said. “You don’t see that in the civilian world, not at 19 or 20 years old.”
One example of the kind of young person on LAND is Signalman 1’1 Class Dorothy J. Averhart, the 2002 Sublant Sailor of the Year. Born and raised in Gary, Ind., she joined the Navy March I, 1995.
“I used to watch The Love Boat. every Saturday night at 8 o’clock, and wondered what it would be like to have a job, and an adventure, and be on a boat, all at the same time, and the Navy gave me a chance to try it,” she said with a grin. Though she’s a likely candidate to make chief, she said she’s applying for the Limited Duty Officer program in August.
“I feel that I have a lot more to give the Navy,” Averhart said. “That door is open now, and I’m going to go through it, full speed ahead.”