My Story – Halloween at Sea

Ship's Patch

“Halloween at Sea”


Thom Cantrall

“But Sir,” objected the Petty Officer to our Officer of the Deck, the one person in charge of the ship in the Captain’s absence, “it’s Halloween and the whole crew in wanting all-night movies to celebrate, since we cannot go trick-or-treating.”

For his part, Lieutenant Ranes was not averse to this, but the Executive Officer’s standing order was for one movie at 1900 (7 pm) and one at 0100 (1 am) and the latter for qualified men only.  After listening closely, albeit with a slight smile, to the man in front of him, he responded, “I can see that you’re serious about this and it does bear further investigation.  I’ll call the Exec and see if he’s agreeable.”

As the crewman left the Control Room, the operating nerve center of the submarine, Lt. George Ranes, Weapons Officer of USS James Madison SSB(N) 627 Gold, turned to the Diving Officer and burst into laughter.  For his part, the Dive Officer, in this case, Chief Bill Chance, was doing a fair job of remaining calm and keeping a straight face but, my gosh, just how often did one see a six foot tall white rabbit in the Control Room of a Nuclear Powered Submarine?  OK, sure, it wasn’t REALLY a six foot rabbit, just someone in a costume made of the white terrycloth that was ubiquitous as a cleaning aid and carried by the bolt on board, but still… Geez, it was really funny the way his long ears bent over as he passed under low hanging gear, pipes, valves and wiring only to pop back to the vertical as he cleared the obstacle.

True to his word, Mr. Ranes called LCdr. Logan to inquire about the rabbit’s request.  That he did so in a fairly straightforward manner spoke well of his ability to maintain a calm exterior under adverse conditions.  Mr. Logan’s response, however, was not quite what he expected it to be.  In fact, he was somewhat surprised that the usually taciturn Exec immediately granted permission for an extra movie to be shown, but only for “qualified” personnel.

Perhaps an explanation of what constituted a qualified man as opposed to a non-qualified man would be in order here.  On a submarine, there are a multitude of systems.  There are 110V, 220V and 440V AC electrical systems as well as 28V DC systems.  There are three major hydraulics systems, Main, Lead and Vital, which operate independently in most cases, but may be cross-connected in some cases.  There is another, totally separate, Silicon hydraulic system for the missile tubes.  There is a drinking water system and myriad salt water piping systems.  Add to these the heating and ventilation systems, the sanitary systems, the air and oxygen systems and one begins to get the idea of the complexity.  In addition, every man on board is expected to be able to not only operate these systems, but also the propulsion system, the CO2 scrubbers and CO burners and about 124,000 other such things.  The survival of the ship could well depend on me, a Missile Technician, being able to enter the Engine Room in breathing apparatus, extinguish a fire, rig the diesel engine to run and line up the ventilation system so that the diesel engine could suck its air from the affected compartment, or any other compartment on board, so as to eliminate the smoke or other noxious elements.

USS James Madison SSB(N) 627

To this end, when a man reports on board, he begins his qualification.  He must learn every system described plus many, many more not mentioned here.  In addition to the general, ship-wide system knowledge, he is expected to be an expert in his own department, able to power up or power down any piece of equipment in his control under any condition, be it light or dark, normal conditions or under greatest duress.  Normally, as a Missile Technician, I would not be expected stand a watch in the Engine Room, operating the nuclear reactor, but I would be expected to know the basics of the reactor and what to watch for in case of emergency.

The entire qualification process on the ship took from two to five patrols to complete.  Personally, I began my qualification while we were still in the shipyards at Newport New, VA and completed it on our first patrol.  In addition to the prestige gained from wearing the Dolphin Insignia to which submarine qualification entitled us, it was monetarily advantageous as well because, once qualified, we received hazardous duty pay in addition to our base pay for the rest of our enlistment.

Of course, qualification had to be monitored and the way we accomplished that was to assign each system a point value from one to five, depending on the difficulty of that particular system.  Main and Vital Hydraulics, for example carried the maximum value of five points while the potable water system was worth three points.  Tanks and Compartments was valued at four points and the ship’s telephone system was only worth a point as it could be learned in a few minutes.  A minimum of eight points per week were required to stay current while in the yards, but that increased to 12 points per week when we went to sea.  Believe me, 12 points per week at sea were so much easier to get than were eight in the 12 hour per day, 7 day a week in the high demand, heavy workload atmosphere of the shipyard.  There were over 900 points total.  A man who was behind in his qualification was not allowed to attend any movies (officially) and was seldom allowed any extra or special privileges, including playing cards in his off time (unofficially).  As an unqualified man was a potential liability, the crew “encouraged” the qualification process vigorously.

A person spent whatever time necessary to learn a system.  He then made an appointment with one of a few Petty Officers who had special responsibility for maintaining that system.  This man would then examine him on the system and, if he felt the candidate knew it sufficiently, he would initial his card for him.  The candidate then went to one of the officers in his department and repeated the process, though, usually, the officer would examine him more deeply than had the petty officer.  Invariably, the officer would continue delving into his knowledge of the system until he came up with something he could not answer immediately.  If the officer determined the man was deficient in some area, he would send him back for more information.  With some officers, it seemed a matter of pride that no one got through on the first try.  With most, however, it was not that difficult if one knew his system.

When the procedure had been completed for all the systems on board, the applicant took a written exam covering the entire ship.  When he passed that exam, he was again examined… this time by a senior officer, usually in company with one or two other candidates.  In my case, it was the Engineering Officer who conducted my final walk-through.  I was in company with my contemporary, Charlie Marshall, also a Missile Technician, 2nd Class.  He even had me explaining how the vacuum drag system was used to replenish the water inside the nuclear system. (I just wanted to see how deeply you’d dug into it,” he said with a bit of a sly grin…) when this senior officer signed my card, I was done with the entire process, save one tradition that had to wait our arrival back in port… that of “drinking one’s Dolphins.”  This was done on the first night’s Liberty after our return from sea and consisted of several of your shipmates accompanying you to the nearest gin mill and proceeding to building the most gawd-awful concoction of a libation imaginable.  Rum, whiskey, beer, scotch, gin, vodka… anything and everything went into that drink… unless there was something you particularly liked… (“You like Jack Daniels?  Oh, ok, don’t put any of that in there!”)…this was mixed in the largest vessel available, in my case, no sufficiently large glasses being available, in a metal milkshake shaker!  It had to have been at least 20-24 ounces of pure booze.  Into this ticking time bomb were dropped your freshly won fish.  The inductee was then expected to tip it up and, in one continuous motion, without pausing for air, chug-a-lug the whole thing, catching the Dolphins in his teeth.  Failure to do so could be embarrassing if one happened to swallow them, or even worse, if you dropped them and they made you do it all again!  Needless to say, it was the beginning of a memorable, if not well remembered night.  This one tradition was single-handedly responsible for restricting returning crews to the base at Rota, Spain and keeping this drunken orgy out of and away from the local town-folk.

To say the news from Lt. Ranes was not well received might be considered a bit of understatement considering the reaction that ensued…

“OK, guys,” Ghost said, “here’s how it’s going down.  At 1815 the Captain goes to dinner.  When this occurs every officer not on watch will be in the attendance in the wardroom for the next 20 to 30 minutes, minimum.  The only officer we have to be careful of is the OOD.  If he happens to be in the right place, he can see from the conning stand directly down the passageway to the Captain’s cabin.  How can we get around this?”

Two or three suggestions were offered and discussed, but when Sonarman 1st Class, Bill Bates suggested the Quartermaster of the watch open the depth finder cabinet on some pretext or other, those assembled knew the solution had been found.  By doing so, visual access would be blocked forward down the passage and the Strike Force could make their hit in relative obscurity.  It was offered that the wardroom steward could inform the Strikers when the Captain arrived, verifying the start of the mission.

At 1800 on 30 Oct 1966, somewhere beneath the frigid surface of the extreme, far North Atlantic, three picked men assembled in the Missile Control Center, chosen staging area for Operation “Screen Door”, screen doors having a special connotation to submariners.  Screen Door was an assault designed to procure a hostage of sufficient stature and value as to effect the crew’s thwarted desire for all-night movies the following night, beginning at the standard time of 1900 and running until time to clean up for breakfast at 0600 the following morning with a time-out for midnight rations.  The three chosen for this dangerous mission were Ghost (actually, Gary Host… or as his name tags read, G. Host, which was naturally shortened to Ghost…) Fire Control Technician 2nd Class, Charlie, “Swamp Fox” Marshall, Missile Technician 2nd Class and the Force Leader, all 5’6” and 195 lbs of Bob “Squatty Body” Allen.  Of course, camouflage was called for should a stray officer spot them en route.  Thusly, Ghost wore his aforementioned Rabbit suit.  Swamp Fox was unrecognizable in his terry-cloth KKK robe, though without the mechanism Ghost used to make his ears rigid, Fox’s Hood and Cowl more closely resembled an 18th Century night cap than it did a 19th Century KKK robe.  The Strike leader made a rather limp, if square Roman in his toweling Toga with the Lone Ranger mask, also of terry-cloth.  For obvious reasons, the task force was quickly dubbed ”The White Knights,” although, especially in Squatty’s case, “Mr. Clean” also came readily to mind.

At precisely 1816 the call arrived and Operation Screen Door was launched.  The choice of the MCC as the staging and jumping off point immediately proved efficacious.  Being located in the aftermost portion of the lower level of the Operations Compartment, it was two decks directly below the Control room and from the object of the assault, the Captain’s cabin.  It was an easy maneuver from the forward area of the upper level of the Ops Compartment, down the regular stairway (ladder in the Navy), then aft on the middle level past the galley and the crew’s mess to the vertical ladder just outside the fan room where the hostage could be handed down to the people waiting just outside door to the MCC.  Once inside the MCC, the victim was as good as hidden since, generally, no one entered there without permission of the two men on watch, my venerable friend, Jim “Walt” Walter and me on this fateful Halloween Eve.

With clock-like precision notable of these clandestine “black ops” the QM suddenly remembered he had a maintenance procedure to perform on the secure depth finder and opened its cabinet, temporarily denying access forward from the Control Room into the passageway leading to the Captain’s cabin.  Precisely, as the cabinet opened, three, if not shadowy, at least camouflaged, figures emerged at the top of the stairs and made their way forward into that Holy of Holies on a US Navy ship, “Officer’s Country.”  Through the empty cabins of 11 junior officers and past the Exec’s cabin and forward to the ultimate goal… the Captain’s cabin.  Who it was, I don’t know, but about this time it occurred to one of the three commandoes to ask… “What if it’s locked?”

As luck would have it, the door was not locked and it was the work of but an instant to loosen a few screws, pop a couple of pins and be gone with the hostage… Quickly but quietly down the ladder and then aft, being as nonchalant as possible so as not to arouse any suspicion among any crew members the Force should encounter.  Then it was down the ladder to the lower level and then into the MCC where the duty personnel secreted the hostage into a large storage area on the starboard side (right to any landlubbers out there!) outboard.  When the door the storage area was closed, the hostage ceased to exist to the powers that be until such time as they acquiesced to the demands of the White Knights Power Force.

It was at 1847 exactly when the ship-wide communications system, the 1MC, grumbled to life and we heard: “Attention, all hands, this is the Captain speaking.  Would the person or persons responsible for the kidnapping of my cabin door, please call the Control Room at once.  For that matter, anyone having any such information, please call”

I do believe that if we had been “rigged for silent running” it would not have been a single iota quieter inside that boat than it now was.  One could have heard the proverbial pin drop from a compartment away.  In the midst of the din of quietude, the sound of the telephone ringing in the control room sounded so wholly out of place… “Like a fart in church…” was one eye witness’s apt, if less than profound description.

A well disguised voice growled to the Officer of the Deck, the Conning Officer, “Grant the demands made previously or you will never see that door alive again…”  the definitive “CLICK” heard on the line served to punctuate gravity and air of the threat contained therein.

Negotiations began slowly, utilizing the ship’s comm systems, until nearly midnight with no visible movement on the part of the Executive Officer.  To be sure, not wanting to impugn the honor or dignity of our Captain, the Auxiliary Gang (mechanics) did locate a replacement door for the Captain’s cabin.  The fact that it was borrowed from a commode stall in the crew’s head and that the difference in size and structure only allowed it to be affixed to the frame by one hinge to the frame in no way mitigated the respect and reverence we felt for our skipper.  For Captain Kearney’s part, if the inconvenience, not to mention the rather audible “thunk” I heard when I opened his door to deliver a report on missile status that evening as the ill-fitting door fell off the unattached hinge when opened bothered him, he never showed it.  Even the considerable light that flooded into his cabin from the passageway through the foot or so wide gaps at the top and bottom of the out-house door seemed not to perturb the implacable Captain and all such incongruities essentially escaped comment.

At 1000 on the 31st of October, Halloween Day, a formal negotiating session was held in the crew’s mess.  On one side of the table were Mr. Logan, the Exec, Mr. Suska, Assistant Weapons Officer and Senior Chief Torpedoman Bisset, the senior enlisted man on board and the liaison between the wardroom and the crew.  Chief Bisset was a World War II veteran, having had two submarines that I knew of shot out from under him in that dispute.  To say that he was not in awe of any man walking was not an overstatement.  On the other side were the Rabbit, the Roman and the Klansman.  When nearly 90 minutes of intense negotiations brought the two sides only marginally nearer agreement, the talks were terminated.

It was approximately 1130 when an announcement came across the 1MC requesting the commando negotiating team to meet once more in the mess hall immediately after the noon meal.  The clock showed 1300 when the “White Knights” sat down to speak with, this time, Mr. Logan alone, although seated at the table behind Mr. Logan was Captain Kearney.  Although present, he was simply quietly observing the session and making no comments.  That his presence brought an air of dignity and an essence of necessity to complete the business at hand went without saying.

When, at last, the two sides were but one movie and the issue of non-quals being admitted apart, the White Knights presented what was to be their final demand:  three extra movies, five in all and non-quals being admitted to only the 1900 movie and the 0100 movie if they were current… to which the Exec thought a moment and said, “NO!  In all good conscious I cannot allow that extra latitude to the non-qualified men…”

An aura of doom seemed to descend on those gathered.  A visible pallor transfixed those around as they contemplated the now nearly sealed fate of the hostage… a fate not lost on Captain Kearney as he leaned forward and tapped his Executive Officer, his second in command on the shoulder and said quietly but oh so firmly… “Mr. Logan, perhaps you would like to sleep with the shit-house door tonight?”

“Granted as proposed!” exclaimed Mr. Logan… “Meeting adjourned!”

Within the hour, Ghost and I, as ourselves this time, carried the Captain’s Door into the Control Room and I asked loudly, “Has anyone lost a door around here?  It has a tag on it … says C-A-P-T-A…”

Mr. Suska, the OOD, fairly flew across the Control room to greet us… “You too?  I might have known you’d be in on this…”

All protestations to the contrary seemed to be for aught as even Captain Lewis appeared to associate Ghost and I with the events when he uttered… “Yes, I think I can figure it out now…”  But the movies were good…!