Conning a submarine into port and alongside a pier is one of the basic requirements for an officer qualifying in submarines. My first landing is as fresh in my mind as if it were just yesterday-not 48 years ago this December. It was a traumatic experience that changed my life.
In July 1956, I completed Basic Submarine School and reported aboard the World War II submarine USS CA VALLA. CA VALLA was a diesel-electric, thin skin, GA TO class submarine. CA VALLA’ s claim to fame was sinking the Japanese heavy aircraft carrier SHOKAKU, one of the four carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Mothballed after World War II, she was converted to an Anti-Submarine Warfare Hunter-Killer in 1953. Her guns were removed and the topside streamlined for better submerged operations. The fleet type bow was removed and replaced with a large low-frequency sonar array. On the first landing after I reported aboard CA VALLA, barely moving, touched the pier bow first. A wooden fender dimpled the thin steel plate covering the sonar array and broke four very expensive hydrophones. Damage to a naval ship requires the convening of an official Naval Board of Inquiry with the Captain and Officer of the Deck designated as interested parties. A formal investigation and hearing is conducted. It is not a pleasant experience even if found innocent of any negligence or fault. Needless to say that landing made a lasting impression on me.
In the normal course of events I would have had a significant work-up prior to making my first landing. Young officers had ample opportunities to learn ship handling because most submarines conducted daily operations in local Op Areas. The Thames was a bustling river in the I 950’s. Every morning a score of submarines, destroyers, patrol craft, and retrievers steamed down river to local Operating Areas in Long Island Sound. CA VALLA’ s test depth was only 300 feet so there was ample depth of water in Long Island Sound for all submarine operations. Subschool students learn to dive and surface submarines. Approach officers attacked and evaded the destroyers and patrol craft. Retrievers picked up the exercise torpedoes. Qualifying officers like myself conducted man overboard and ship handling drills. The destroyers and patrol craft even dropped live depth charges-at a safe distance-for training and to indoctrinate submarine crews. I can remember light bulbs bursting, hull insulation breaking loose, lockers popping open; improperly stored gear tumbling out of cubby holes. The young sailors thought it was a lark. The WWII veterans hated it. In the afternoon there was a long procession of ships and boats back up river in time for cocktails at the 0 Club. Junior officers had multiple opportunities to conn the ship in and out of port.
But the Cold War intervened. CA VALLA was a “K” boat assigned to the Submarine Development Group and we were at sea almost continuously. CA VALLA only made 4 landings in the first 5 months I was on board, one each in New London, Bermuda, St. Johns, Newfoundland, and Portsmouth, England. The Captain made them all.
The Watchstanding Officers were very concerned about my not having the opportunity to conn the boat into port because until I made a satisfactory landing I was ineligible to stand Import Duty Officer watches. The Import Duty Officer had to supervise battery charges done at night as well as frequent tours of all spaces to ensure safety of the ship. Thus, every 3 or 4 days, depending on the number of qualified officers, the lnport Duty Officer worked 24 hours, perhaps getting a couple of cat-naps if he was lucky. Then he had to put in a normal work day following his duty day. The Watchstanding Officers were very interested in my progress or more to the point-my lack of progress in qualifying as an Inport Duty Officer.
In September I 956, CA VALLA departed on an extended scientific cruise in the North Atlantic and Norwegian Sea to conclude with a visit to the British Submarine Base in Portsmouth, England. Our scheduled return to New London was mid-November, which made me happy because my first child was due the end of November. In late October we completed our surveys and headed for Portsmouth, England looking forward to a good time in London.
As the junior officer on board, I was GEORGE. I got all the jobs none of the other officers wanted. In addition to being Sonar officer, I was the Welfare and Recreation Officer, Supply Officer and Commissary Officer. Enroute Portsmouth we heard radio broadcasts of fighting in the Suez Canal area by the Israelis, French and British but I paid little attention because I was busy. I was arranging tour groups for liberty in London-I had scheduled busses to meet us on the pier in Portsmouth prior to leaving New London-and preparing shopping lists for food and supplies. My orders from Commander Submarines Atlantic were to pinch pennies-this was the post Korean War era and money was tight. I was to limit purchases to fresh produce and the essentials necessary to get us back to New London.
On arrival in Portsmouth, I was happy to see the tour busses at the pier and I informed the hosting British officers that we would only need fresh vegetables, milk and fruit but no fuel. We were on the way home and would need no other consumables. There had been a U.S. Navy Captain on the pilot boat at the entrance to the harbor. On boarding, he went straight to the bridge, told the captain to let no one off the ship and he would talk to him in private once we were in port. About an hour after our arrival, the Executive Officer called the officers to the wardroom. He told us to load stores for 90 days, no liberty would be granted, we were to leave port the next day under sealed orders (no one, including the Captain, would know our destination or mission until we were at sea) and not to let the British know anything was out of the ordinary.
The Captain, bless his heart, got permission for our Guardmail officers to go to London to pick up the 2 months of mail we had waiting for us. The captain made half of the liberty parties Guardmail officers for a day trip to London and the other half for the night run. We used the tour busses to ferry the Guardmail parties to London and back. If they only had half as much fun as they recounted over the following weeks, they had a fantastic liberty. Even more amazing is that every last man was on board when we got underway the next day.
I went back to the British officers I had just told we needed little to nothing and put in a new requisitions for 60,000+ gallons of diesel oil, a ton of potatoes, a hundred cases of canned food all to be delivered at once, and no, nothing was out of the ordinary. We were just topping off for the run home and we would be departing the next day. The Brits hosted a great party for us that evening, delivered all the supplies with a smile and asked no questions.
Once at sea, the sealed orders directed us to proceed North into the Norwegian Sea. We were to establish a barrier to intercept possible Russian submarines heading South to assist the Egyptians. The North Atlantic in the winter is no picnic. We rarely saw the sun. We suffered waves 50-60 feet high. We were rolling 15° at 200 feet. Damp interiors shorted out heaters. It was cold, wet, dark and miserable. Gratefully the 29 November fox sked informed me that I had a daughter, and motherand daughter were doing fine. Finally, near Christmas we were ordered home. There was no question in anyone’s mind that the OOD conning CA VALLA into New London and making the landing would be Ltjg Hinkle. Winter stonns slowed us and I had ample time to worry about the landing. And worry I did.
Those of you born and reared near water will wonder why simply conning a ship into port and alongside a pier should be a stressful event. You handled small boats and learned about currents, tides, and responses of a boat to screw and rudder before you learned to drive a car. You have no idea how foreign this is to a dry land farmer from the semi-desert area of West Texas where there are no rivers, no lakes and most of us never learned to swim. Even those of you who are experienced sailors will have to admit that conning a submarine up the Thames River, turning broadside to the current and maneuvering a 31 O’ sub into a narrow slip that is only slightly larger than the sub is a challenge. I saw Henry Morgan, of the J.P. Morgan bank family, crash into a pier to the tune of several thousands of dollars in damages and he owned several boats and a good sized yacht. The squadron staff made such a fuss about it he offered to pay for the repairs himself.
Just so you know I had something to worry about let me explain the challenge. The bow of a WWII fleet boat converted to a streamlined GUPPY II is axe-like, compared to the bow of an unmodified fleet boat. I watched a GUPPY slice into a wooden pier all the way up to her bow planes, almost cutting the pier in ha! f. The sub entered the slip at high speed because she was mooring to the down river side of the pier and had to get in fast to prevent the stern from being swept down and colliding with the submarine moored across the slip. Once well into the slip she started backing full to kill her way, but too late. The stem was still swept down enough so the bow had about a 20° angle when it axed about 30 feet into the pier.
There was not a lot of room in the slips, particularly when one or two submarines are already moored. Sometimes in one slip there would be 3 submarines moored. The last one in was a real ship handler. In addition, the length of the pier was not much longer than the submarine itself. The piers were perpendicular to the river and the current would act on the stem of the submarine throughout the landing maneuver. The problem was exacerbated by the undersized rudder in the World War II subs. It was necessary to start the turn well out into the river and calculate the drift so the sub would clear the pier and moored submarines as they entered the slip. I once saw a sub slam into the end of the pier, bending her nose as she came drifting down and misjudged her entry.
I once saw a fleet snorkel boat with an unmodified bow hit the end of the slip and knock over the phone booth with someone inside. The sub caught a log of cat-calls over the next few weeks because there was a perfect half-moon in the bow where it hit the stringer at the end of the slip.
Burned into my memory was the first landing after I reported aboard, when the bulbous bow touched the pier first. The ship was barely moving but 2100 tons doesn’t need much velocity to create a devastating force. Stringers alongside the pier face dimpled the sheeting and broke 4 expensive hydrophones. The Captain and the OOD had to answer to a Naval Board of Inquiry.
The stern is a touchy area too. Lines must be put over as soon as possible to check the swing of the ship. The current is acting on the stern until the sub is all the way into the slip. There is a real danger of hitting the screws of the sub tied up across the slip.
At my request for a tutorial, the Captain explained-MAKING A LANDING IS SIMPLE. Knowing the current, ship’s turning radius, distance from the piers, and ship’s speed one turns to enter the slip as the bow clears the upriver pier, backs to kill way, and puts over lines as soon as possible to control any swing of the ship. Use the capstans to bring the ship gently alongside-touching neither bow nor stern first. I agreed with the principles-I wasn’t so sure about the simple part.
The closer we got to New London the more I thought about the Landing. I was apprehensive to say the least. The Captain gave me several tutorials and patiently went over in great detail all the ins and outs of making a landing in New London. But I kept thinking about all the fiascos I had seen as boats rammed piers, snapped lines, collided with moored subs and in general botched landings. The skipper grew less patient as I pestered him about the landing. I was really trying to devise a cookie cutter approach and kept trying to get exactly what rudder and speeds I should order and when. Finally, he got angry and said “Damn it Dave, it’s simple. You go up the river-when you think it is time to put your rudder over, put it over-it will be wrong. From there on in, you just correct your mistakes” and refused to discuss the matter again.
Eventually, we approached New London, stationed the maneuvering watch and I took my place on the bridge as the OOD and started conning the ship into the Thames River.
I really started to sweat when we picked up the Commodore at New London Ledge Light and he said that COMSUBLANT would be on the pier to welcome us home. The Commodore was a little surprised when he discovered I was to make the landing. He suggested “George, why don’t you take it on in since the Admiral will be on the pier.” The Captain said “No, Dave can do it.” When the Commodore discovered this would be my first landing EVER he again suggested “George, I think you ought to take it on in.” The Captain was adamant that Dave could do it.
Let me tell you I wasn’t so sure Dave could do it and I didn’t feel any better when we got close to the pier. It was Christmas week and schools were out. There must have been 200 wives, children, and parents on the pier-not to mention the Admiral, his staff, the squadron staff, the band, plus the usual waterfront gawkers. The Commodore again pushed the Captain to take the conn and make a smart landing but the skipper just said, ”No, Dave can do it” and I did. It wasn’t a picture book landing but I didn’t damage anything or scare anyone unduly so it was a success.
From that day on, whenever I have faced a challenge I remember Captain George Hayes words, “When you think it is time to put your rudder over-do it, it will be wrong-just correct your mistakes.” I have never again been afraid to take a chance. The rewards have been beyond measure.
When Muriel and I decided to start Sonalysts, we divided the work. She would be the President and take care of administrative affairs. I would take care of marketing and technical. She worried that she would make a mistake. I told her she didn’t have to worry about making mistakes-she would certainly make mistakes-so would I. When we recognized them we would correct them. And we did. Because we put our rudder over and just keep correcting our mistakes, Sonalysts is now a corporation of almost 500 professionals with sales well in excess of 50 million dollars.
It is a philosophy that I commend to you. Don’t worry about a challenge. Just put your rudder over and start correcting your mistakes.