Dan Curran is a former submarine officer who has been a contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW for a number of years.
At-sea rescues take all forms and result from various causes. An interesting rescue involved USS GEORGE BANCROFT (SSBN-643 -Blue), operating out of the Holy Loch in the late 1960s. The BANCROFT, one of the Benjamin Franklin Class (we called it the 640 class), was named for President James K. Polk’s Secretary of the Navy. George Bancroft was also the greatest American historian of the l 91h century. While serving as Secretary of the Navy in 1845, Secretary Bancroft helped establish the United States Naval Academy. The mid shipmen’s dormitory at the Naval Academy carries Bancroft’s name.
It was springtime. I was the Weapons Officer with a weapons department consisting of three nuclear trained officers. Conducting a shakedown cruise after refit at Holy Loch, BANCROFT was heading out of the Clyde area on the surface. Traveling into the North Channel waters between Northern Ireland and Scotland, the lookout reported a flare coming out of the morning fog so prevalent in the area. As the officer of the deck, I immediately called the Captain to the bridge. We then proceeded toward the spot where the flare originated. By this time, the fog lifted and we observed a fishing boat, hull down, near the Irish coast. We came along side and hailed the boat’s crew.
“What’s your problem?” I asked.
“We’re sinking” one of fishermen called back.
“How long can you stay afloat?” I asked.
“About twenty minutes.” He answered.
This called for quick action. The Captain relieved me of the Deck and I headed to the missile deck. The first thing we did was to call away members of the ship’s crew who worked the deck area during refit. Since we had not battened down (welded) the deck hatches, we proceeded to pass lines from the deck stowage areas, securing the fishing boat to BANCROFT’s hull. At this point, the radio room contacted the British rescue service who informed us it would take a couple of hours to arrive at the scene.
The next action was to hook up a submersible pump and pass the pump and hose out a hatch and down the side of BANCROFT into the fishing boat’s bilge. If anyone remembers the capacity of the submersible pump, he will know how much water we pumped out. The pump ran for 45 minutes and the hull came straight up as its bilge emptied.
The third action involved two requests to the mess area. The first order was to provide sandwiches and hot tea to be passed down to the fishing boat crew. The second asked the cooks to provide two large empty milk cans to be passed up to the deck.
Meanwhile, I asked the men what had happened.
Meanwhile, I asked the men what had happened. “I sold me taxi and bought a fishing boat with the money.” The spokesperson, who was obvious I y the Captain, responded in a Cockney accent.
“Where do you hail from? I asked.
We sailed from Hull, England, heading to Greenland” the fishing boat captain replied.
I thought to myself, “Hull is on the eastern side of England.”
“What happened? I asked.
The fishing boat captain responded, “We got a day out into the Atlantic when the engine stopped. We then found out that the only pump we had was operated by the boat’s engine. We drifted north between England and Ireland with the leak in the hull adding water to the bilge all of the time. Every time we saw a ship, we fired a flare. The flare you saw was our last one.”
Since we had time to wait, I made another request to BANCROFT’s Captain. BANCROFT, like all missile submarines, has four sets of bullets and launchers. The big bullets and launchers, of course, were the sixteen Polaris A-3 missiles (later Poseidon) housed in the missile tubes. The medium sized bullets and launchers involved the four torpedo tubes, forward, and the MK-14s, Mk 37s, and the one Mk-45 torpedo comprising the self defense armament. Some smaller bullets came with the counter-measure launchers.
The smallest bullets and launchers were stowed in the armory and were the direct responsibility of the Weapons Officer and the ship’s Armorer. This armory, as I remember, consisted of MI carbines (7 .62 X .33 mm caliber), Thompson type machine guns (.45 caliber) and Colt 45 automatic pistols (.45 caliber).
The crew of BANCROFT, like all naval ships’ crews, had the responsibility to be prepared to conduct any type of naval warfare. I asked and received the Captain’s permission to exercise the ship’s boarding party and marksmen on deck during the wait for the rescue ship. The two milk cans went over the side opposite the moored fishing boat. I explained to the boat crew that we were going to conduct small arms training during the wait for the rescue service. We then started practice with each of the small arms using the milk cans as targets (both cans had drifted away from BANCROFT’s hull by this time).
At the completion of the practice, we collected the brass and secured the exercise. The rescue boat arrived and took the fishing boat under tow.
Later, I looked at a map of the British Isles. The fishing boat had sailed from Hull, a city located about halfway up the east coast of England, then south down the English Channel into the Atlantic Ocean, heading west for Greenland. When the engine failed, the boat drifted with the wind and the currents, north, up through the St. George’s Channel, between the west coast of England and Wales and the Irish coast. The boat then passed into the Irish Sea and up into the North Channel area between the Northern Ireland coast and Scotland. The boat had drifted for about 250 nautical miles without a single ship investigating the flares until BANCROFT came along.
Those who remember navigating the North Channel and leaving the lee of the land at the tip of Ireland know the treacherous sea that faced the drifting boat.
When we arrived back in the Holy Loch after the shakedown, the tender people gave us a copy of a Glasgow newspaper with an article headlined: “Ex-Taxi Driver Hails A-Sub”.
BANCROFT’s crew members were not heroes in the classic sense, but I expect that the fishing boat crew and their families thought we were a great bunch. We had upheld the ancient tradition of the sea to render assistance to those in trouble and saved the lives of three mariners who were certainly those in peril on the sea. In the meantime, we had a chance to hone some little-used military skills.
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