Rear Admiral Robertson is a retired submarine officer who currently lives on Amelia Island. He wrote this allegorical essay several years ago at the request of a Writers and Poets Society working on a book of such essays about the various branches of national security roles in the latter part of the twentieth century. The book, entitled Bullets and Tears will be published this year.
I was there, unseen, throughout the long Cold War and still today- a silent force and sentinel- the American submariner. Along with my brothers in arms, numbered now in the thousands, we hounded the Soviet Navy mercilessly wherever they tried to operate- in the Barents Sea, Sea of Japan, under the ice, in the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean.
I didn’t just arrive on the 50s scene out of nowhere, as new kid on the block. I came from the legacy laid down by the thousands of submariners who took the offensive to hostile Japanese waters when the rest of the Fleet lay in shambles at Pearl Harbor. They swept Japan’s maritime forces to the bottom of the Pacific, leaving a ghastly percentage of our own still on patrol. From all this came the spirit, the tactics and technical know-how to deal with the challenge of a new era, a new danger to America.
For us it was always looking ahead, mindful of the comrades and lessons that got us through the Pacific war as victors. A vision of the perfect submarine, one freed from the atmosphere at the surface of the ocean and independent of logistic support, became a real thing. I was there working tirelessly behind the scenes at national laboratories, dedicated manufacturers and shipyard complexes. From that came the technological breakthrough of robust nuclear power driving a steam propulsion plant. It seemed like a miracle even for the heady SO’s. The perfect machine, ala Jules Verne, “what others have only dreamed!”
Vision became tactical reality with a handful of nuclear attack submarines placed in service in the 50s. Not just mere research platoons, they were real, tough warfighting breakthroughs. First USS NAUTILUS, but quickly leading to the true submersible hull form of the SKIP JACK Class. These submarines with essentially unlimited endurance and mobility altered the equation, drastically increasing the submarine’s versatility and tactical advantage. Such characteristics set the stage for building a program of far-reaching submarine deployed operations in those backyards most dangerous to America. They quickly wrote a new book. one whose chapters are being rewritten and expanded still.
There was little argument about the breakthrough capability of nuclear submarines. Everybody wanted them! The problem was the vast technology and resources needed to build them, not to mention maintain them. The Soviets plunged desperately into building programs with little regard for safety and quality control. Soon they would have noisy attack submarines testing their underwater wings. The British, resource constrained, moved cautiously to establish a fine small program closely allied with U.S. operations and technology. Ever since, they have been our steady and only partner in submarine-operations, sharing vital intelligence, technical and operational deployment data.
I made those initial submarine deployments with an eye to the past and the future. Gruelling as they were, week after week in distant waters on constant edge, they could never be as gruelling as those of our comrades in the Pacific war. We learned quickly how other capabilities could be trained on the Soviets to guarantee our national security. A program to deploy limited range guided missiles against Soviet land targets became possible and then became reality. The missions were brutal, risky and definitely not in friendly waters. A better idea was on the horizon and I was ready!
I was the submariner, the naval architect, the ordnance engineer, the space scientist, the corporate leader, the manufacturing technician, the shipyard journeyman who came together as the 50s closed to deliver the nation’s greatest scientific achievement under duress since the Manhattan Project. Delivered on time, on spec, on budget, on target! The message flashed from sea: “Polaris, from the deep, on target.”
I deployed on POLARIS patrol before 1960 ended, as mandated-by the urgency of getting strategic missiles to sea pointed at the Soviet Union. The first five strategic submarines, SSBNs or Boomers, were marvelously adapted attack submarine hulls and they were soon deployed in Atlantic waters. The stage was set!
As the 60’s accelerated I was part of the seemingly impossible challenge of finding and training the thousands of bright young officers and sailors to man a force to win the Cold War- near 40new attack submarines and a fleet of strategic submarines later named the “41 for Freedom.” At an incredible delivery pace exceeding one ship per quarter, I was on patrol in all “41” in the Atlantic and Pacific before the 60s ended. They were quickly recognized as the only survivable leg of the strategic triad- bomber,ICBM and SSBN. Our nation’s leaders could agree on at least one thing across partisan lines: stated simply, ‘our strategic missile-submarines were our single most important national security asset.’We understood, and that drove us as we took up our constant strategic presence in the unknown reaches of deep ocean. We were the Soviets never-ending headache.
We watched as the Soviets responded with massive building programs for new attack submarines, for their own strategic missile submarines, and for a new threat-submarines designed to sink our carriers with cruise missiles. Their numbers would be far greater than ours but their training, operational legacy and day-to-day engineering practices were impediments. We saw the 60’s end and the 70’s bring the ever-expanding Soviet Navy out into blue water.The submarines came too. A threat to America and a challenge we had prepared for! Now we were ready to give the Soviets a bad toothache as well!
With the “41 for Freedom” built we had been able to focus on new classes of attack submarines, SSN’s, with vast improvements in stealth and modem integrated combat systems. STURGEON Class submarines took the new capabilities into the Soviet backyard. Our relentless presence was a ghost to them, unnerving, unseen and unheard. We followed them into the deep oceans and drove their strategic missile submarines into protective canyons of the deep. We tracked down their distant deploys and they knew it. We were humble, grateful, and thankful we had the best training and resources in the world.
Our attack submarines were the tip of the spear, creating paranoia in the Soviets from what they could feel but not find. The SSN became the key to a new Forward Strategy for wartime. We would be the first to go in harm’s way to deliver a knockout punch to the Soviet fleet in their own backyard. They knew it, and knew they couldn’t stop it!
Later, in the 80’s, we would deploy in a still more capable Los Angeles Class attack submarines. None too soon! The Soviets could never catch up but they could stay one or two steps behind. Their seven ship design bureaus and industrial espionage worked around-the clock. They had a flush handful of new submarine design projects ongoing when we could barely sustain a single one! But we kept our shoulders to the wheel, keeping the pressure on. I was there,studying Soviet capabilities, checking their steady progress,evaluating their weapons, an ever-present thorn in their side. It seemed that we would be at the task forever, and we were deter-mined to do so as necessary. We would remain ready and prepared!
The headache we gave the Soviets with our strategic missile submarines never went away. POLARJS was followed by POSEI-DON, then Trident missiles vastly improved in range and capability.Our designers and builders brought us the Ohio Class submarine built with new precision and efficiency by independently completed hull sections. I went to sea in the new ship that exceeded all specs.By the 90’s Trident had fully taken over our strategic shield in the Atlantic and Pacific, operating from the world’s best naval bases in Kings Bay, GA and Bangor, WA on Puget Sound. The “41 for Freedom” had finished their vigilant mission and I joined the nation saluting them. Job well done, nation secure!
The Soviet toothache didn’t go away either. We wrangled through the 80’s over the Soviet’s capabilities, resiliency and durability. Were they ten feet tall? Were they only six feet tall? What more could they do to close the gap? What more were they willing to do? I fought hard to design a new attack submarine, one clearly stating that we would maintain undersea supremacy and would stay the course as long as necessary. We pressed forward against competing needs of the 80’s. Out of this stress we brought Sea WOLF and still following technologies to design finality. This even as we started across-the-board cuts of one-third in the programs of each service! In the end though, the quality of our programs andour trained people were the givens we could rely on.
So it was that those unsurpassed qualities of our ships, weapon sand people would be the realities from which the Soviets could not escape. The miserable spies that sold out our country ironically served to build on the Soviet’s realization that they were forever beaten and bankrupt. Suddenly the walls came tumbling down! What we had always imagined in some distant decade had happened with crash. The world would now be much different!
I am still out there on the tip of the spear, silent and unseen. My strategic missiles are more ready, more deadly and better concealed than ever before. The eyes and ears of my attack submarines are ever fine-tuned, lurking throughout the oceans wherever there is potentiality to America. We are now joined by the new Virginia Class attack subs, and a handful of submarines specially configured for unique warfare roles. Roles which too are guaranteed to give headaches and toothaches to would-be enemies of America! Rest secure! I will always be out there, “still on patrol.”
CAPT WlLLIAM H. AYRES, USN(RET)
CDR DANIEL K. BACON, USN (RET)
CAPT JAMES C. BELLAH, USN(RET)
LCDR ANTHONY CIOTTI, SR., USN(RET)
RADM W. N. DIETZEN, JR., USN(RET)
MR. HUGH P. DOYLE
ENCS(SS) RALPH A. KENNEDY, USN(RET)
CAPT RUSSELL B. McWEY, USN(RET)
LCDR WILLIAM W. TALLEY, USN(RET)