Walking Through the Forest of Death

Someone recently posted a question on a submarine-related Facebook group asking that if you could name one memory or feeling from your submarine days, what would it be?

I could mention two, although the following would be my answer if restricted to one.

When I was on the submarine, going ‘to work’ for me meant walking from crew’s berthing or the crew’s mess (depending on whether I had a meal before work) back aft to the engineering spaces, either maneuvering (located in the engine room) or Auxiliary Machinery Room Two Upper Level (AMR2UL, where most of the reactor control equipment lived). It’s not a long walk – the entire boat was only a tad over 400 feet long.

Along the way, I negotiated familiar obstacles and passageways. Particularly when I was new on the boat, getting through the several bulkhead doors was always a risky endeavor if I weren’t careful – catching one of the hard steel protrusions (I forget the technical term for them) on your shoulder could render you semi-paralyzed with pain for a few minutes or longer. Experience and practice reduced the hazard considerably. AMR1 was fairly packed with all manner of mechanical and electrical stuff but it wasn’t a big space so I got through it quickly. Between AMR1 and AMR2 was the reactor compartment, a space you couldn’t enter routinely because, well, you’d die. So there was a passageway called the tunnel used to get to AMR2. Sometimes I would stop and check the steam generator sightglass levels by peering through the heavily-leaded glass portholes located on each side of the tunnel. Or not.

But one compartment I walked through was unlike any other in a key regard: it contained sixteen ballistic missiles, the submarine’s raison d’etre. We were out in this big ocean, hiding from the Soviets, because we carried these missiles and were quite prepared to launch them. While I was on the Sam Houston, I believe the missiles were Poseidon C3’s, a multiple-warhead, long range weapon each with a total warhead payload somewhere short of 500 kilotons. To use the usual comparison, the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons and the Nagasaki bomb was 21. I’ve seen it written many times that a US ballistic missile submarine – and there were 41 of them during my time – carried more firepower than all that was expended in WWII. That doesn’t include our torpedoes but they were trivial compared to the missiles.

To accommodate these sixteen weapons, the missile compartment was huge, the largest in the submarine. It had three levels with the missile tubes, each containing one missile, extending from top to bottom of the boat. The tubes were about twelve feet in diameter and were arranged in two rows of eight, forward to aft. We called the arrangement ‘the forest’ because it invoked the idea of well-arranged, large trees. Their bulk took up most of the compartment, so to traverse the space on my way aft, I had to sort of shimmy past the missile tubes as I walked along the outer passageway.

So that’s my answer to the forum question: walking past a forest of death on my way to work. Thinking back, I cannot imagine how I processed it all. Not only was I living on a vessel with this awesome firepower – firepower I had to literally walk past every day – but I, along with the rest of the crew, were prepared to use it. It was what we were selected and trained for. Never mind that if the unthinkable had occurred and we received a launch order, two things were virtually certain. One, our country was under nuclear attack and probably many people have and will shortly die. And two, we ourselves would probably not survive. You see, launching sixteen missiles takes a while – the submarine could’t just shoot them off rapid-fire. I don’t know how long it would have taken but a guess of at least 30 minutes seems right. During that time, particularly after the first very noisy outer missile doors have been opened, a nearby Soviet submarine would probably have detected us and launched nuclear-tipped anti-submarine missiles against us. Or at least that’s what I understood and what most of my fellow nukes thought. Just as the folks in the forward part of the boat weren’t privy to the details of how the reactor operated, we nukes really didn’t know a whole lot about their stuff, including missile operations and exactly how close a Soviet sub might be.

So, what’s your daily commute to work like?

 

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