Admiral Nicholson was one of the two first officers ordered in to be in the crew of the first nuclear submarine. He served as Main Propu/sio11 Assistant in NAUTILUS, then as Engineer and then as Executive Officer. He was Navigator and Executive Officer on SKATE for that ship’s 1958 Arctic cruise. He commanded SARGO. STONEWALL JACKSON, SubRon 15 and SubGru 8.
When I took command of SARGO from Commander Dan Brooks, my first big job was to ready SARGO for her Arctic cruise. We had only a few months to install special equipment, test it, and train the crew for the Arctic Operations. I’d been aboard SKATE with Jim Calvert on her earlier trip to the Pole and had also studied the reports of NAUTILUS when Bill Anderson took her to the Pole via Bering Strait, so I knew some of the problems involved. But both NAUTILUS and SKA TE had made their Arctic cruises in the summer. It was thus imperative to know if our submarines could operate effectively in the strategically useful Arctic Ocean in mid-winter. And it was also imperative to see whether SARGO could be taken to the Pole via Bering Strait under the worst ice conditions.
NAUTILUS’s course into the polar regions had been through the Bering and Chukchi Seas-the shallow route into the deep North Canadian Basin, some 75 degrees north latitude. But even in the summer her way was blocked repeatedly by deep ice ridges extending as much as 80 feet down from the surface. Time after time she had been forced to backtrack and try new routes before she got through. And once, the boat (which measured 50 feet from keel to top of sail) passed under an 80-foot deep ridge in 142 feet of water, leaving only six feet clearance above and below! Because NAUTILUS’s sonar couldn’t detect deep ice ridges until they were virtually overhead, Commander Anderson had broken off the mission. NAUTILUS returned to Pearl Harbor, was refitted with the proper equipment and eventually made a successful transit to the Pole.
Getting SARGO ready made for the most hectic four months imaginable. Yard workers labored frantically, even on Christmas and New Year’s Day, to finish the job on time. Then immediately after installation was completed, SARGO was off for sea trials. The inertial navigation system was tested, vertical ascents and descents were practiced, and the new iceberg detector was tried out. This was tested using another submarine in place of the ice ridges SARGO would face. From these exercises we were able to check out the equipment, learn its range capability, estimate depths of ice ridges, familiarize ourselves with appearances of various objects on the scope of the overhead sonar.
We were ready to leave for the north when I got a pessimistic letter from an old friend from my days aboard SKATE, Walt Witmann, the Navy’s senior ice forecaster. He predicted, after reconnoitering the north lands, that the winter would be a particularly tough one. Bering Strait, the gateway to the Arctic from the Pacific side, might have such deep ice ridges it could be closed to submarine traffic. With that letter in my pocket I slept uneasily the last few nights before we cast off for the north. But I kept the bad news to myself.
One week out of Pearl, SARGO surfaced. We had made good time underwater past the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, and were nearing Saint Matthew Island in the Bering Sea, still some 1,800 miles from the North Pole. A navigational fix was needed before going under the edge of the ice pack, which was only a few miles north. Jn fact, I was much aware of ice as SARGO was cautiously surfaced with periscope and antennae retracted into the sail. Such caution moreover paid off. As SAR GO broke the surface, chunks of ice bounced off her, making sharp rapping sounds on the hull. Seals cavorted about, and dead ahead was the solid edge of the ice pack. We were at the starting line and now our work had begun.
We then contacted the STATEN ISLAND, one of the five U.S. icebreakers. She was thirty-one miles to the north. Our orders were to rendezvous with her before we began the long and difficult Arctic exploration.
We closed with STA TEN ISLAND after a vertical dive out of the drift ice around us, and tested our iceberg detector and overhead sonar as we went. Close by the icebreaker, we established undeiwa-ter telephone contact with her, then surfaced nearby. Commodore Robertson, the Royal Canadian Navy’s top Arctic expert, and STA TEN ISLAND’s skipper, Commander Larson, came aboard for a one-day, under-ice demonstration on SARGO. Later, during the night as we cruised close to the ST A TEN ISLAND, the ice thick-ened directly overhead. Eager to transfer the two officers back to the icebreaker so SARGO could resume her transit through Bering Strait, I found that getting her back up through the heavy polar winter ice cap was no simple problem.
We searched for a frozen polynya or lake with our upward beamed echo sounder. When one was found we performed a Williamson Tum to go back down our track and find the polynya and then began a vertical ascent with pumping and flooding of ballast to control her upward rate. (If the overhead ice was hit too hard, serious damage to the sail with its periscopes, masts, antennae, and other indispensable equipment might occur. If SARGO didn’t hit hard enough, she wouldn’t break through.)
SARGO bumped the underside of the ice. Nothing happened. She hadn’t broken through. The sonar showed one of the 25-foot deep ridges of ice was closing in on SARGO rapidly. Quickly negative tank was flooded and SARGO dropped to a keel depth of 120 feet.
We soon located another polynya, positioned SARGO and again tanks were blown cautiously until with an echoing bump SARGO was hung up. I ordered Lieutenant Fred Stelter, our diving officer, to blow the ballast tanks. Almost immediately, with grinding and crunching sounds all around her, SAR GO broke the rest of the way through the ice and into the air near the patiently waiting Staten Island.
I raised the periscope and saw the icebreaker 300 yards on SARGO’s starboard beam. The only other thing I could see was solid ice all around. Opening the upper hatch, I went to the bridge and all but stumbled over the cockpit full of ice, the thickest any submarine had ever penetrated. On the after deck was an enormous block of ice five feet thick and measuring 15 by 20 feet-a 13-ton ice cube. A
After letting the Commodore and the Commander walk over to the Staten Island, we flooded tanks, dropped vertically toward the bottom, and steered northward. At dawn the next day, SARGO cracked through the ice forty-one mites off Saint Lawrence Island for a final navigational fix before running submerged through the shallow Bering Strait. The day was bright and so clear that the hills of Saint Lawrence Island could be seen. One long last look at the world above the surface was taken. We were not to see the sun again for twelve days after SAR GO dropped out of this frozen polynya and headed into the Arctic night.
Slowly, SARGO cruised northward toward Bering Strait, keeping a keel depth of 100 feet. But the sea grew shallower and shallower as SARGO approached the fifty-mile strait that separates the U.S. from the U.S.S.R. By midnight she had crossed the 25-fathom curve and soundings shoaled rapidly up to 126 feet. SARGO was passing under 20-foot ice ridges and avoiding the deeper ones, thanks to the effectiveness of the iceberg detecting sonar. Adding to the problems was the scarcity of sounding in this area. As SARGO cautiously cruised along with barely more than 25 feet above and below her, it was a matter of groping our way along to find a way through.
Then the overhead sonar failed. This left us totally blind to what might be above SARGO. The ocean depth was a scarce 126 feet, leaving little leeway, so I gave the order to reverse course. With infinite care, our planesmen and helmsman brought SARGO about while maintaining a precise zero bubble. The slightest tilt could have resulted in her propellers grinding into the ocean bottom leaving her seriously disabled under the pack ice. (SARGO was backtracked for two mites before finding her way around the danger spot).
All this time the sonarmen worked feverishly to restore the all important overhead eyes. And they were up to the job. With repairs completed, SAR GO moved on, threading her way at very slow speed among the treacherous icy ridges above, as if penetrating a mine-field. For the next thirteen hours SARGO twisted and turned tortuously in an ordeal of ice. As the ridges got deeper, SARGO passed under some ridges as much as 52 feet deep and avoided many deeper ones. At the end of that thirteen-hour trek SARGO was nearing the Bering Strait. I decided to surface if we could find a spot in this shallow sea.
The depth was 170 feet. I began maneuvering SARGO for a position to make a vertical ascent though a flat spot in the overhead ice. As we moved, we suddenly began losing depth control and started sinking rapidly toward the bottom. Quickly, I ordered the main ballast tanks blown to check SARGO’s descent. Then I ordered the vents opened so SARGO wouldn’t rise rapidly and hit the thick ice overhead. But the huge air bubbles which escaped so distorted the pictures of the overhead ice on the sonar that I ordered the boat down again to seek another skylight to burst through. It was two hours before one was found in a shallow 170 feet. This time SAR GO made the vertical ascent smoothly. Up she went and her sail hit the ice. Just as before, she stuck. Fred Stelter ordered the ballast tanks blown but gently. SARGO’s sail then broke through three feet of ice. A new record. The hull took an up angle, then a down angle, then an up angle again and the bow crunched through solid ice. SARGO’s stern, however, remained below and she came to rest with a 4 degree up angle.
On the bridge I found the ice scattered about in huge chunks. Aft, the ice was even thicker, and it was this heavier ice that prevented SARGO’s stern from coming up. But it was a great relief for us all to be above the ice again, even if briefly. We were only halfway through our shallow transit and the pressure on the entire crew was great.
We got a radar fix on Cape Prince of Wales, the westernmost point on mainland Alaska. Next morning SARGO made a vertical dive out of the ice. Fred Stelter expertly dropped her down and leveled her off at 120 feet-but the many hours in the ice had frozen the bow plane controls so they couldn’t be used for the intricate depth control and trimming needed. Even using the bow planes, it was difficult enough to maneuver and maintain depth control. Without them it was almost impossible at slow speeds.
A new technique was developed very quickly. SARGO was cruised at higher speeds than heretofore and a maximum rudder angle of only 3 degrees was used. If a faster tum was required to dodge the rock-hard ice ridges overhead we used 5 or even 10 degree rudder but then needed to blow ballast tanks to keep off of the bottom and counter flood the negative tank to keep from smashing into the ice above. It was nerve wracking.
Once Stelter had SARGO down, she was jockeyed about warily for half an hour before a clear corridor could be found which headed in the general direction desired. Then for the next three hours, the depth continued at around 140 feet. We maintained 20 feet of water between SARGO’s keel and the bottom until suddenly the soundings decreased to I 0 feet below her keel. Then, just as suddenly they sloped sharply off to 55 feet before shoaling up quickly again to 40, 30, 20, 10 feet. The bottom was still rising when the diving officer on watch, Lieutenant Dave Phoenix, ordered the boat up IO feet-just in time. As he blew the main ballast tanks with the vents open, the boat surged up I 0 feet. At the same time the fathometer registered only five feet below SARGO’s keel. We braced ourselves to bounce off the bottom but the soundings went deeper again before SARGO could hit bottom. Many sighs of relief were breathed. The planesmen named the sea mount we had just crossed, “Tall Gonzales.
Immediately after the climb over Tall Gonzales, word got to the crew quickly of our narrow escape. After that, virtually everyone huddled around the iceberg detector to watch SAR GO being conned around the overhead ice ridges. Alternating at the conn with me were my executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Bill Yates, and my engineering officer, Lieutenant Commander Ned Dietrich. Watching the iceberg detector reassured all hands as they saw how ice ridges were spotted and a course was plotted around each one.
With the tight squeeze behind, SARGO transited Bering Strait late in the afternoon and by early evening had crossed the Arctic Circle without ceremony. Our objective, the North Pole, was still 1,400 miles off. SARGO ran north all that night, and on the thirteenth day out of Pearl Harbor things went routinely for the first time in a week. As SARGO continued north the water got deeper-180 feet. Seldom had 30 fathoms looked so invitingly deep to a submariner. With the deeper water and the simple transit, the bow planes were worked-trying to free them from their icy bonds. Frequent manipulation was used to loosen the frost-bound controls. But it wasn’t until later that the bow planes were finally freed.
The next day was the fourteenth out of Pearl and a navigational fix was needed. But at this point, the bow planes still weren’t freed. Without that gear we had to resort to frequent blowing of ballast to make a vertical ascent. The air bubbles unfortunately threw off the sonar so that when SARGO tried to surface through what appeared to be thin ice, she couldn’t poke through. The ice was thicker than the instruments indicated. SAR GO was dropped out of that spot, and some hours later, after the bow planes finally were working properly and after one more unsuccessful attempt to crack through the ice, she surfaced through a skylight only 13 inches thick.
The brief time on the surface allowed a navigational fix and radio reports. Also two of our divers plunged into the 29-degree water for 22 minutes. It was their first cold water dive. While in the water, they checked the malfunctioning garbage ejector and removed a flattened can that had jammed it closed. Later they made other repairs.
Next day, SARGO resumed her northward course. The bow planes were again frozen but this was of little worry as the 50-fathom curve and then the I 00-fathom curve were passed. Speed was increased to 16 knots as SARGO zigzagged her way toward the top of the world. Our momentary relief at being in deep water was short-lived as the iceberg detector failed. We had to fix it or replace it if we were to be able to return via the Bering Strait rather than the Panama Canal. So on the following day SARGO was surfaced through 7 inches of ice in a 600 by 2,000 yard frozen polynya. Repair of the iceberg detector was then begun. Working in twenty below zero weather, two men at a time worked in half-hour shifts to dismantle the train mechanism and get it below for repairs. The heavy support beam under the detector had to be cut before it could be lowered to the deck below. During this, there was a screeching and groaning of ice as it was being forced up and over the SARGO’s main deck. After 40 hours, with the training mechanism finally gotten below, SARGO dove and continued zig zagging our way towards the Pole. We discovered a lot of previously unexplored territory including a ridge subsequently named Sargo Ridge.
At 0934 on February 9, SAR GO passed 350 feet under the North Pole and began searching for an opening. A small one was discovered and SAR GO smashed through 3 feet of ice and surfaced just 25 yards from the Pole. It was 33 degrees below zero as we raised the Hawaiian State flag alongside SARGO. When SARGO attempted to dive that night she was frozen in solidly. It took 30,000 pounds of extra ballast to tear her loose and start her plummeting down. We got a trim in time and then circled the earth in seven minutes. (That’s real easy when so close to the Pole.) Then SARGO headed South-the only possible direction to go from 90 degrees North.
Enroute South, the iceberg detector was jury rigged with another sonar by an ingenious system of synchros, gears and linkages devised by our crew and two designers of the iceberg detector. Tests with the modified ice detector proved satisfactory. Later SARGO rendezvoused with Ice Island T-3, drifting in the Beaufort Sea and manned by a crew of scientists. After passing under the ice island and determining it to be 4 miles by l 0 miles in size and 160 feet deep, we conducted sonar tests with them and then headed back toward Bering Strait.
Just before entering the Strait, SARGO was surfaced through thick ice and a navigational fix taken. Then SARGO dropped out of the ice into 155 feet of water and cruised at 7 knots into Bering Strait-24 feet off the bottom. The deep ice ridges began to appear, but evading them was tougher because of the shortened and distorted ranges provided by the jury-rigged detector. Later, when a pair of deep ridges were spotted 500 yards ahead, I ordered a course to take SARGO between them. At 125 yards, the ridge off the port bow looked very deep while the one on the starboard side had disappeared. I altered SARGO’s course 15 degrees to starboard and WHAM! The boat heeled to port as it was shoved down 25 feet, with a 6 degree down bubble. The conning officer sounded the collision alarm and rang up all stop. With the depth gage reading 148 feet, almost on the bottom. I took the conn, ordered “back two thirds then ordered ballast tanks blown white leaving the vents open. As SARGO came up, I ordered “ahead two thirds on one shaft and we regained depth control. SAR GO was clear of the ridge and all compartments reported “no damage. It was a close call.
We determined that our modification of the iceberg detector had resulted in unwanted side lobes on the short scales, so we decided to leave the iceberg scope on the long scale, and maneuver around the ridges while still 600 yards away. Additionally, SARGO cruised 16 feet off the bottom to give more clearance from the ridges. But late on the next day, a solid wall of ice was spotted 800 yards ahead. Scanning the huge ice ridge showed no openings, so SARGO was steered parallel to the ice wall for a long period until she was able to skirt around its end and resume base course.
As soon as possible we surfaced to inspect the damaged sail. It was quite a sight. The top of the sail was dished in so that one of the periscopes couldn’t be raised, but the supporting members in the sail were sound. We had been very lucky.
There was just one trouble spot left -Tall Gonzales. I planned to avoid this pinnacle 5 miles, but then the inertial navigational system chose to get out of line a bit. Despite my calculations for set and drift to compensate for the system errors, soundings showed the bottom shoaling up rapidly under SARGO and a deep ridge up ahead. I reversed course and headed for deeper water just as the boys put the inertial navigator back on the line. The corrected equipment showed we were five miles North of our estimated position, hard by Tall Gonzales. We dodged our way through another field of heavy ridges and finally reached better ice conditions.
Two days later, February 25, SARGO cleared the ice pack after 6,003 miles and 31 days under the ice and successful accomplishment of a very risky operation. One crewmember summed up our thoughts, “the only ice I want to see for a long time is in a tall glass.