It’s A Long Way Down

My last post (Forest of Death) reminded me of another memory on the submarine. But before I get to that, I’m reminded of another related concept which I only fully realized when the Russian submarine Kursk was disabled and stranded on the sea bottom, eventually with the loss of all hands. As probably with most submariners, that event struck a chord in my psyche. There but for the grace of god go I, as they say.

When it went down, the Kursk was in fairly shallow water, about 350 feet. The boat’s maximum operational depth limit is much deeper. But even that shallow, there was too much water above the boat to allow the men to escape on their own.

350 feet of water is pretty deep from the perspective of normal human experience. Scuba divers usually don’t venture past 100 feet or so and rarely will dive below 150 feet. To go further requires training and other things, such as decompression stops on the way up. To dive as far down as the Kursk sank is totally out of the question. So, 350 feet is deep.

At some point, I imagined the physical situation with the Kursk, a 500 foot sub lying 350 feet down and it became incongruous. If the boat were stood up on end, a good portion would be sticking out of the water. The men inside could walk further end to end than they were below the surface of the sea. From that perspective, to lose a submarine in merely 350 feet of water seemed ridiculous. But it happened.

My experience in submarines was in the Pacific Ocean, whose waters are considerably deeper than 350 feet over the vast majority of its extent. Much deeper, in fact, than the depth limits of a nuclear submarine, be it the USS Sam Houston, the Kursk or any modern sub. More than that, though, given we operated out of a navy base in Guam and headed more or less into the open ocean, I’m pretty sure the boat transited waters above the deepest ocean depths: the Marianas Trench. Challenger Deep, the low point in the trench and thus the world, is more than 35,000 feet below the surface. That’s one hundred times the depth where the Kursk sank.

I was a scuba diver before joining the navy and I recall being a bit freaked out when I dove into water more than a hundred feet deep. At that depth, you can’t see the bottom so you have the sensation of being at a scary height above ground. It obviously wasn’t too scary because I loved diving deep – so many interesting things to see down there.

On a submarine, you have no such sensation of scary depths. Unless you know to look for telltale clues (loss of wave action on the boat, pressure gauges on seawater intakes, temperature gauges on the same water, the hull creaking from being compressed by the weight of water and of course, the depth gauges located in the control room and maneuvering), you really have no sensation of depth at all. You’re in an enclosed, rigid steel tube.

But you know. If you cast your imagination and visualize yourself just outside the submarine and look down, you will be staring into utter blackness whose depths you cannot discern but which you know is over six miles down. You find yourself suspended six miles above ground, a ground you cannot see.

Now, that’s scary. It sort of unnerved me, at least until I got over it. You learn to get over a lot of stuff on a submarine.

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?


Not a Mormon, Thanks Anyway

About an hour’s drive north of Idaho Falls, off a nondescript two-lane road, you’ll find a US Navy installation. This surprises some – why a navy base out here hundreds of miles from water? Actually part of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (now run by the Department of Energy), the site also hosts the Naval Prototype Training Unit and is where some of the sailors slated to be the next generation of naval nuclear power operators come to train. There’s a similar facility somewhere out east – Groton, Connecticut, I think. The Idaho NPTU was the first, though.

INEL has a bit of history, at least from a nuclear reactor standpoint, if not from the exploits of the sailors who passed through. It was the site of an experiment to test the safety systems designed to control a full core meltdown. One of the test reactors was actually subjected to an intentional meltdown to see what would happen. We learned a lot from that, I suppose. A less happy incident took place not too long before I got there. Some workers mucking about with the SL1 reactor apparently tried to get one of the control rods unstuck by manually pulling it out from the top. They were successful, but a little too much so – the rapid extraction of the rod caused a local prompt criticality, the water in the rod channel flashed to steam and forcefully ejected the control rod out of the core, impaling one of the workers. He died, of course, as did a few others from radiation exposure. Or so they say.


I was stationed there in the winter of 1975 and ’76, having completed the classroom part of my nuclear training at the Mare Island Naval Base in Vallejo, California during the previous six months. Like the others sent to this frozen outpost, I would learn on a real reactor what they had taught me on paper at Mare Island. NPTU had three prototype reactors – actual, functioning power plants that were designed to simulate naval engineering spaces. Mine was called S1W: it was the first (1) submarine (S) prototype built by Westinghouse (W).

S1W was designed to resemble a fleet submarine power plant – it was housed in a ‘hull’ and was the same size and power as a real sub’s reactor. Kinda cool, actually. They also had one patterned after an aircraft carrier plant, the USS Enterprise’s, I believe. By the luck of the draw, I was slotted for S1W.

We lived in town, not on the base. I chose Idaho Falls for some reason long lost in my memory but could well have decided on Pocatello, Blackfoot or another nearby town if I wanted. Most of us lived in Idaho Falls – it was the biggest and the closest to the base. That was important because to get there, you had to ride the bus and the further away you lived, the longer the ride. Time was precious to us, we were later to learn.

Idaho Falls has enough Mormons in it that you’d think you were in Utah, which is not too far away. Weird place to live. We called it Idiot Flats. It was picturesque, though. Nice river running through town and the nearby mountains were great. But the best part was nearby Yellowstone National Park. I must have gone there half a dozen times in the six months I was in Idaho.

I stayed in a two bedroom apartment with Charlie, a friend from Mare Island. I forget his last name, it might have been Roberts. Nice guy, easy to get along with. Between him and Steve Roquemore, we were hanging-out buddies, although we had many other friends too. A close-knit group of guys, I guess, which was understandable because we had all just gone through a pretty grueling classroom phase at Mare Island. Steve was a qualified pilot and he and I went up once in a Cessna and flew around the Grand Tetons. I got to fly the plane some.

Idaho was a bit of a coming out for me. I was only 20 years old, although I had been in the navy two years now (we nukes got a LOT of training). When I arrived in Idaho, I was still a bit excited about being in the navy and being a nuke. I had the great adventure to look forward to. But by the time I left, I was disillusioned and regretted my enlistment. It wasn’t any single event that changed my attitude, and to be honest, I’m now not exactly sure why it changed. But change it did. There was that ‘incident’ at S1W, to be sure, but I’ll get to that.

Despite being a rather backwater town, Idiot Flats offered plenty of opportunity for us sailors to get into trouble. Lots of drinking, shooting pool, chasing women. Wait, did I just say chasing women? Me? Yep, it happened although not very successfully. One girl – a Mormon – wanted to marry me, but I knew it was just to get out of Idaho. Still, she was nice and I had fun with her for a while. Come to think of it, after I turned her down, so did Charlie and Steve. Poor girl was really desperate to get away.

It snows in Idaho. It snows a lot. During a period of a few weeks, I couldn’t even get into my car. Hell, I could hardly find it – it was just a vague mound in the parking lot and I wasn’t sure which mound. But some of the others had trucks and such that did better in the snow, so I didn’t really need the car. And, as I said, the bus took us to ‘work’. That bus trip was brutal some days, waiting at a busstop before sunrise when the temperature is minus 2000 Fahrenheit and the wind’s howling. Brrrr. Bad place for a lizard.

I had a 1972 Chevy Vega GT, which I bought in San Francisco after I got the idea in my head that my previous car, a 1967 four-door Chevelle, wasn’t reliable enough to make it in Idaho. Strange notion, because the Vega was notoriously unreliable, in general. Fortunately, mine wasn’t. It was a stick shift, though, and the Chevelle was an automatic. I learned to drive the stick on my own and on the streets of San Francisco.

The Chevelle was great. I bought it off a small lot during my previous time in SF when I was stationed at Treasure Island, located in the middle of SF bay. The car dealer probably saw me coming – another wet behind the ears sailor. Because it had bench seats, a bunch of us could pile into it to see games at Candlestick Park or the Oakland Coliseum. But the Vega did OK in Idaho, at least when it wasn’t under ten feet of snow. I took it to Hawaii where I eventually traded it in on a 1971 Datsun 240Z, which I often wax nostalgic over.

But the Idaho winter was really bad, especially for driving. I remember one time Charlie and me helping a guy (a fellow sailor but not one of my buddies) get his car unstuck in a virtual blizzard. He was grateful so we went to his place for a celebratory drink. Anti-freeze, he called it. We each were poured a glass of whiskey that must have been four inches tall. As I am today, I was a lightweight with alcohol and normally avoided hard liquor. But drink it I did, with the predictable result.

At the NPTU, we spent some time in classrooms, but the emphasis was on ‘qualifying’ on the reactor. I was a reactor operator, meaning that I was designated to operate the reactor control panel. But because we cross-trained on everything, I had to become proficient at the electrical and mechanical stuff, too. It was a bit of a competition. See, the promise was whoever qualified first would get their choice of duty station in the fleet when it was over. Quite an incentive, because the USS Eisenhower – an aircraft carrier – was due to be commissioned soon and our class would make up a lot of the crew. Nobody wanted to be on a carrier; there had been a lot of trouble on them since the end of the war. Violence, race riots, bad stuff – they were like floating depressed cities. I qualified first in my class and chose a ballistic missile submarine out of Guam. Had to pass the psyche evaluation for that first, though.

So we learned how to be good nukes – how to operate the plant during all sorts of conditions and disasters. We’d be assigned watches at the various stations along with an instructor and they’d throw all kinds of crap at us – things breaking, reactor freaking out, pipe ruptures, whatever. It wasn’t too bad, but some of the guys got a little behind in their quals. If you got too far, you found yourself restricted to base and on extended hours.

As I said, I qualified first, so along with my guaranteed choice of duty station, I was also the first guy in my class who could stand watch by himself without an instructor. One of the stations they put me on was one that trainees didn’t do because it wasn’t something that you’d find on a real submarine – the Water Brake, aka The Ocean.

A navy reactor plant performs two basic functions: it provides electric power for everything on board, and it turns the propeller. Because a submarine changes depth and goes into water that varies in temperature considerably, the density of the water is quite variable and that affects the propeller’s ability to drive the boat. One really big, negative effect is cavitation. The spinning propeller creates a zone of low pressure on the trailing edge of the blades. With enough blade velocity, that pressure can drop low enough such that the water forms vapor bubbles – it boils. After the blade passes, the pressure recovers and the bubbles collapse. This process is called cavitation and it is actually quite noisy and can be picked up on a sonar easily from a distance. Pumps experience this phenomenon as well and is one of the key design criteria for sizing fluid systems. Extended periods of cavitation can ruin a pump impeller.

The throttleman (the guy who controls the steam to the main engine turbines and thus the propeller shaft speed) on a boat is trained to avoid cavitation. Don’t want to give away the position of the submarine to the Commies, after all. Part of the training is knowing and sensing the water density. He will keep and eye on the water temperature and the boat’s depth (there’s an outside water temperature and a depth gauge right next to him on a submarine) and open the throttles more slowly if the water’s less dense. He can tell by a sudden increase in shaft speed if the prop cavitates. Also, the sonar operator will pick it up and relay it to the captain who will quickly call aft and scream at the engineering watch officer. Cavitation is bad news.

But in Idaho, there is no ocean, so what’s the big deal? The deal is that we needed to be trained to deal with an actual ocean so they designed and installed a contraption on the end of the propeller shaft that had the ability to simulate water density changes. Basically, it provided a variable drag on the shaft in place of where the propeller would be and would cavitate like a real propeller, too. The Water Brake operator kept track of the “depth” changes the watch officer ordered and adjusted the water density to suit. It was a cool watch station – not much to do (which was really good back then) and no pressure, so to speak. But mostly, I stood watches inside the plant, like on the RPCP (reactor plant control panel).

First watch on the RPCP, I’m handed a list of the day’s drills (planned ‘emergencies’). Before I was qualified, my instructor would get the list and I’d be in the dark. Now, I was basically just filling up a watch billet while the other guys not yet qualified still had to do their stuff. As RPCP operator, I still had to do what was required to respond to the drills. And I was expected to know what that was now.

One of the drills was a large coolant leak from one of the loops and we’d be isolating it and going to single loop operation. No problem, I could do that and I had time to look up the procedure to refresh myself anyway. It called for systematically isolating the various subsystems off the main coolant loop in hopes of isolating the leak. I knew of course that that wasn’t going to get it, because the ‘leak’ was in one of the big loop pipes and I’d end up shutting the main coolant cutout valves for that loop.

But what I didn’t know, and they didn’t tell me, was that there was a subtle difference between the actual coolant leak procedure and the one to be used for drills. The difference was the presence of what was called the Hot-Loop Test Facility. The HTF was something connected to one of the loops that sampled the coolant which was analyzed in ways we never were told or cared about. It was an AEC research facility. Because it wasn’t part of a real sub reactor plant, it was to be regarded as not existing. But, if there was an actual coolant leak, it had to be considered as a source of the leak, too. What I didn’t know was that isolating it ruined whatever experiments were running with it and the AEC scientists would get majorly pissed.

As I said, they didn’t tell me. So when the drill started, I followed procedure and began isolating systems. During an emergency, you don’t ask permission to do stuff – you just do what you’re trained to do. I got to the HTF, announced that I was isolating it and shut the valves. About then I noticed that every non-trainee except myself was looking horrified and the watch officer immediately canceled the drill and ordered me to open the HTF valves. It was too late, of course. There would be pissed off scientists showing up real soon.

I got to talk with the ‘black box’ right after that with a couple of mysterious naval investigators present. They wanted to crucify me. Nobody present stood up for the fact that I was just following procedure and wasn’t told not to shut the HTF valves. The watch officer, a total dickhead, was particularly slimy in shifting the blame to me.

Eventually, they realized they couldn’t pin the blame on me despite their best efforts, But that scarred my naval career, in my mind. What happened to standing up for your team members? What happened to accountability? I may not have realized it right then, but after that, I never entertained another thought of re-enlisting in the navy.

I left Idaho not long after, never to see most my classmates, like Charlie and Steve, again. I was off to new adventures in Guam, Pearl Harbor and the vast Pacific Ocean.

Making Turns for Six Knots

I wrote this a long while ago:

Making turns for six knots … running two slow, two slow … endlessly, it seems. Punching a hole in the Pacific, daring the commies to start something. Tave slowly creeps lower and lower … like watching grass grow. Wonder if I’ll have to bump rods before Lippy gets here, but I don’t really care. Behind me, the EOOW is babbling about something. No one is listening. Wonder what the movie is tonight? Lot of time to wonder stuff.


WTF? Flank?

Four pairs of eyes stare at the bell in unison for a nanosecond, maybe three. Yep, flank. Guess we’re off patrol.

Controlled pandemonium follows.

Mike whips the mains open like his life depends on it. A little more calmly, Ed grabs the TG’s and starts running them up towards sixty-one. With my left, I give the pot a head start. With my right, I turn 2C to fast and pull. EOOW is on the 2MC.

‘Ahead flank, maneuvering, aye’

‘Going to two fast, two fast’, I mention, like it wasn’t obvious. Makes the EOOW feel useful. He isn’t.

Tave no longer creeping down. More like plummeting. That’s OK. Makes the neutrons happy.

Rapid succession … gotta keep up with power. 1A to fast, 2A to fast, 1C to fast. We’re good. 1B off.

Ninety percent. Ninety five.

‘Ease off, Mike.’ He does.

One hundred. One hundred and two. Crap. What was the cutback during the last weekly? One-oh-three and an RCH, I think. I shove the poles in a bit and power levels out. Tave’s green again. Gotta watch for overshoot, but no worries. Ed tweaks the TG’s to sixty. Boat is shaking something fierce. Hope the boots hold.

‘Answering ahead flank, reactor power one hundred percent’. He likes talking on the 2MC.

EWS leans in on the chain.

‘What the fuck’s the hurry? Making a lotta noise.’

Lifer. I reach for my logs, but the growler … growls. It’s Kent. ASW is running in fast speed. Okie dokie.

Hope this doesn’t fuck up the movie.

Keeping T ave in the Green Band


Cruising around the Pacific – under the Pacific, more specifically – in a nuclear-powered ballistic missile-carrying death machine sounds terribly exciting. It mostly isn’t.

On the USS Sam Houston (SSBN-609, Gold crew), our primary mission was to remain undetected and that didn’t allow for a lot of noisy charging around the ocean playing war games and such. We pretty much just set the cruise control to a few knots (clarification: there was no cruise control) and waited until called upon to annihilate a few cities and subsequently get nuked ourselves (launching missiles and remaining undetected are similarly incompatible activities). Sure, we’d regularly do drills to keep our game up – a lot of drills if we expected an ORSE when we got back in from patrol – but there was often a lot of routine time when on watch. And there were ship’s evolutions that interrupted routine: battle stations missile drill, casualty drills, field day, to name a few.

Mind you, I’m talking about watch-standing, where you have a specific station with specific duties to perform. When on watch, you didn’t do anything else other than watch-standing stuff. Non-watchstanders did everything else that needed to be done, which for us in the engineering department meant routine maintenance and repairs on our equipment. Off watch also was the time when you worked on your qualifications, your quals. Depending on your rating, you had different things you were expected to qualify for – watch stations, basically. And everybody on the boat had to qualify in submarines, earn their dolphins. All that took up a lot of your off watch hours. Whatever was left over was for eating, personal hygiene and sleep.  Especially sleep, the rarest, most prized of luxuries on a sub.

The mid-watch, between midnight and six, was the quietest time. I should mention here that time of day was a pretty weird concept on a submarine, for two reasons. The first is obvious: we didn’t see the sun from the time we left port to when we returned and there was no external effect that can be noticed while underway. It’s not like some characteristic of the ocean changed through the day. Submerged at patrol depth was same at noon as at midnight. Clocks were all we had, and frankly, that’s enough. It’s not that difficult to keep a rhythm with your body using just clocks, as long as the clocks were keeping time as normal. But the second reason was far more disturbing to your natural rhythms. Most people on the sub were on a three-man watch rotation and watches were six hours long. So your ‘day’ effectively was eighteen hours long. I’m here to tell you, that will fuck with your mind and body in ways you can’t expect. You get somewhat used to it, but never entirely. A couple of months at sea on that schedule also makes for an interesting time when you come back to port and go back to 24-hour days. But the boat itself stayed on a 24-hour schedule in terms of meals, which were the most tangible indicator of time of day, other than clocks. We had breakfast at 6 AM, lunch at noon, dinner at 6 PM and ‘mid-rats’ at midnight. Mid-rats (short for midnight rations) was typically leftovers or cold cut sandwiches. You ate before going on watch and immediately after.

After having been on the boat for a couple of patrols and completed my quals, my watch station normally was in maneuvering.  Maneuvering was the engineering control room where the reactor, main engines and electric plant were controlled. Four people were always on watch: the throttleman who was responsible for the main engines and thus the speed of the sub, the electrical operator who maintained the boat’s electrical power by controlling two steam turbine generators, two motor-generators sets and the battery, and the reactor operator who kept the reactor where it needed to be to provide steam power to the engines and TGs. The fourth guy was the EOOW, engineering officer of the watch, who didn’t have much of anything to do except keep the other three guys in line. I was a reactor operator.

The Smithsonian has a replica of a submarine maneuvering room similar to that on the Sam Houston. Throttles on the left, the RPCP (Reactor Plant Control Panel) in the middle, the EPCP (Electrical Plant Control Panel) on the right. The EOOW would sit in a higher chair overlooking the operators from behind. It was a cozy space. You can find photos of real maneuvering rooms which show it better but due to recent chatter on submarine forums about people getting in trouble by publishing photographs of classified areas, I’m not going to post any here. The entire engineering spaces on a US nuclear submarine were, and still are, classified areas.


Here’s the thing about pressurized water reactor power plants: if power demand is stable, such as when the Conn hasn’t ordered a change in speed for a while, and nothing else is going on, the plant tends to be pretty static. Temperatures and pressures don’t change and we really don’t have much to do other than take log readings every hour (Full disclosure: when the plant wasn’t changing, we often didn’t take logs every hour, completely in violation of regulations). About the only thing I had to do was occasionally bump the control rods to keep the average reactor primary temperature (T ave) in the ‘green band’. It would slowly drift down due to a couple of reactor physics factors, even if power demand was steady.

The reactor was actually self-regulating. If the throttleman opened up the throttles, allowing more steam to the main engines, reactor primary inlet temperature would drop a bit which increased the reactivity in the core, which increased reactor power, which then increased primary outlet temperature until a new equilibrium was reached. The two temperatures which made up T ave – T cold (reactor inlet temp) and T hot (reactor outlet temp)- would be further apart, a greater delta temperature across the core with the average still in the green band. When the throttles were opened (or closed), my job was to anticipate the power demand and adjust the control rods to keep T ave in the green band while the reactor settled itself out. I might also have to shift the main coolant pumps to fast speed if power demand exceeded that which slow speed could accommodate. If for some reason the Conn ordered a big increase in speed – say going from ahead one third to ahead flank – and if the three maneuvering operators had their shit together, you’d see a choreographed set of actions. The throttleman would whip the  throttle wheel open as fast as he could, the electrical operator would simultaneously start cranking up the TG speed in anticipation of the reactor operator switching to fast speed pumps, which required quite a bit more electrical power. After the pump switch, which happened in seconds, I’d grab the control rod shim switch and start pulling out the control group, also anticipating the power demand and keeping T ave from dropping too much out of the green band. After the main engines were up to speed, we’d then start backing off on the TGs and the rods to avoid overshoot. It would be like two minutes of excitement. That didn’t happen very often while we were on patrol status because a rapid increase in propeller shaft speed would cause cavitation, which is noisy. The Russians might hear us and we couldn’t have that.

Mid watch, then. Not much going on. Being rebellious young men who were easily bored, sitting in the maneuvering room watching the gauges not move tended to be inadequate entertainment and the EOOW often failed miserably in his primary duty of keeping us in line. Hell, the EOOW was bored, too. So we’d do things to amuse ourselves. Some of those things weren’t actually in keeping with regulation and good watch-standing decorum. For example, if the EOOW was a junior officer and thus subject to being fucked with, a couple of us might simulate loud gay sex. Or all three of us. Said junior officer would suffer a bit of apoplexy but would eventually realize what was going on. I’d say unlike some of the non-nuke officers (you had to be a nuke to stand any watch in engineering, including EOOW), the nukes were almost universally regular guys and we got on well with them.

The reactor operators in particular, but also the maneuvering room operators, had a bit of a tradition dating back to the sixties when the boat was first commissioned. During mid-watch, we liked to remove the lamicoid labels from the RPCP and write nuggets of anti-navy wisdom on the back. There were a lot of labels and because they were attached only by small screws, taking them off was easy. Sometimes we’d get a little carried away and the RPCP would briefly look inoperable what with all the parts removed. Reading things written by people from years past felt semi-religious, like you were reading ancient scrolls. A few of the labels were quite big so one could write a lot. By the time I was on the boat (late ’70s), not much writing space was left but I managed a few tidbits of my own. Mind you, we had to be sure the captain or other intruder didn’t pop in for an unannounced visit, so we had a system whereby the AMR2UL watch would warn us if he came through. If we had the panel taken apart too much, we’d have been screwed as it only took twenty seconds or so to make your way from the forward part of AMR2UL to maneuvering.

Later in my time on the Sam Houston, I got so bored that I took to welcoming drills during watch. Casualty procedures were not all that complicated or extensive, so once you knew them and gained confidence, there wasn’t the previous dread of a drill where you might fuck up. Fast scram recoveries in particular  were actually fun. They say that navy nuclear reactors are hot rods as compared to the bigger, much less flexible commercial power reactors and it’s true. A fast scram recovery was like drag racing. Imagine taking control of a nuclear reactor that just unexpectedly scrammed (shut down) and bringing it back up to power as fast as you could. The idea is that in a battle situation – or worse, if the boat is sinking – you need to keep the main engines on line so you maintain forward speed. The turbines drew steam at such a rate that the reactor’s primary system cooled pretty rapidly and would be too cool to produce useful steam in short order. So the reactor had to come back to power quickly. We even had a ‘battle short’ switch that would disable all reactor protection functions, including whatever might have caused the scram in the first place. Better risking a damaged reactor than having the boat sink. Battle short wasn’t used during drills.

During my last patrol when I was the senior reactor operator, I volunteered to qualify for the machinist mates’s watch in AMR2LL. M division was short-handed, unlike us reactor operators, and were having to stand port and starboard watches there. That’s six hours on watch, six off. Very grueling. But I also wanted to do it because the emergency diesel generator was in AMR2LL and it was cool to operate that beast. Plus, the steam generator sampling station was there, so I got to play with chemicals. The steam generators were the boilers that transferred primary system heat to the secondary steam system for the turbines. Because of the metallurgy involved, it was important for the water chemistry in the SG’s to be maintained within tight limits. AMR2LL watch would periodically draw a sample, test it for pH and a couple of other things and then add chemicals to adjust the balance. Much more fun than keeping T ave in the green band.

Despite what I’ve written here, my time on the submarine wasn’t just boredom laced with periodic bursts of drag racing excitement and some mad chemistry. It was frankly a miserable experience all told, which is why I got out of the navy as soon as I could. But that’s another story. I made six deterrent patrols on the Sam Houston in all. That was enough. I still have dreams about being on the boat – having to make one more patrol.

Shortly after I left the boat it was converted to a ‘slow attack’ and had its missiles removed to comply with one of the SALT treaties. The Sam Houston was re-designated as SSN-609 and operated as a SEAL insertion vessel for a while before being deactivated and struck from the rolls active ships. It was dismantled and scrapped in 1992. The reactor compartment is now in a disposal area at Hanford Nuclear site in Washington state.

We’re Basically Flooding

As any submariner will attest, few things scare you as much as the 1MC blaring “FLOODING IN THE ENGINE ROOM!” Submarines, you see, don’t float particularly well and when more water is coming in than is being pumped out, you become concerned, trending towards frightened.

Date: circa 1978

Location: somewhere east of Guam, over the Marianas Trench

Setting: onboard the fleet ballistic missile submarine USS Sam Houston (SSBN609)

There was no such 1MC announcement of impending doom. There were no semi-panicked sailors rushing about attempting to stave off said doom. No,  all was quiet in AMR2LL. Well, as quiet as it gets while underway what with pumps running, steam and water coursing through pipes. Which is not remotely quiet, truth be told.

But we were still flooding. At least I thought so and judging by the concerned expressions and comments of my fellow nukes, I wasn’t the Lone Ranger in that opinion. There was definitely more water – a lot more water – coming in through that crappy drain pump shaft seal, as well as other holes in the boat, than the pump could expel outside the hull. Soon, we would all die a horrible, crushing death.

So why no 1MC, no panic? Why weren’t we blowing ballast and driving to the surface? Simple – the boat was at test depth to test the integrity of the systems, including the seawater piping and pump shaft seals. We did this after every refit, which occurred three or four times a year. The captain would take the boat as deep as operationally allowed and the crew would check for leaks. And leak the boat did, every time. The enormous pressure at depth was just too much for the seals and pumps to resist entirely.

Normally, this evolution was routine. Dive deep, note where the water was coming in and how fast, take her back up. This time, however, as we stood around watching the bilge water depth increasing, we weren’t coming up. The boat remained at test depth for a really long time, much longer than required to do the leak test. And still the water poured in. We were getting concerned.

Let me digress a bit and explain a fundamental characteristic of our crew. You could divide us into groups based on a couple of things – the nukes vs the forward pukes being the clearest. Nukes are engineers; everyone else isn’t. But you could also divide us, albeit less clearly, by our love for the navy. You had the ‘diggits’ who were in for life and you had the dissidents who were actively counting DTGs (days to go). I was in the latter group. There were more diggits among the non-nukes but we had our share, too. One thing diggits liked to do was re-enlist and one thing the captain (aka Chief Diggit) liked to do was make a show of re-enlistment ceremonies.

Let’s get back to the flooding. Why were we still at test depth? Why, the captain was conducting re-enlistment ceremonies in the control room. While we were basically flooding back aft.

My wife tells me that I told her that I reacted somewhat emotionally when we learned what was going on. The story goes that I expressed my displeasure with the captain quite forcefully over the whole episode. I don’t remember doing that but it sounds good.

In any case, we made it back from the depths alive. It might even have been the time the captain did an emergency blow from test depth. That was an experience. At great depth, the high pressure air banks don’t have nearly the ummph to displace all the water from the ballast tanks. So the boat doesn’t rise very fast at first. In fact, it’s almost imperceptible. But slowly, the air in the ballast tanks wins the battle with the water and the boat’s rise picks up speed. And also adopts a serious ‘up’ angle. By the time we hit the surface, the sub had enough angle and impetus to drive a third or so of its length out of the water before crashing back down on the surface. It’s fun. You can see videos of subs doing this on the internet, and I believe also in the movie Hunt For Red October.

So, yeah. Test depth. Loads of fun.