VADM Sagerholm is a retired submarine officer who commanded USS KAMEHAMEHA (SSBN642) (Gold). As a flag officer he served as Commander South Atlantic Force. Executive Director of the President’s Foreign intelligence AdvisOIJ’ Board, and Chief of Naval Education and Training.
On a Wednesday morning in September, 1963, upwards of 800 officers gathered in the auditorium at the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Arlington, Virginia, where they were to be briefed by Vice Admiral Smedberg, the Chief of Naval Personnel, on a singular event that I call “The Great Draft of 1963,” an event that would change their lives and their naval careers.
The previous Monday morning, I had received a call from the Washington area detailed, an old acquaintance with whom I had served in destroyers. I was a Lieutenant Commander beginning a tour in Washington.
“Are you sitting down?” he asked. When I replied that I was he continued: “You are to report to the BuPers auditorium this Wednesday at 0745 for a briefing by Vice Admiral Smedberg, the Chief of Naval Personnel, concerning possible nuclear power training for duty in ballistic missile submarines.”
“Milt,” I objected, “you have the wrong guy. This is Jim Sagerholm you’re talking to, and I haven’t requested duty in submarines. I have astigmatism in my right eye, so I can’t qualify for subs.”
“Jim, let me explain. First, I have the right guy, so listen carefully. As you know, the Navy is building ballistic missile subs at the rate of 10 to 12 per year. That means finding officers for 20 to 24 crews per year, a figure roughly of 300 officers per year. Admiral Rickover feels he has exhausted the supply from the diesel boats, so he has received penmss1on from President Kennedy to draft around 600 officers from the surface Navy. Those he selected will be asked if they will volunteer for duty in submarines, but hear this, even if an officer refuses to volunteer for subs, he will still have to go through nuclear power training. About 800 officers will be interviewed, ranging in seniority from lieutenant commander to ensign. You have no choice in this, so be at the auditorium on time Wednesday in service dress khaki.”
So there we were in the auditorium, and at 0800, the entrance doors were shut, the room quieted, and Vice Admiral Smedberg appeared. He told us essentially the same story that I had been told by Milt, and he emphasized the critical need for officers to man the SSBNs that were being added to the fleet. After asking if there were any questions, and getting none, he informed us that the schedule of interviews was posted in the rear of the auditorium, and added that the lieutenant commanders were at the top of the list, since they would commence their interviews at Admiral Rickover’s office in Main Navy at 1000.
We lieutenant commanders were told that a bus was ready to take us to Main Navy, so off we went to meet whatever fate had in store for us. I think there were five of us from the Naval Academy class of 1952 in the group of about fifteen lieutenant commanders, with Year Group 1952 being the most senior.
After first being screened by several members of Admiral Rickover’s staff, we were lined up for the final interview with Vice Admiral Rickover. We all had heard stories of the interviews with the kindly old gentle1man, so there was certainly a fair amount of apprehension among us.
Every prospective commanding officer was required to spend three months in Rickover’s headquarters, learning the nuclear power plant on the ship he would command. It was the custom to assign these officers as escorts for officers being interviewed by the admiral. We were no exception. My escort was Captain James L. Holloway, Ill, waiting lo go to the carrier ENTERPRISE, and who later was Chief of Naval Operations. Captain Holloway emphasized the importance of listening carefully to each question, and the need to answer a question directly and completely. Without going into the details suffice it to say that I got wrapped around the axle of those directions, and my interview ended with my being required to write an official memorandum to the admiral, which I did. I then proceeded to BuPers via the shuttle provided, in order to be debriefed by Captain Sunshine Aubrey, the head submariner officer detailer. While I was telling Captain Aubrey that I considered that I had not been selected, the phone rang, and I was informed by the admiral’s executive assistant that my memo had been accepted and I was in the program! I think all the other lieutenant commanders were accepted as well.
Captain Aubrey then asked me if I wished to volunteer for submarines, to which I replied in the affirmative, my right eye’s condition being waivered. Within two weeks, we were on the way to Submarine School, except for a 1952 classmate who refused submarine duty. His orders were to Nuclear Power School.
We were in Class 125, together with a large number of lieu- tenants, lieutenants Gunior grade), and ensigns. We lieutenant commanders were probably the most senior officers ever to go through the basic officer course at the school. From there, we attended the Nuclear Power School at Bainbridge, Maryland, followed by prototype training at the several sites then available. I finally received orders to USS SEADRAGON (SSN-584) in the summer of 1965, and spent the next ten months or so qualifying in submarines. Although I was senior to all on board except the skipper, CDR Ray Eagle, the welcoming and helpful attitude of all my SEADRAGON shipmates prevented any problems, no doubt due to CDR Eagle’s leadership and example. The day I had my dolphins pinned on, I was promoted to commander, which may also be a record of some sort for seniority when qualifying.
Once qualified, we old guys went on to executive officer tours, and then command tours. I can say without any reservation that my XO tour in the commissioning Blue crew of M.G. VALLEJO (SSBN 658), under CDR Doug Guthe, and my command of KAMEHAMEHA (SSBN-642) Gold crew from 1968 to 1971, were the best tours I had in the Navy. Both crews were absolutely superb. In the three years of my command, I had no- repeat no-disciplinary cases, no captain’s masts. As an aside, Kam’s medical officer was a young lieutenant named Robin Cook, who later gained fame for his series of medical mysteries, beginning with the Coma in 1974, and continuing to the present. The Weapons Officer was LT George Sterner, who retired from the ComNavSea billet in the rank of vice admiral.
Of the 600 or so officers who were drafted in 1963, I under- stand that over 90% volunteered for submarine duty, and many went on to highly successful careers in the Navy, including as high as the Deputy Chainnan of the Joint Chiefs. The excellent training we received, the exceptional morale and esprit we found in the submarine service, and the outstanding quality of the submariners with whom we were privileged to serve, more than compensated for the abrupt and arbitrary change we experienced in our service careers.
The great draft of 1963 was a unique and unprecedented event that has never been repeated. To my knowledge, its story has never been told, so I now offer this brief account, such as it is, for the benefit of history. Consider this: given the importance to national security of the fleet of ballistic missile submarines, the 41 for Freedom, during that long struggle known as the Cold War, it would appear that the gap filled in the manning of those submarines by those officers who were drafted merits at least a footnote in the history of the Cold war.