We were headed Southwest, somewhere off Newfoundland, homeward bound after a Cold War adventure off the Faeroes, where we had patrolled submerged for about six weeks, listening for the passage of Russian subs possibly bent on mischief in the open Atlantic. It was the time of the Suez Crisis, and we had been part of the execution of a long-standing operation order that flung a cordon of submarines and patrol planes across the Gap, the various straits that separate Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom. We had been called from our homes under secret orders, our plans for scheduled deployment to the Mediterranean canceled in the furor over the Egyptian takeover of the Suez Canal and the ensuing fighting. Our task had been to lie still beneath the surface, listening for the sounds of submarine engines and calling in the planes to locate, identify and track the intruder. Now we had been relieved by another sub, and were on the surface, speeding our way back home to New London.
Our boat was USS ATULE (SS 403) a World War II Fleet submarine converted to what we called a Guppy, streamlined, and with better batteries and equipment. I was the new Chief Engineer, recently reported aboard from the older GROUPER, on which I had qualified in submarines. Our skipper was Willy Knull, a mild-mannered, soft-spoken man of considerable experience, and the crew, officers and men alike, were a good and generally well-seasoned lot. Our recent patrol had served to bind us into a smoothly working team.
I had just been called for the night watch, eight to midnight. It was winter, and as the cliche goes, “a dark and stormy night”; so, as I was assembling a nearly-dry set of foul-weather gear, I was happy to get word that the Captain had decided to submerge for the rest of the night, because of poor visibility and the rough ride we were getting. We were near the regular shipping routes, and submarines are hard to see even in good weather, so he felt we had rather be both safe and comfortable, even if it delayed our return home.
So, there I was, leaning against the plotting table in the Control Room, braced against the constant violent rolling and pitching, the boat shuddering every so often as a particularly big or erratic wave slammed into our low-lying superstructure. I felt even more grateful not to have to suit up and climb into that dark maelstrom. We reported up to the captain in the Conning Tower that the oncoming watch was assembled and ready, and we heard him shout up to the bridge, “Take her down!” The diving alarm blasted its familiar “Oooga-oooga”, the P.A. system carried the Officer of the Deck’s shouted, “Dive, Dive!”, with a background noise of shrieking wind, and the watch on deck came tumbling down the ladders into the Control Room, streaming water from the foul-weather gear that encased them all but their eyes.
Then the bottom fell out of our world!
Normally, when a submarine dives, at least the diesel-powered fleet boats, the sound of the diving alarm is followed by a well-ordered, coordinated sequence of events. The engines are shut down and propulsion is shifted to the electric motors and battery at full speed. All the outside openings are shut, while the vents are opened, allowing the huge ballast tanks to flood and give the boat negative buoyancy. Large steel hydraulic planes extend from the boat’s sides, one pair forward and one aft, like stubby airplane wings, to control the angle of the boat as she goes up or down. As she submerges, usually at a down-angle of S degrees, the OOD becomes the Diving Officer, and he and his crew make adjustments to drive the boat down to the ordered depth and level her off on an even keel.
That is what is supposed to happen-normally. As I stood there waiting for the wet crew to complete their dive, things suddenly went awry. Just as the Chief Petty Officer of the Watch scanned the Christmas Tree, a lighted board that showed whether outside openings were open or shut, and reported “Green board, pressure in the boat”, signifying that all was well and safe for diving, the boat lurched into an alarming down angle, throwing us all off-balance. She seemed to be heading for the bottom, pointing her bow more than 45 degrees down, and things began to fall out of their stowage spaces with a tumult of thumps and bangs, accompanied by a shower of dust and debris long hidden in out of the way places, while we all hung on and wedged ourselves in place as best we could. As Engineering Officer, I was the ship’s senior diving officer, so I got right behind the Diving Officer, to give what assistance I could, as he urged his planesmen to get the angle off and pull her up.
The Skipper took over from the Conning Tower, as submarine doctrine provides, and took the classic action called for, Stop, Back and Blow. He ordered, “All stop, All back full, Blow all main ballast”. On a dive, the stem planes, situated right behind the propellers, have the greatest effect on the angle of the boat; and ours weren’t having any effect in leveling us. The Captain’s orders stopped the full speed force of water over those planes , began to pull the boat backward, (toward the surface), and immediately began to lighten the boat by blowing the water out of the recently flooded ballast tanks, making the boat buoyant again.
Soon we were wallowing on the surface, breathing our various sighs of relief while we tried to figure out what had happened. I recalculated the figures in the diving book, a log of the distribution of all the liquid weight in various tanks, which affects the trim, or angle of the boat when submerged. We checked out all our control mechanisms, and all seemed normal. So, we tried it again.
And the same thing happened! Again we plunged rock-like toward the bottom, a couple of miles down. Again we stopped, backed and blew, and once more we reached the surface, where we rolled about much like a log in the surf while we double-checked all of our equipment, procedures and calculations. Nothing seemed to indicate an answer, until finally, one of the young lookouts who was, on the dive, the stem planesman, said, “Mr. Curtin, these planes aren’t working right. See, I can spin the wheel in manual with one finger, and it should take all my might!” Back I went to the After Torpedo Room, where the stem planes had a pointer attached directly to the control ann, and it was moving properly. Yet something was radically wrong when no resistance could be felt in moving the planes by hand. All our heads were together, yet all that collected experience found no explanation, and we decided we had no choice but to go home all the way on the surface.
I climbed into damp, salt-crusted foul-weather gear and took my watch on the bridge, an hour or so late, immediately cold and wet, but still alive. Though quite drained by the harrowing experience, my mind was still pondering the whys and wherefores of the event, since it was in my bailiwick as Engineer. Through it all there had been no panic, not even among the newest, unqualified hands, and I don’t recall being afraid, though we had been in great danger. My reaction had been one of anger and frustration over the malfunction; but the more I reflected on it the greater was my gratitude and pride in the behavior of the crew, who worked calmly together, a smoothly operating team of professionals, secure in their knowledge of what they and their boat could do together.
All our thought on the problem was to no avail, as we pounded our way slowly down past Nova Scotia, through snow and ice that coated our superstructure, and more storms that battered holes in the aluminum plating of our sail, the streamlined structure around the bridge. It was not until we were alongside the floating dry–dock in New London that the answer came. A diver came to inspect the stem planes, and as was their method, jumped off the deck to land down on the planes themselves-only he kept on going-there were no planes there at all! Somehow, sometime during that first storm, the planes had taken such a forceful blow from the sea that the shaft had broken in two, and the planes had fallen right off! At last we knew just how precarious our position had been. And now we had our own sea story to match countless others we’d heard, most of which began with the words made famous by the wartime novel, Shore Leave, “and there I was … “