Captain John F.O ‘Connell, USN (Ret.) was commissioned from the United States Naval Academy. He served in USS BON HOMME Richard (CVA-31) and USS ROCHESTER (CA-124) before attending Submarine School. He served in USS PERCH (ASSP-313), USS CA/MAN (SS-323). GMU Ten, Squadron One staff, USS BARBERO (SSG-317), XO USS PICKEREL (SS-524), and ComSubPac staff. He commanded USS SPINAX (SS-489) and Submarine Division 41. He was a Branch Head in the Submarine Warfare Division of OpNav (OP-31) and Chief Staff Officer of Submarine Flotilla Seven. He served as ComSubPac N3, and then as Defense and Naval Attache Tokyo. He has published five books, three dealing with air power and two with submarine operational effectiveness in the 20th century.
The newspapers are full of alarming news about the possibility, nay, the certainty of sequestration, which is the abrupt cutting back on funds available to various government agencies at the end of the year. If you are a program manager in any service, or government agency, you have some serious thinking to do about how you will handle the impending disaster.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, I got hit by a sequestration ax as I took USS SPIN AX (SS 489) up to Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in September 1967. I had never heard the term sequestration and it would not have made the process any easier if I had.
We got underway from San Diego and cleared the sea buoy and headed north for an operating area off San Francisco Bay. There we were scheduled to spend several days performing passive sonar calibration duties for a Skate class SSN that was finishing overhaul, before starting our own overhaul.
I came down below after securing the maneuvering watch and went to my cabin. My XO said in passing, “You might want to check the last mail that just came aboard. It’s on your desk. There is a rather peculiar speed letter from ComSubPac.”
I read it and called Bob Nevin, the executive officer, to my cabin. “Bob, have we heard anything about this from the Squadron before we got underway?” “No” was the answer.
The speed letter, signed by direction by a relatively junior officer in the Logistics Section (N4) of ComSubPac staff informed me that overhaul funds for USS SPINAX scheduled overhaul (due to start in a week) had been cut by 25%. That reduced our overhaul funding for work to be accomplished in the shipyard from 1 million dollars down to $750,000 effective immediately!
Shortly before we had had a shipyard arrival conference in San Diego with a BuShips representative, a senior ComSubPac staff officer, the Squadron Engineer, and the Division Engineer as well as shipyard representatives. All had an opportunity to critique the shipyard work package that we had prepared, and by God we had 1 million dollars worth of shipyard work all laid out and approved by all involved.
What on earth was going on? Why would such a devastating blow be delivered by speed letter, a relatively informal communication? I had told my engineer officer, Lt. Bill Hudiburgh, to drive up to the shipyard while we were underway and spend a few days smoozing with the shipyard shop masters so that we could ease into the overhaul routine smoothly. My key man was missing in a major engineering crisis.
I checked with my communications officer and the assistant engineer officer to find out if either had heard anything before we got underway. Neither had heard a peep. We had just completed a three-week long restricted availability alongside our submarine tender.
This was the height of the Cold War and we were on radio silence as soon as we cleared the sea buoy. There was no way to query our betters.
It was time for Battle Stations. An hour later I had an all-officer plus Chief of the Boat meeting in the wardroom and told them what seemed to be happening. Lots of curses, profanity and swear words filled the air. I told them that I felt exactly the same way as they did BUT we needed to do something very quickly. It was obvious that a new shipyard arrival conference would have to be held just as soon as we arrived at the shipyard, and we had to be prepared to cut a quarter of a million dollars worth of work. Either we would dictate what was to be cut or someone else would do it for us. The latter idea was unacceptable.
I instructed them to go to their departments and divisions, consult with their leading petty officers, and come back in twenty-four hours-prepared to cut $250,000 worth of work.
One more complication was involved. My prospective relief as commanding officer was aboard. He had come to me a couple of weeks earlier and pointed out that he had orders to relieve me in November up in the shipyard during overhaul. That meant that he would have to take SPTNAX out on sea trials without ever having been underway in her-not a very satisfactory situation. I reluctantly agreed to his riding the boat up to the shipyard so he could get a feel for her. I told him that he was not invited to the impromptu pre-arrival conference the following day because there was only room for one commanding officer at a time and I didn’t want to have any of my department heads looking to see what he thought about their decisions and mine. He would just have to live with them.
Twenty-four agonizing hours later we met and CHOPPED the previously approved shipyard work package down to $750,000. It was not a pretty sight.
We pulled in to Naval Air Station Alameda to offload our torpedoes before moving to the shipyard. My engineer, ashen-faced, was on the pier. He had learned about the cuts as soon as he arrived at the shipyard.
“Captain, you won’t believe what has happened! We have another arrival conference tomorrow. The BuShips rep and the ComSubPac rep have just arrived.” “Oh yes, I will Bill. In your absence we chopped $250,000 from the approved package. Go on down and talk to your assistant engineer and see if you agree with what we have done.”
We had a revised shipyard work package meeting the next day. I had a few choice words for the ComSubPac representative, about what had happened and how we were informed. I told him, and the squadron engineer, that a letter from me would be forthcoming laying out a proposed solution to handling the missing work.
When we chopped the work package we looked carefully at what might be accomplished by the tender if we sent specific pieces of machinery down to San Diego from the shipyard. I got the squadron engineer’s agreement to that course of action. I also contacted my Division Commander and told him I couldn’t spare an officer from the wardroom to ride herd on that work, and that I wanted his Division Engineer to be our representative at the submarine tender. He agreed.
A few days passed and tempers cooled. I had served on ComSubPac staff just before taking command of SPINAX. I knew that the dollar decision to drastically cut our overhaul funding, made at the end of the fiscal year, had not been an easy one. Rather than cursing the darkness, it was time to light a candle and show ComSubPac a possible way out of the mess that it had inadvertently created.
I studied the ComSubPac instruction dealing with the command philosophy about overhauls. It was clear that the intent was to ensure that the overhauled submarine was capable of going through its next full operating cycle without the necessity for major repairs.
In a letter up the chain of command I pointed out that due to unfortunate circumstances the pre-overhaul long restricted availability alongside our tender had gone by the boards and could not be retrieved. I laid out the amount of work that was being sent down to the tender while we were in overhaul. I then suggested that ComSubPac approve a five-week restricted availability alongside the tender upon completion of the overhaul in order to deal with all the unresolved material problems. If that was done, I predicted that Spinax would be able to go through her next operational cycle without needing major repairs. It was a radical proposal.
The Squadron Commander and ComSubPac agreed. I was relieved in November 1967 to attend Post Graduate School at Monterey and Bud Hankins took over. The overhaul proceeded and sea trials went well.
The subsequent five week availability alongside the tender, although unprecedented, served to fill in the material gaps. SPINAX went on to win a third “E” for operational excellence and to operate well during 1968 and 1969.
Her outstanding material condition and readiness for further service was noted in SUBINSER VPAC message l 92 l 59Z Sep 69 and COMSUBPAC message 232207Z Sep 69 dealing with her decommissioning. It was a happy ending to a real mess. The hard work done by SPINAX officers and crew members and by the submarine tender had saved the day.