The Submarine Force, The Navy and the United States of America recently lost a very competent skipper, an excellent officer and a true patriot when Robert Y. Kaufman passed away after fighting a long battle against Parkinson’s Disease. Vice Admiral Kaufman was born in Roanoke, Virginia on April 15, 1924. He grew up in the Washington D.C. area and attended McKinley Tech and Dewitt Prep. He entered the U. S. Naval Academy with the Class of 1946. That was one of the accelerated classes which graduated in three years, on June 6, 1945, due to wartime needs for officers. He requested duty with the Submarine Force and became the first man in his Naval Academy class to Qualify in Submarines. Later he also became the first in his class to Qualify for Command of Submarines.
He was known throughout the Force and the Fleet and among all within his wide circle of friends and colleagues as Yogi. There were many who wondered about the origin of the nickname and several who conjectured openly, but it is suspected by most that he never confirmed (nor denied) the source. He was not a large man, far from it, but his presence could never be missed.
One aspect of his fame was for his physical fitness and his extraordinary ability in the calisthenics common in military circles. There are many tales of the challenge competitions in which he would do sit-ups in the thousands and one-arm push-ups with someone on his back. He was also a runner, not a jogger as he often reminded those who commented on his fitness regime, and his endurance matched the effort he put into training.
All of that is really to say that Yogi Kaufman had, in spades, that certain trait which all successful submarine warriors possess and practice-tenacity. And Yogi was a very successful submarine warrior. He served in nine boats and commanded three of them; that’s more than the average even in his age of explosive Submarine Force growth when continuous sea duty was the norm, not the exception. While longevity is admirable, and better to have than not, it is not, in itself, the mark of success. It has long been an axiom in the Submarine Force that “It’s not the ship you get, it’s what you do with the ship you get”. That was especially true in those first couple of decades of the nuclear submarine age when attrition was caused not so much by the normal collisions and groundings as by what the Royal Navy of Admiral Byng’s time called “failure to do your utmost” … and Yogi always did his utmost.
While Executive Officer of SEA WOLF (SSN 575), the second nuclear submarine, he helped prove the credibility of nuclear power by impressive demonstration of submerged speed and endurance. He also cemented his own reputation as an excellent shiphandler. In command of CA VALLA (SSK 244) he worked hard to understand and master the then arcane world of submarine ASW. In furthering submarine ASW proficiency he was instrumental in the formulation of a series of curves for firing the Mk 37 torpedo with improved effectiveness. He continued his determined push for excellence, both operational and technical, in his command of SCORPION (SSN 589). During his tour as skipper, SCORPION set a record of 70 days in submerged operations completely divorced from the earth’s atmosphere. Yogi was awarded a Legion of Merit for that “exceptionally meritorious service during a period in 1962.” Among the other officers on the waterfront in those days his reputation for shiphandling, both submerged and alongside, continued to be burnished by often told tales of skill, confidence, audacity and luck.
Along the way to at-sea command, of course, there were jobs to be done ashore and on staffs. In the early days he was an instructor at the Submarine School. At the beginning of the strategic submarine era, he was the Material Officer on the Staff of Submarine Squadron FOURTEEN as the Navy was preparing to deploy the Polaris missile system in the GEORGE WASHINGTON SSBNs. It was all new in those days; the missiles, the two crew arrangements, the deployed site and its refit/replenishment needs and most
importantly, the imperative nature of the mission and the schedule required to meet the challenge. Yogi did well in helping to get all that off to a successful start. Possibly the toughest of all shore duties came after his SCORPION tour with his assignment as Commanding Officer of the Nuclear Power Training Unit in Idaho Falls, Idaho. In that job he was directly responsible to Admiral Rickover for the instruction of naval personnel in the safe and proper operation of the nuclear power plants in submarines and surface ships. Competence, foresight and eternal vigilance were the operative watch words.
Admiral Kaufman continued his operational experience in the strategic world as the commissioning Blue skipper of USS WILL ROGERS (SSBN 659). ROGERS was the last of the forty one for freedom fleet ballistic missile submarines as well as the last of the very modern, very capable BENJAMIN FRANKLIN (SSBN 640) class. He was not content to ride in comfort in his brand-new last ship command, however; and insisted on knowing all there was to know about the mission as well as the ship which was carrying out the mission. Even though WILL ROGERS was the first SSBN he had served in, he brought his inquiring nature, his previous command experience and his fresh set of eyes to look at the FBM way of doing business after six years and many patrols. The modifications in internal routine which he instituted amounted to a positive influence on the entire strategic force.
One of his additional duties while still a Captain was to serve on an Ad Hoc Panel of experienced, and very positive, operational and materiel experts in the submarine world. They met in Washington, D.C. to determine the characteristic requirements for a new class of Attack Submarine to succeed the STURGEON (SSN 637) class. Their job was to use modem technology and methodology to consider stealth, speed and depth for optimization of Attack Submarine performance for then-current and projected national security needs. It was a bigjob and a hard job, but out of that Panel’s work came the characteristics of the 688 submarine; which became a class of sixty-two very capable attack boats.
One of the best of the Yogi Sea Stories came out of that marathon meeting in DC. It is told that late one evening Yogi, who was a rather short and very bald guy, ventured out to a nearby mail box to deposit his regular letter home to his wife in Groton. As he bent over to read the mail pick-up schedule, three hoodlums jumped on him with apparent intentions for a mugging. They had obviously misjudged their victim’s vulnerability because Yogi dispatched all three with varying degrees of injury for their trouble. One version of the story has it that a fourth cohort, about to join the fun, had rapid second thoughts and departed the area in the getaway car without waiting for his colleagues. That weekend Yogi appeared at a large party in the 0 Club at New London sporting a bruise on his face and a wide smile, but no one would ask about the bruise. Once again, tenacity and readiness came to the fore.
When Yogi was selected for Flag Rank he was assigned to OP02, the Submarine Warfare Directorate, as the first Director of the Strategic Submarine Division/Undersea Long Range Missile Systems Program. His job was to transition a concept for at-sea missiles larger, longer-ranged, more accurate and much more effective than Polaris and Poseidon, to a viable program. That concept became the Trident missile system. It was both a completely new Fleet Ballistic Missile system, with a new class of submarine carrier/launcher and a bridge between the older class SSBNs and the new ones. It was a big job and it was handled in a completely professional manner. This time the skill involved was a real ability in maneuvering around the corridors of the Pentagon. It was said at the time that Yogi was his own most effective Action Officer. One of the Air Force officers known for his ability and connections around that circuit asked “How can you Navy guys say that Polaris and Poseidon are absolutely perfect; therefore we need Trident- and then get everyone to agree?” But Yogi managed to explain the paradox to the satisfaction of the decision-makers. On this one, of course, he had a lot of help.
A Joint opportunity presented itself for a wider scope of action when Yogi was named as the Deputy Director of the Joint Strategic Targeting Planning Staff in Omaha, Nebraska .. The nominative Director, of course, was the 4-star Commanding General of the Strategic Air Command, but the JSTPS was a Navy 3-star job in those days and was one of considerable potential as the national nuclear strategy was being reviewed and revised for more refinement of options for the National Command Authority. Many meetings of the smartest and most experienced folks in the broad application of modem strategic thought were held under the aegis of the JSTPS and the results of those deliberations were forwarded to the Secretary of Defense. As can be imagined, during his tenure in Omaha, Yogi was in the center of all that action .
As his last active duty assignment Yogi was the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Command, Control and Communications. It is always a terrific task to ride herd on Navy wide communications to improve the effectiveness of the Navy’s command and control function. To add to all that, Yogi was given the included job of getting approval for the Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) communication system necessary for world-wide SSBN operations. It was indeed colorful to watch Yogi convince midwestern farmers and hunters that a huge antenna buried beneath their lands would not be harmful to their interests. The proof, as they say, is in the result and the ELF system did become a reality.
He retired from active duty in 1981. For a number of years he continued as a consultant to the Strategic Community and particularly to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He also embarked on a new career as a wild life photographer with his son Steve. Yogi proved to be as adept with a camera as he was in his previous fields of endeavor. Untamed Alaska was their premier production, and a Tenth Anniversary edition in 1997 was their last collaboration. Yogi continued to support the Navy and the Submarine Force with three widely acclaimed coffee table books. His Silent Chase, Submarines of the US Navy is a classic in a field rarely photographed. When many thought all submarines looked alike Yogi showed them as art subjects, fascinating in their variety. His Sharks of Steel illustrated US, Russian and Japanese submarines. Doing that book yielded yet another Yogi-tale. It seems the Russians wished to change the prearranged date for Yogi’s visit to a giant Typhoon class missile submarine but Yogi stood his ground and at last the Russians gave in and let him do his visit and take his pictures on his own schedule. The third book is City at Sea about aircraft carriers, an endlessly fascinating subject.
This then is the story of Yogi Kaufman, at least as some of his friends, shipmates, classmates and professional colleagues saw him. He was a bit larger than life, but in the final analysis Yogi personified all American submarine skippers: of his generation, before him and after him. He had tenacity, he was technologically knowledgeable and he had vision of his mission. He was also a leader of a special breed of men. Not only free American Sailors, but trained submariners, who can do anything and who know the true meaning of the tenllS qualified and shipmate. That is the real privilege in being a submarine skipper.
Editor’s Note: This remembrance is made up of many inputs from those who knew Yogi. They told their parts from many viewpoints. It is hoped here that the Yogi we all knew will continue to inspire those who are now going down in the sea in their submarines. Yogi’s story, as told here, is really for them, and not just for those of us who knew him .