Life Onboard a Submarine

November 17, 2010 by  

An Incident in My Life at Sea
Thom Cantrall

The sun never shines when you are deep below the surface somewhere in the cold, rugged North Atlantic Ocean. It was July of 1967 and we were early in our fifth patrol. The upkeep period and the nights of Liberty in Southwest Spain were but a fading memory… though the antics of some of our crew would continue to be the subject of conversation throughout the next off-crew period.
We were a Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine, firing the Mk 3 Polaris Missile, USS James Madison SSB(N) 627 Gold.

Being such, the boat had two complete crews, Blue and Gold, which rotated on and off the vessel at three month intervals. While one crew had the boat, the other crew was home. Our cycle ran thusly: the first

Our Ship's Patch... our Emblem

month home was strictly R&R, Rest and Relaxation. If anyone wanted leave, this was the time for it. Those who did not avail themselves of it called in to the office on Thursday and physically came into the office on Monday. As can be seen, life was not rough during R&R. If one wanted make a short trip that would take him out of the general Charleston, SC area for more than three days, leave papers were issued to protect everyone in case of accident or something else untoward outside of our Liberty area. When he returned, the papers were simply discarded and the leave time was not counted. All in all, it was pretty difficult to use up all the thirty days per year leave we were granted.
The next two months following R&R was a “crew training” period. The Submarine Training Center at Charleston presented classes and simulator training in virtually all areas of submarine and military activity. Normally, I would attend two to three weeks of these classes… and even taught one on occasion in the absence of the regular instructor. If not in a class, we came to the office on Monday and Friday and called in on Wednesday.
All too soon, this idyll closed and it was time to mount a Boeing 707 chartered for the purpose and fly to Rota, Spain. Our arrival was timed to coincide with the return of the boat from her patrol. Invariably, we arrived in the middle of Western Spain’s night, although our bodies, still on Eastern Time, thought it was about 7 pm. Ah, the wonders of Jet Lag.
When morning finally came, after only approximately 238 hours,

USS James Madison SSB(N) 627 at sea

we rousted out of our temporary quarters deep in the bowels of the Submarine Tender USS Sperry. A breakfast of barely edible, surface craft food and it was down to the boat. For three days we coordinated with the Blue Crew, going over any machinery glitches and malfunctions and idiosyncrasies within any of the missiles on board. We covered everything anyone had made note of or anything else that was thought important, interesting

The Author at Change of Command Ceremony

or even amusing! At the end of the three days, a short ceremony was held wherein both crews stood in formation topside while each commanding officer read his orders, one relinquishing command and the other accepting command of the boat.
Below decks, we who were senior enough stood the watch in peace and comfort while this protocolic nonsense was playing itself out over our heads and out of our hearing.
Presently, tradition and regulation satisfied, the boat again belonged to the Gold Crew and the Blue Crew was headed to the air terminal to board their flight home. This, to our gang who maintained the sixteen Polaris on board, marked the beginning of an upkeep period that ran twenty-four hours a day for twenty-four to twenty-nine days. During this time, any updates to existing equipment or replacement of old equipment had to be effected. From three to five missiles were rotated off the boat and new ones installed in their place. Dynamic testing of the birds had to be performed. It was during this phase of testing that I and my counterpart, Charlie “Swamp Fox” Marshall, were most sorely tested. There were times that we went as long as seventy-two hours without sleep while conducting these tests.
Eventually, even this passed and, invariably, time was found for some recreation. I managed a few nights of liberty in the local area of Rota, Puerto de Santa Maria and Cadiz, Spain. I even managed, in the five times I was in Rota, to visit cities such as Sevilla, Toledo and Jerez de la Frontera, where I had the honor to sample a four-hundred year old wine. We had tours to Gibraltar, Tourmelinos and even the beautiful Granada. In all, I found Spain to be a most wonderful place filled with warm and friendly people. I was there in the mid 1960’s while Generalissimo Franco was still in power so, crime in the streets was unheard of… it just simply did not happen.
With upkeep completed and all systems up and running we would, just as the sun was setting in the western ocean, put to sea. My job at this time was to be in charge of the crews handling the mooring lines, making sure, once underway, that all mooring lines were stowed correctly and that all the stanchions and guidelines were also properly stowed. It could mean the life of the ship and the crew should any loose gear go adrift in a combat scenario so particular attention was paid to getting things done right and insuring all the lockers were properly secured. I was the last man down, signaling to the bridge when I went below that no man was left topside. As soon as I shut and dogged the after hatch, which would be the last time it was opened until we resurfaced on our way back into port sometime between fifty-six and seventy-two days from now.
As soon as we were far enough from shore to reach water a hundred fathoms deep, the Captain dived the ship. With that action, all sensation of motion ceased. From that moment until our resurfacing near this same hundred fathom curve on our return, in the absence of a storm we could not tell that we were moving. We could, literally, circumnavigate the globe submerged and, without looking at instruments, gauges or dials, we would never know we had ever left Spanish waters… Except vertically!
The middle and upper level decks in the Missile Compartment

Submarine Launched Polaris Mk III Missile

were floating decks. As such, they were not rigidly affixed to the hull, but rode on studs that were mounted directly to the outer, or pressure, hull. Since the pressure hull, as its name suggests, is subject to sea pressure, forty-four lbs per square inch per one-hundred feet of depth, it compresses and expands as sea pressure increases or decreases with the change of depth. The result was, they could not change depth more than six to eight inches without the deck moving on one of these studs, creating a distinct popping sound within the compartment. Consequently, the ship could go as fast or as slow as the Control Room wished and we could never know about it, but let them change depth by a foot and we knew immediately!
Once we were in our patrol area it was a boring existence with people actually arguing over who got to do a task that was upcoming. We stood our watches six hours on and twelve hours off with very little to do otherwise. There was a movie shown a couple of times a day; usually after dinner and at midnight. The evening movie was on a schedule but at midnight, we could show anything that had already been a shown as a scheduled movie. The selection process for this midnight movie was generally a major argument over the merits of one movie versus another, often most vociferously remonstrated for or against by a person who had no intention of watching it, no matter what played, but was just in it for the fun of the argument. Since we carried some seventy movies per patrol, by this time, most of us who had been there since her inception where hard pressed to find a movie we had not seen before… often seen several times. After all, Hollywood can only make so many movies a year and if you discount those not worth watching the problem begins to become apparent.
There were three card games going at almost any given time, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. There was a low-stakes, nickel, dime, quarter, poker game, a pot-limit poker game and a pinochle game. About the only thing that ever interrupted the poker games was a call to battle stations or some other general drill. As one man left to go on watch, another would be coming off watch and take his place. The pinochle game was not exactly that way as we tended to have our favorite partner, usually someone approaching our own skill level or slightly better. I was in the 99th percentile of this game. We generally ran two pinochle tournaments per patrol, the first with a fifty dollar per person entry fee and the second with a one-hundred dollar per person entry fee. Normally sixteen teams constituted a tournament. Winners were paid through the top four places with the winners taking half the pot. I tried on several occasions to organize a five-hundred dollar per person game, winner take all, but could never get the requisite sixteen teams. Considering the fact that the

Submarine Launched ICBMs...

brand new Chevy Impala I had bought just prior to this patrol cost me a total of three-thousand-one-hundred dollars, the sixteen-thousand dollar payoff to the winning team would have been well worth the effort. Perhaps the fact that my partner and I had won the six prior tournaments might have created an aura of reticence.
My partner, Jim Walter from Monroe, LA spoke with a pronounced lisp and only the fact that he was the senior Petty Officer in the Fire Control Technician’s gang kept him from receiving more ridicule than he did. These FT’s are the fellows who maintained all the computers and other electronic equipment that prepared the missile for launch. Walt and I stood our watches together in the Missile Control Center, the submarine’s equivalent of the “blockhouse” at Cape Canaveral. He was, usually, the Fire Control Supervisor and I was the Missile Test Technician. By this time, I was also qualified to stand the F.C.S. watch as well, so if he had to visit the head or wanted to step out for a coffee run, he could do so without calling in another qualified Tech. Leaving one person on duty in the Control Center, while not officially sanctioned was not frowned on either, especially as long as such times were of limited duration and not overdone.
Walt was an older man, practically ancient by submarine

standards. I was nearly twenty-four by this time and he must have been at least thirty or thirty-one years old… practically in the grave, to be sure. Even though I was of an age with most of my peers, I never really fit in with them and Walt and I were a much better match. Besides, we both preferred to listen to Country Music, so didn’t have to endure the ‘Stones or the Supremes while on watch.
The highlights of the day were the meals. We had the best food and the best cooks in the Navy, bar none. At that time, the regular Navy allowed one dollar and thirty cents per man per day for food. In our program, they allowed one dollar and fifty cents per man per day. That doesn’t sound like a lot of difference, but, believe me, the difference was substantial. We had lobster or prawns, or both, at least once a week. We had steak in one form or another at least twice a week. Also included irregularly were dishes like prime rib roast, roast duck, lamb curry and roast leg of lamb and about anything else a man can dream. The lack was in fresh commodities. Fresh vegetables were impossible as was milk. Even eggs became iffy after a few weeks at sea. These pleasures notwithstanding, the food was seldom less than excellent.
The boat provided four meals per day, one after each watch, though the norm was to eat before and after watch. The only time anyone ever got out of his bunk for a meal was if there was something very special being served or it were a special celebration. The main meal was at noon with the six pm meal being a light dinner. Midnight was generally soup or beans and do-it-yourself sandwiches. Often, if there were leftovers from earlier meals they would meet their demise here. In addition to this pantheon of edibles, the mess hall was always open if one felt the need for a sandwich or such… just make sure you clean up after yourself! I think the average person gained about fifteen pounds per patrol. The standard joke was that we wished we could catch the person responsible for shrinking all our regular clothes while we were underway and were wearing the Dacron jumpsuit that was our “at sea” wardrobe.
Life at sea was generally quiet with boredom being our biggest enemy. That is probably why, when Chief Petty Officer Jim Overfield called us together and dropped his news on us that we were so receptive to it. According to the Chief, the officers had hatched a plan whereby each crew was to create and assemble a list of questions pertaining to our area of expertise. The Torpedomen (TM’s) on the launch tubes and hydraulics, the launch system rocket motors and such, the FT’s on their gear, mostly the Missile Control Center and the MT’s… me… on everything else. This included the birds, their systems, the control and ancillary equipment such as power supplies, temperature control systems… even down to where the power switches were for any particular piece of equipment that concerned the Polaris Missile and the interface between the MCC and the Missile Compartment and the individual birds. In fairness, lest one think the weapons department was being singled out, this was happening throughout the boat. All departments were doing the same thing, from Radio to Engineering, from Sonar to Navigation; everyone was so involved, though how a Yeoman (the secretaries of the ship) could come up with a hundred and fifty questions is beyond me… there are, after all, only so many things you can ask about a paper clip. These questions, once assembled and verified, would be used to quiz the crew of one of our sister submarines while in the training phase of our off-crew time. I was rather surprised at the enthusiasm the entire Weapons Department showed in the pursuit of the hundred best questions from each gang. We Missile Technicians covered everything concerning the missile including its internal electronics and computers, its guidance and targeting and flight control systems as well as all the equipment that attaches to it or interfaces with it. Even the power supplies and heating and cooling systems were our responsibility. Questions as detailed as “Where is the switch to turn off power to the Temperature Regulating and Monitoring Power Supply (TRAMPS) on tube 7 located?” That would be WP 2, starboard side, upper level of the missile compartment, second switch down on the left side (in case you had to do it in the dark in an emergency). Amazing, isn’t it, how a detail from forty years past comes so readily to mind while being unable to recall what I’m supposed to do this afternoon.
The torpedomen (TM’s) covered the launch tubes themselves, the hydraulics and air systems and their controls as they pertain to the tubes as well as the function and operation of the Launch Control Center console in the compartment. The Fire Control Technicians (FT’s) covered all of their equipment in the MCC and the missile alignment gear in the missile compartment.
As I mentioned earlier, there were multiple watch stations within the Weapons Department. In addition to the two in the MMC which I described previously, there were three in the Missile Compartment. These were the Launch Operations Supervisor (LOS), usually a TM and his assistant, a junior TM or MT. The LOS was stationed at the Launch Control Panel and could not leave without being relieved by another qualified LOS watch. The Assistant LOS was the legs for the LOS watch and had the responsibility, as well, of monitoring a number of critical gauges, dials and indicators. He was required to

Author at Launcer Operations Panel in "At Sea" garb

make a regular check of a number of such places, noting pressure reading, temperatures or volumes as indicated. The third man on watch in the compartment was an MT who had the responsibility of making any adjustments necessary to anything in the compartment pertaining to the missiles or their ancillary equipment. Included in this were the TRAMPS, the power supplies, the missile heating and cooling system as well as a myriad other such things like the interface with the MCC and anything else the ALOS was not capable or qualified to handle. Totally unofficially, he was also responsible for maintaining the contraband music system that was piped up from the MCC into the compartment via unused wiring between the two compartments. The technician was free to wander at will throughout the compartment, even going forward to the mess hall for a coffee run as long as the LOS knew of his whereabouts at all times. It wasn’t like he was often needed as entire six hour watches came and went with nothing arising that required his attention, but you never knew…
Each of these positions had a different set of requirements, so it was necessary to complete a qualification process in order to stand that particular watch. By this time, I had qualified on every watch station in the Weapons Department, including that in the Torpedo Room. The reason for doing this was mainly boredom, although the learning of and the qualification on the Torpedo Fire Control System was a matter of necessity.
We carried two torpedo Fire Control Technicians and never rotated them at the same time. Standard procedure was carry one senior, experienced tech and a second, junior and lesser experienced tech. After the junior man was competent in the operation and maintenance of the system, the senior tech would be transferred out and a new junior tech brought in. On this particular patrol, we had just made the switch, bringing on board a new, very junior tech right out of school and the day before we were to leave Rota on patrol, the senior FT came down with appendicitis and had to be shipped to the hospital. The only man available to replace him in the short time available was another very green very young technician.
About two weeks into the patrol, the power supply to the Torpedo Data Computer (TDC) failed and Chief Overfield asked if I could help them get it back online. It was a small job to complete, actually, one transistor in the control circuit had failed and as soon as that was replaced, it was back up and running. A day or two after that incident I happened to wander through the Control Room where the Chief was standing the Dive Officer’s Watch. I stopped a moment to chat with him and he asked if I was busy at all… when I replied that I was bored stiff, he suggested I take the ordinance pamphlets on the torpedo system and learn it to take it over this patrol. I must admit, it was a highly interesting experience and quite unique. I doubt there has ever been another instance of a Missile Technician maintaining and operating the Torpedo Weapons System. While it brought no extra pay, and really no recognition more than a raised eyebrow from Captain Snyder when he realized who was doing it, it did bring me more than just a little notoriety and set the stage for what was to come with this cross crew quiz.
On completion of this trip, we did not go back to Spain as we had supposed, but brought the boat all the way back into Charleston, SC. This added an extra week to our time at sea, resulting in the longest submerged run to date, sixty-five days. We arrived off the coast of South Carolina as a major hurricane was beating the area. Since we could not enter port in that kind of storm, we laid up well at sea and waited until the next day to surface and enter port. The winds were gone, but the rain was torrential. I have never, before or since, seen such rain. It was absolutely amazing how much water was falling from the sky. I sent my line handlers topside just as we passed under the Cooper River Bridge, but the rain was so heavy that, as soon as the mooring lines were all laid out and made ready, I brought them all back below decks and we waited in the missile compartment until we were actually needed topside.
By this time, each gang had from two-hundred-fifty to five-hundred three by five cards with one question on the front side, its answer on the reverse on everything in their respective areas. In addition, there was a series on such things as Nuclear Safety, Nuclear Weapons, their handling, security and logistics. There was another set on the administration of the ship, the squadron and the Navy in general. In all, our department had amassed some one-thousand to fifteen-hundred questions and answers. The program called for any particular group to answer about one-hundred to, maybe, one-hundred and twenty-five questions covering, mainly, their area of responsibility only, plus some from the Nuclear Weapons and Ships Policy areas. Never was it planned that any TM would be asked a question from the MT or FT list and vice versa.
It was planned that three or four men would sit together for the quiz, primarily answering in turn, but able to rely on his cohorts if necessary. About a hundred questions were to be asked of the group by the lead Petty Officer of the gang on the other ship, in our case, the USS Tecumseh SSB(N) 628. Another twenty five or so would be asked

This is us at sea, submerged... it is all our enemies saw of us too...

by the Weapons Officer from the general Nuclear Weapons and Administration group. The whole process was supposed to take from forty-five minutes to an hour, depending on how sharp and experienced the particular guys on the hot seat were. Our own lead Petty Officer and Chief were also present, sitting in the back, observing but offering opinion only in the few cases where there might be a disparity in arrangement between the two boats in question. As can be imagined, there were few of these instances between hull numbers 627 and 628 even though we were built in Newport News, VA and the 628 boat was built in New London, CT.
…That is, until the Swamp Fox and I came in. Our first indication of a non status-quo was the fact it was just the two of us. I immediately wondered at this… so much so that I asked the Chief about it. His answer that “it’s just how the numbers came out…”, and that since Charlie and I had been on the boat the longest, we should be able to handle it…
That part at least was correct. When I first boarded the boat some four years prior in July of 1963, she had two by twelves for decks in some places and was barely wet. She had virtually no equipment installed yet and was just an empty hull tied up to a pier. I predated Charlie by only two to three weeks in time on board, but we were both there throughout the entire installation, testing and grooming process of the entire weapons system. To say that we had experience with every single process and system in the Weapons System would be not more than the truth. In addition, we were both endowed with an innate and insatiable curiosity that literally drove us to find out how things worked. The word on the boat was… the difference between the Swamp Fox and I was that I would take anything apart as far as I could so long as I was reasonably sure of being able to reassemble in so that it looked pretty much as it did before the evolution started. Charlie, on the other hand, would simply disassemble it with no such reservations.
One downside of this was my tendency to give too much information when asked a question or, as my best buddy, Smitty said… “Ask him what time it is and he’ll tell you how a watch works!”
A prime example of this curiosity, combined with a healthy dose of boredom, occurred when, while reading the Swops (Special Weapons Ordnance Pamphlet) Manual on our warhead, I noticed that the Neutron Generator in the warhead was shown as a black box with no further information. Now, I knew it was highly classified, and I was sure the details were contained in the Captain’s Swops on the warhead, but that, like all Highly Classified information was strictly “Need To Know”… I decided, after quizzing Mr. Suska as deeply as I could, to set out to learn for myself how it worked. He, for his part, could not tell me if I was right, but he would, he said, “tell you when you’re wrong…” Over the next few weeks, I got every text I could find on Nuclear Physics and interviewed as many of the Nuclear Power Plant officers as I could get to stand still for a few minutes. I then began to formulate scenaria. I knew the connections, what it took for power, etc. and I knew the elements that were heavy neutron emitters when thusly excited. Every day as he came off his watch, Mr. Suska would sit with me while I would expound on my latest scenario and he’d then tell me were I was wrong. Finally, one afternoon he told me nothing, just took my books from me and said, “That’s enough!” I figured I was very close to right.
Our second indication that things were not normal on the day of our quiz was when we arrived at the scheduled place at the appointed time and our Assistant Weapons Officer, Lieutenant Pete Suska was grinning widely as we came up to him. “Listen, guys,” he stated, “we didn’t mention this before, but you two will probably be asked about more than just your primary job. We’ve had discussions about the two of you and I’m afraid we’ve created a situation that has become more than was officially planned.” As it turned out, to have worried about what he described would have been a lot like worrying about spilling a cup of water on ones self just before falling out of the boat.
No amount of questioning on our part would gain us more information. He simply told us to go answer their questions and not be bothered by who was there or what was happening outside our area of responsibility and he’d run interference for us and see us after the session. This said, he opened the door for us and allowed us to enter ahead of him.
What greeted us was not the informal atmosphere we had tried to provide for those from the Tecumseh that we had tested. This looked more the review board for the Spanish Inquisition. I’m sure Joan d’Arc would have felt right at home here. Seated at a table in front of the room were, in addition to those described previously, the senior weapons officer and his assistant, the lead Petty Officer from all three ratings as well as their Operations Officer, a Lieutenant Commander, and both the Executive Officer and their Captain. At once, I knew we were in for a time of it. Over the next four hours and thirty minutes that panel asked us every question they had on all areas of the weapons systems, missile and torpedo. When the departmental questions were complete, we broke for lunch and reconvened immediately thereafter.
The first people I met on reentering the building were Captain Snyder and our Exec, Mr. Logan. Neither spoke to us other than to acknowledge us with a wave and a smile as we proceeded on to the crucible.
The afternoon session only lasted about two hours but it was their Captain, Exec and Ops Officer asking the questions. These were questions on Nuclear Safety, on casualty procedures, on the chain of command and military protocol, on targeting and target security… on the nuclear warheads, including theory and deployment. I can truthfully say that I have never been so thoroughly interrogated in my life on any subject.
Finally, their skipper closed his book and leaned back. This was a signal to others, I suppose, as, hearing a noise behind me, I turned to witness at least fifteen officers rising to leave the room. When they had entered, how long they had been there, or even who they were, I had no idea. The only ones I recognized were those from our own crew, the Captain, Exec and Weapons Officers.
A few closing questions brought the ordeal to its culmination and the Tecumseh’s Captain shook our hands… a rare thing among Naval Officers and enlisted personnel… thanked us for a “rare treat” and he departed. We were dismissed with the thanks of the room and rose to leave. I had no idea I was as exhausted as I actually was, but it was a real effort to walk from that room.
We had just gained the hallway when Lt. Suska motioned to us from a room across the hall, beckoning us therein. What greeted us was pretty unbelievable. A good portion of our wardroom was there, including those who’d been in the quiz room and several others. They actually applauded us as we came into the room! Lt. Suska was grinning from ear to ear as he said very matter-of-factly, “They would trade their entire department for either one of you!”
Captain Snyder added, “Men, you have done your crew and your ship proudly today. I have never witnessed such a display of knowledge on such a wide range of subject matter presented so calmly and smoothly under very trying conditions. Congratulations and well done.” To this he added that we had two weeks basket leave, i.e. uncounted leave days, on our account for whenever we wanted them.
That was the end of the story. Nothing more was ever said about it and life went on. The following patrol was my last on board James Madison. I left her in April of 1968 having been transferred to the Polaris Missile Facility, Pacific, located at N.A.D. (Naval Ammunition Depot) Bangor, just outside of Bremerton, WA. After two years there, my enlistment expired and I left the service after nine years of active duty, remaining in Washington, more or less, to this day.