Bob Hamilton is an experienced reporter on Defense issues and is currently a correspondent for the New London Day. His previous articles on the Iraqi war appeared in the July and October issues of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.
After completing a depot maintenance period in December 2001, USS SAN JUAN had spent several hectic months doing a shakedown cruise and completing its POM (pre-overseas movement) certification, then left its homeport of Groton, Conn., right on schedule on September 12, 2002, for a six-month deployment.
But in February, about the time that SAN JUAN should have left the Mediterranean on the last leg of its trip, it became clear that Saddam Hussein was going to disrupt the SAN JUAN’s schedule.
“By that time we could see the president was working very hard to get the UN resolutions passed and to force the Iraqis to give up weapons of mass destruction, so we were on hold,” said Commander Edward L. Takesuye, captain of SAN JUAN.
On March 13, the day it was supposed to come pulling back up to its berth, it was instead queuing up at the northern mouth of the Suez Canal, preparing for a trip into the Red Sea. About a week later, it fired its first salvo of Tomahawk missiles into Iraq. On March 31, when it was supposed to be in the middle of its 30-day stand-down following a deployment, it was instead throwing a line over to the tender USS EMORY S. LAND in Souda Bay, Crete, to take on a couple of weeks’ supply of food before heading for home, arriving April 23, six weeks later than it was originally scheduled.
Operation Iraqi Freedom threw most submarine deployment schedules into disarray, because it required a massive amount of firepower for the shock and awe opening phase of the war. Coincidentally, as SAN JUAN was leaving Groton, it passed the USS TOLEDO in mid-channel. TOLEDO, skippered by Commander Michael T. Poirier, was arriving from a six-month deployment on September 12, 2001. Given a nuclear attack submarine’s two-year operating cycle, it should have been doing maintenance, local operations and other work close to home for at least 18 months, until March 2003. In short order, two of its department heads, three of its most experienced junior officers and four of its chiefs were parceled out to other jobs, since it would have more than a year to prepare for its next major mission.
But even before its missiles were offloaded TOLEDO would be pressed back into service. It was pulled off an exercise in the Caribbean the following January, ordered home to take on a 60-day supply of food, and dispatched to the Gulf. In fact, it wound up several spots ahead of SAN JUAN in the Suez Canal.
“That gave us some challenges that we had to work through, deploying so soon after we had come back, but the guys did great,” Poirier said.
“We were all pretty sleep deprived,” said Torpedoman 2nd Class Fred W. Hurtz. “But none of us could sleep anyway. We were standing by, just waiting for the next tasking.” Most of the men battle napped, he said, grabbing a half hour on the hard cold steel of the torpedo racks, even inside the spent missile canisters when they had to.
“When you’re as tired as we got, you can fall asleep anywhere,” Hurtz said. “Besides, our racks aren’t that much more comfortable anyway,” he added with a grin.
TOLEDO had been scheduled to take aboard an inspection team for a Tactical Readiness Evaluation in late February, which had to be cancelled because by then TOLEDO was on its way to the Red Sea. But Poirier noted wryly that TOLEDO’s flawless performance in the Gulf, by itself, should be validation enough for the inspection team.
USS PROVIDENCE, meanwhile, had to cancel its last weekend with family members and deploy 10 days ahead of schedule out of Groton. That means that five Groton-based boats that took part in the strikes against Iraq, only two-USS AUGUST A and USS PITTSBURGH-did so within a normal deployment.
In fact, across the fleet, most of the submarines that took part in the strike were either surged during the middle of their inter deployment training cycle, or extended on station anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months. A dozen submarines total, including three from Norfolk, Va., and four from Pearl Harbor, took part in the strikes. Most of them had special circumstances surrounding their deployment as well, including:
- USS CHEYENNE spent nearly nine months at sea as part of the USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN strike group. The LINCOLN became the center of national news attention when it returned to port, but CHEYENNE’s return was considerably more subdued on April 24, despite the fact that it was the first submarine to fire in the conflict on the opening day of the war.
- USS LOUISVILLE, out of Pearl, spent about eight months on station when it was extended for Operation Iraqi Freedom. It got home to a special welcoming ceremony that included the presentation of a Kentucky Long Rifle to the captain, Commander Michael Jabaley, and Louisville Slugger baseball bats for the entire crew. Jabaley later presented one of the bats to the Naval Submarine League at the annual symposium in Alexandria, Va.
- In Norfolk, USS NEWPORT NEWS returned home April 24 after 202 days at sea, and USS BOISE had been surged in a fashion similar to TOLEDO.
Other submarines taking part in the strike included USS KEY WEST and USS COLUMBIA out of Pearl, and USS MONTPELIER out of Norfolk.
PITTSBURGH and LOUISVILLE were the only two submarines that took part in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But many of the submarines that took part in the strike predate even that conflict: AUGUSTA, PITTSBURGH and PROVIDENCE were commissioned in 1985, about the same year their youngest crewmen were born. LOUISVILLE was put into service in 1986; KEY WEST in 1987; SAN JUAN in 1988; NEWPORT NEW in 1989. Only five of the 12 boats were commissioned in the 1990s, and the newest of them was the CHEYENNE, commissioned in 1996.
Takesuye said the submarines might not be the newest models, however, they still did their job, bringing stealth, forward presence and endurance to the mix. He was more concerned that, despite the fact that submarines have been involved in land attack missions for a dozen years now, the constant turnover of crews means that most of the men had never been on a combat submarine before. Even he had served on five attack submarines before taking command of SAN JUAN, and never fired a missile in combat.
“We had to keep telling the crew, ‘hey, you’ve practiced and practiced and practiced, and you’re ready to do this.’ But when the time came everybody lined up at their battle stations and things went off without a hitch,” Takesuye said.”
“For me, the biggest pressure was the responsibility to make sure all the missiles went off on time. The only way I can think to put that into perspective for most people is, imagine that you’ re playing baseball, and you get called in to pitch at the bottom of the ninth, you’re up by one run, but the bases are loaded and there are two outs. That is the feeling. You get a knot in your gut and it just sits there. The missiles are ready to go, you’ re counting down, and the five minutes it takes are the longest minutes of your life. You don’t want to touch anything because the slightest thing can cause your navigation system to freeze up and you have to start all over again.”
Poirier said, having taken command in 200 I, and finished one six-month deployment, he didn’t expect another major deployment before he moved on to another job this year, but he was hoping for another chance to take the boat to sea.
“It ‘ s what we trained for. The opportunity to come out here, do our job, and do it well, was very satisfying. And everybody is sharing in this success,” Poirier said, “The guys were fired up to come out here and do this mission.”
While getting surged less than five months after returning to port, and after a hectic period of maintenance and training, put a lot of pressure on his crew, but it also made them feel proud that, when the national comma and authority needed a combat-ready submarine, it pulled TOLEDO out of the bullpen.
“I didn’t even get a chance to think about how fast we moved,” said Chief Fire Control Technician Rick Lopez, who got a chance to fire a Tomahawk for the first time in his nine-year stint in the Navy. “There was so much to be done, so many preparations to make, so many repairs to do, I didn’t have a chance to think about it at all. Everyone was focused. We knew we had an important mission, so everyone put their best foot forward, and now we’re enjoying the benefits of all that hard work.”
“Someone’s got to do it, and we were proud to have been chosen,” Lopez said. “Everybody from the captain to the -food service attendants had a role to play. If one piece is not in place, the whole machine suffers.”
Morale could also be measured by the number of re-enlistments. Although even the Navy’s biggest boosters will acknowledge that the tax-free status of bonuses that are earned by re-enlisting in a combat zone are a major incentive as well (it’ s the equivalent of getting a JO percent larger bonus at home), the sailor has to want to stay in the Navy no matter where he makes the decision. Aboard TOLEDO, Electronics Technician 111 Class Michael D. Justice, the career counselor, had re-signed 33 sailors by the time the boat pulled into Souda Bay, dispensing $938,000 in selective re-enlistment bonuses that ranged from $2,000 to $45,000.
“This is the most re-enlistments I’ve seen, by far,” Justice said. “We’ve got two nukes flying here from the states, and as soon as they get here I’m going to see how much they like the Navy.”
The challenge now, Poirier said, will be to make sure that TOLEDO gets the time it needs to rest its crew, repair its systems and prepare for its next deployment-when that will be is still up in the air, as the Navy reconsiders the deployment schedule for all its combatants.
“They’ll look at our schedule, and they’ll make adjustments as they need to. Our guys will get plenty of time off. They arc going to have a nice, long in-port period coming up.”