Captain Patton is a retired submarine officer who is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.
Early 1978 was a busy time. As PARGO was finishing a 2- year refueling overhaul, SUBLANT had thrown down the gauntlet and asked if we move right into preps for a classic North Atlantic deployment as soon as we got out. Fortunately, since it was more fun than the shipyard, PARGO had logged more time in Sub School’s Attack Centers the last couple of years than any boat in SUBLANT, and had gotten pretty good at many of the necessary skills.
At the time, many boats-especially those coming out of the yards- were having some troubles getting certified on Mk 48 torpedoes at the AUTEC range, so the ship was loaded out with some 18 or so exercise units. SUBLANT had also volunteered PARGO to participate in the first mini-war at AUTEC, where it would be pitted against a 963 class Destroyer with MP A and helicopter support who would be escorting the IX range ship, as a simulated high value target, the length of the range while PARGO tried to attack.
All the Attack Center sessions paid off, the ship being declared certified after two successful runs, and I was told I could do what I wanted with the remaining exercise units, minus the ones reserved for the mini-war. That offer was a no-brainier, and all the wardroom officers, in inverse order of seniority, got to shoot one as the Approach Officer.
During the night before the mini-war, we were asked to serve as a target for a reserve squadron of P-3Bs out of Brunswick, Maine who were qualifying on Mk 46 lightweight torpedoes. When asked if any evasive maneuvers were desired or allowed, the answer was .. anything you want, as long as you don’t go faster than 12 knots, go below 400 feet or change course more than 30 degrees” – which was fine and understood, since these guys were trying to get qualified. What was decided was that once the weapons hit the water and the goodness of the delivery was established (splash inside of 500 yards from the submarine was the criteria for a successful attack) our BQS-14 under ice sonar would be lit off at the shortest range scale – 200 yards – which meant that every~ second there would be an FM sweep from 28-32 Khz. – right through the Mk 46’s operating frequency of 30 Khz. At the exercise washup later it was stated that although all of the dozen or so attacks had met attack criteria (<500 yds), all of the Mk 46s ran in an erratic fashion and failed to home. I was convinced then, and remain so today, that PARGO was countermeasure the weapons by capturing some side lobe of the weapons' sonar every 250 milliseconds with what the weapon evaluated as a valid return from whatever heading the torpedo was at the time. At the end of the exercise, having run out of Mk 46s, a Mk 44 was dropped which pinged at 60 Khz and was unaffected by the BQS-14. This torpedo detected and homed on PARGO and even went through its set safety ceiling to actually strike the ship-requiring an annoying surfacing and deployment of a diver to confirm that no damage was done.
During all of this it was noted that a sonobuoy barrier had been established across the mid-point of the range (for the mini- war Pargo had to stay south of mid-range until the 0800 COMEX, while the 00963 class with its escorted IX range vessel started from the northern end). This was clearly a tripwire for the transiting groups benefit, and it was decided that if they wanted to hear us, we would comply- but just pre-COMEX. After verifying from the Engineer that a crud burst could be cleaned up before 0800, MCPs were shifted to fast and the ship cruised back and forth just south of the barrier at a relatively shallow depth. At 0800, pumps were shifted to slow, and test depth ordered at a full bell. Running a mile or so to the eastern range boundary, we turned left to parallel this boundary, and again at the northern boundary to head towards the opposing force’s start box, arriving 20-30 minutes after COMEX.
Having been taught to always have a plan, and insure that everyone else knew what it was, it had been decided that shooting just at the simulated high value target was too easy, and that we would conduct a coordinated attack against both the HVT and its escort. This dual launch met range rules as long as the two weapons operated at different range pinger frequencies, and that the attacking ship was below the safety floor before either enabled. Both PKs were manned, and the first shot would be at the escort (assuming it would be the furthest away) with a high to medium speed setting, and the second, perhaps as we were going deep, against the IX with a medium to medium speed setting.
When we got to the start box, tubes were made ready in alt respects, firing point procedures announced (“Ship not ready”, “solutions not ready”, “weapons not ready” – oK tell me when they are”) and an immediate ascent to periscope depth with a 20° bubble was conducted – spiraling up to clear baffles, and dropping bells as appropriate to curl into PD facing south at 3-4 knots. Several sweeps in low power – “nothing close, down scope” – but having noted that there were two contacts on almost the same bearing to the south with stem aspects – beautiful! ••ship ready” was reported.
Brief the fire control party- will do an observation on the high value target, drop the scope, do an observation on the escort, drop the scope. When get the expected solutions ready and weapons ready will do final observation and shoot on escort, drop the scope. When first weapon away will do final bearing and shoot on high value target- but be prepared to shoot on generated bearings if needed as we go deep and speed up to clear datum. Everything going as planned.
“Observation, number two scope, Master two, the escort- up scope”. As the scope broke water, the escort went active-mind flashed yellow alert- “why now?” Find it in low, shift to high- ••mark bearing, mark range-down scope- range 6000 yards”. “Observation, number two scope, Master one, the high value target- up scope”. Find it in low shift to high, escort still active, no apparent change in range scale “bearing mark, range mark, down scope- range 6000 yards”.
“Attention in the Fire Control Party- we cannot attack both as planned since they are at the same range. We will attack the high value target- high to medium speed set. It may attack the escort since they are close in bearing, but we will evaluate what happens later and reattack as necessary- carry on” – “Firing point procedures, Master one, PK one” – “ship ready”, “weapon ready”, “solution ready” – “Match sonar bearings and shoot – all ahead standard, make your depth 400 feet, left I 0° rudder, steady course 120”.
A very interesting melee occurred over the next hour or so with great fun for all, but it wasn’t clear at all just what had gone wrong with the perfect plan. When all was sorted out later, it was pure pilot error. The escort’s lighting off of its active sonar just as the scope broke for the first observation was sheer coincidence. The effect it had, however, was to distract me just enough to make me forget that I was dealing with a Type 18 scope, not a Type 15, and the whole mantra about snapping your right wrist forward for low power ( l .5X) every time you initially touched or left that handle, and rolling it back for high power (6X) observations didn’t strictly apply when the 6X position lay between the l .5X and a new l 2X which was all the way back where the 6X was on earlier scopes. What I had managed to do, for both lack of focus and lack of practice with a new piece of equipment, was to make one observation in 6X and the other in I 2X leading me to believe that both contacts were at the same range when I actually had a perfect set up where one was at 6 Kyds and the other at 3 Kyds – shoot the escort with a final bearing and shoot and get the IX with a shoot on generated bearings as we went deep. As it turned out, the one weapon shot enabled directly under the IX, where it was visually sighted by an escorting helicopter who radioed “Tinman, tinman!” to the destroyer who was able to maneuver out of the acquisition cone before the weapon detected and homed.
There is a credible theory that states that all human skills consist of three constituents-concepts, procedures and tech- niques-in varying proportions depending on the skill involved. Concepts must be taught, procedures must be studied and techniques must be practiced. The concepts and procedures were nailed that day, but the periscope technique sucked. Just one of my biggest mistakes.