Bob Hamilton is a newspaper reporter who has covered the Defense beat for a number of years. He currently works for The New London Dav.
On a cold, rainy fall day in Bangor, USS PARCHE finished its chapter in U.S. Naval history. PARCHE accumulated an unprecedented nine Presidential Unit Citations and 13 Navy Expeditionary Medals. Rear Admiral Paul Sullivan, Commander of the Pacific Submarine Force, likens it to the USS CONSTITUTION and the battleship MISSOURI in terms of its importance to the nation. But PARCHE doesn’t yet merit a mention in history textbooks, because its exploits in the Cold War and beyond-it earned its ninth PUC for a deployment to the Mediterranean in 2002 -are still highly classified.
Eight of PARCHE’s nine commanding officers made it to the ceremony, and most people were struck by the coincidence that the first CO was Captain Richard Charles, who made the trip from Mobile, Ala., while the last CO was Captain Charles Richard. Also in the audience were about 130 former crewmen, including about 20 of the commissioning crewmen, who were allowed one last opportunity to walk through the operations compartment (and not even all of that).
Rear Admiral (ret.) Richard A. Buchanan, who commanded PARCHE for a period in the 1980s, observed that while it was disheartening to see PARCHE retired after a career that lasted more than 30 years, it was encouraging that just days later, the Navy commissioned the submarine USS VIRGINIA, the first warship designed and built for the post-Cold War world, which will capably take over many of the missions which made PARCHE’s reputation
PARC HE made 19 deployments over 30 years, some of them lengthy. Senior Chief Machinist Mate Michael Hedman, now attached to the Naval Submarine School in Groton, recalls one mission during his three-year stint on the PARCHE, 1992-95, when they got underway for five straight months, without a port call, in fact without once surfacing.
Hedman has earned two PUCs, though he can’t tell you what either one is for. Usually the people who recognize the ribbon don’t even ask. “Most of the guys who are in the submarine service, they see you’re wearing two PUCs, and they figure you were on the PARCHE and can’t tell them anything anyway.”
Chief Petty Officer Richard Okrasinski of Plainfield wears a PUC as well, though he can’t even tell you which year he got it, just that it fell in the 1996-2000 time frame, when he served on the PARCHE.
“Most people have come to understand that I’m not going to tell them anything about that part of my life,” Okrasinski said. “My wife doesn’t want to know, my father is curious, and my mother doesn’t even want to admit I go to sea-she worries about me whenever I’m not at home.
There is a cachet to being a PARCHE sailor, the guys whose missions are so secret they can’t even tell other submariners about them.
“We mostly did a really good job of keeping a very low profile,” said Adam Bridge of Davis, Calif., who put PAR CHE into commission as a nuclear electronics technician in 1972 and rode it until August 1977.
“Civilians just look at you and say, ‘oh, yeah, a submarine. Great.’ But everyone once in a while someone will have read Blind Man’s Bluff and starts to ask questions,” Bridge said. “I just say there’s nothing I can comment on, that by the nature of their operations, all submarine missions are secret.
“And then 1 add that, as a taxpayer, I think they got their money’s worth,” Bridge joked.
Bridge said in a sort of mini-reunion at the decommissioning, he learned that one of the men he served with went on to earn a Ph.D. after his enlistment, another runs nuclear power plants up and down the east coast, many are supervisors at nuclear power plants, and one of them is working for Electric Boat on the program to convert four old Trident-class ballistic missile submarines into SSGNs, or guided-missile submarines, that will also be outfitted to carry large numbers of Special Forces.
“I felt privileged to have served with such highly competent men and their families,” Bridge said. And the tradition continues: Bridge’s son Erik is a machinist mate 3’d class aboard JIMMY CARTER, the third Seawolf-class submarine that is being heavily modified at EB to fill the void left by PARCHE’s decommissioning, although submariners stress that the PARC HE and CARTER are different ships, and CARTER will have the capability to do a wider range of missions.
“We’ve already defined a set of boundaries,” Bridge said. “We agreed that if I ask a question and he doesn’t know the answer, he will say, ‘I don’t know.’ And if the answer would be something that he can’t speak about, he’ll say, ‘I can’t say.'”
PARCHE was the 34ch of 37 Sturgeon-class submarines, but the sixth of nine stretch hulls built in the early 1970s that were lengthened by I 0 feet, to 302 feet, to accommodate extra equipment. Commissioned in August 1974, its only deployment ever discussed publicly by the Navy was in 1975, when it joined the Sixth Fleet in a six-month Mediterranean patrol that included stops in Naples, Taranto, La Spezia and La Maddalena, Italy. For most of the rest of its life, it would not make another port call, because its technology was so highly classified it could not risk pulling into any foreign port.
It’s rumored that PARCHE, built at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss., and originally homeported in Charleston, S.C., was the quietest of the nine stretch hulls, and was picked for extensive modifications in 1976 at Mare Island Naval Shipyard that gave it an ocean engineering capability. For the next 15 years it would be homeported at Mare Island, and it settled into a fairly rigid routine: deploy, return home for repairs and maintenance, and deploy again.
The ship’s most dramatic change, though, came in its 1987-91 refueling overhaul at Mare Island, when it got a 100-foot special section that gave it a unique ocean interface, which means it can deploy divers or special equipment without surfacing. For the last quarter-century it has boasted some unusual features that are visible on top of its hull as well, but nobody has ever offered any explanations what they might be.
“I used to say the big area forward of the sail is our bowling alley, and back by the stern was just the hump,” Okrasinski said .
“Most people were interested in what was up front,”
Those modifications changed its appearance so much some of the crew gave it the nickname “Myra Breckinridge,” for the fictional transsexual in a Gore Vidal novel. In Bangor it got its own pier, and the men got their own barracks, to discourage the kind of waterfront scuttlebutt that leads to information leaks.
Hedman, the senior chief who was on the ship as it changed homeports, said it represented a significant transition. The Mare Island shipyard workers knew the ship and were always ready to pitch in to do whatever was needed when it pulled in on a tight schedule.
“Some of the civilian shipbuilders transferred, they came up to Bangor with PARCHE, but we had to get used to a whole new shipyard crew for the most part. All the networking that had been built up over the years in San Diego, we lost all that,” Hedman said. “In Bangor, people didn’t really understand the program, and there were these news articles about us being ‘The Navy’s Super Secret Sub.’ And the base was huge, more like a naval air station in terms of acreage, so they had all this room to put us off by ourselves. We had to get used to being in our own little world.”
Officially, the Navy would only acknowledge that the submarine was used for “intelligence gathering and underwater salvage.” But over the years some rumors got out anyway, and it was widely reported that PARCHE was used to retrieve items such as expended ordnance off the seatloor in sensitive areas of the world. But perhaps its most notorious mission was disclosed because of Ronald Pelton, a National Security Agency analyst who spied for the Russians in the 1970s and 1980s.
For five years PARCHE had snuck into shallow water in the Sea of Okhotsk between two large Soviet naval bases to tap a communications cable that carried military signals. Pelton told the Russians about the operation, and PAR CHE might have been caught in the act in the mid-l 980s if not for satellite photos that showed intense Soviet interest in the area just before it was scheduled to go in to retrieve the recordings that its tap had made. It’s not a mission that the U.S. Navy can credibly deny-the tap is in a museum at the former KGB headquarters in Moscow.
Still, submariners were incensed at the level of detail that came out in the bombshell book, Blind Man’s Bluff. Chapter 11, “The Crown Jewels,” provides extensive information about Operation Ivy Bells, as it was Known.
Because of the demand for its services PARCHE has long been one of the busiest boats in the fleet. Okrasinski said during his first year he did 200 days at sea. Where other attack submarines would do six months at sea followed by 18 months of shore time, maintenance and local operations, PARC HE would do two or three three-month deployments every year, as well as a three-month repair period.
ARCHE was also the only attack submarine homeported in Bangor during its time there, in part because of the Navy attempt to keep the crew from mingling with other SSN sailors, or even with the ballistic missile submarine crews who call Bangor home. “Nobody talked to the PARCHE sailors,” Okrasinski said. “We lived in our own barracks, had our own pier, and had our own parking. We just kept to ourselves.”
Retired Vice Admiral Bernard M. Kauderer, who was Commander of the Pacific and Atlantic Submarine Forces at a time when PARCHE had already established its reputation in the 1980s, said he was delighted to learn that CARTER, the third Seawolf-class submarine, would get a special I 00-foot hull section to replace the capabilities that will be lost with PARCHE’s decommissioning.
ARCHE was decommissioned on Oct. 20, and CARTER is supposed to be delivered to the Navy some time this year, although the engineering challenges associated with inserting a 100-foot section midway through the construction process have made the schedule uncertain.
“The way the program is planned, it can sustain a gap,” Kauderer said. In fact, he said, with CARTER slated to go on sea trials early in 2005 and be delivered to the Navy before the end of the year, it won’t be much different than if PARCHE had gone in for an overhaul.
“You just plan the kind of operations this submarine does for when the asset is available,” Kauderer said. “It’s not like a normal SSN, where it has to be instantly available to surge. These are very carefully planned operations, planned well in advance, so it’s easy to plan something like this around the schedule.”
“It’s a great move to have a specially configured submarine asset ready to perform those very unique missions,” Kauderer said. “It’s a mission that no other platform, really, can conduct.”
But it was missions like that, and others even more hair-raising, that have earned the submarine a number of Presidential Unit Citations. The medal is awarded for extraordinary heroism in accomplishing a mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions. It is a rarity on the Groton waterfront, and if you see it on a sailor you can be sure he’s done a tour on the PARCHE at some point. Some jokingly call it the “PARCHE Unit Citation.”
“I have a little piece of paper that says I’m entitled to wear it, but it doesn’t really say anything,” Okrasinski said. Does it bother him to have such a prestigious award that he can’t discuss? “Not really,” he said. “There was a reason that we got it, and I understand there is a reason we can’t talk about the reason.”