By Sherman Smith, QM2/SS, US Navy (Ret.)
I was on a 688, a Los Angeles Class fast attack submarine, out of Pearl Harbor in the early 1980’s we were doing our normal preparations for a long West Pac. This week had been a busy one as it was the XO’s (Executive Officer, aka second in command) sink or swim evaluation for advancement. So as these things go the games began with the usual fire, flooding, battle stations, some maneuvering drills and a lot of water slugs.
It was nearing the end when the Admiral rode along for the “Let’s see what you got” portion of the games. Again he watched and waited as we progressed through the routines of surfacing and diving and turning and stopping, fire and flooding drills. Then with a “Conn, Sonar!…” the sonar supervisor would begin his report of a hostile contact and the real fun started.
All was well and the XO was doing fine… then the SCRAM happened … and we drifted, slowing to a crawl. A SCRAM is a “shutdown” of the nuclear reactor, resulting in the loss of steam power to drive the main propulsion system.
I was in the crews mess and part of the Damage Control (DC) party. In those days under the bug juice and across the passage way from the Chiefs table were a few little repeaters that gave the oncoming Chief of the Watch and the Diving Officer a heads up as to course, speed, depth, and trim while they were eating. As I had mentioned earlier, we had slowed to a crawl as a result of SCRAMing the Reactor. Not a problem if you have been doing everything you should have been doing… like, in all the excitement and drill running MAKE DAMN SURE YOU HAVE A CHARGED BATTERY!
So there we sit, every one trying to stay alert listening to the loud exchange coming down the ladder into the Mess. And watching the little depth indicator go click-click-click. Deeper and deeper we sink.
Now I should back up a bit because there are a few things that make this story personal and dear to my heart. Number one being that there was no love lost between the XO and my brother, Kent, who happened to be sitting opposite me at the aft port table. My brother had run into some problems with his security clearance as an RM (Radioman) and was forced by the XO to remain a mess crank (a submarine version of a bus boy) until which time the Crypt-o gear broke down and then he could go fix it – afterwards return to the lowly job on the mess decks. So here we sat, the Smith brothers sharing these moments with the regular irreverent commentary that was common when we’d get together.
The COB (Chief of the Boat. The most senior enlisted man onboard) was DC Phone talker and standing port side of the Coffee mess facing aft. I was directly aft of him and our eyes met. His eyes tracked starboard as his face became a shade pale. He lifted his chin to give a silent hail to the man adjacent to the depth indicator and a very large number was announced in a very sober tone. It was very quiet on the mess decks and nobody was dozing any longer.
Without reactor power, the ventilations fans were off to conserve energy so we could hear very clearly every word coming from the Control Room one deck above and forward. The air was permeated with the smell of chow that had been placed on hold mixed with sweat, diesel fuel, and wet bags in the TDU (Trash Disposal Unit). The smoking lamp was out. Time seemed to become like taffy – every second stretched. Even the heartbeats in my ears seemed to echo. Oh, I wanted a cigarette bad. Hell, we all wanted a smoke.
Then after what seemed an eternity, came the Admiral’s voice as though it were a 1MC announcement. ” What are you going to do, Mr _____ ? ” There was no panic or emergent note to his voice, which in spite of our knowledge of our situation was reassuring. It was as though he had done this many times. His voice was much like my Father’s voice as I had taken the wheel and was driving the family car forward into the street for the first time.
Meanwhile the Depth Gauge continued to click-click-click at an ever increasing rate. Then again the Admiral’s voice came booming, a bit louder this time. Silence. You could have cut through the tension in the space with a knife. People were no longer sharing looks. Heads were bowed but not in sleep.
One more time, the Admiral’s voice split the silence. Then with a very strained and shrill announcement the XO spoke to the ship’s control team, “CHIEF OF THE WATCH! FIVE SECOND BLOW ON ALL MAIN BALLAST TANKS!”
There was no customary repeat back only the deafening sound of High Pressure Air. Then silence again as we waited to note some indication that it would be enough. Then the click-click-click began to slow and there was a collective exhale that each of us held a small piece of, as though our own breath would some how make a difference. Much the same as lifting yourself off the seat when going over a known rough patch or bump in the road.
The numbers began to reverse and for a short time there was a silent and cautious levity. Men began for the first time rearrange themselves in their seats. There were cautious embraces between friends and Brothers of the Fin… but no one spoke. The soft slow transition that seemed to hold us all suspended and lasted far too long, was almost with a sort of spiteful turnabout, reversed as if to scold us for our lack of faith…
Our seats became uncertain and it was necessary to guard your head from hitting anyone or thing. The boat was tossed left and right in its rise to the surface. Holding on to something was our only job now, like having your head shaken by your mother at the end of every syllable when she’d escorted you down the isle at church for drawing dirty pictures in the hymnal.
When we finally reached the surface, there were few in the same seat they had been in. The boat had not only breached the surface but had surged and leaped out of the water. We were weightless for a split second… then back hard on the surface.
Now, our boat had free-flooding vents. Which is to say that the air is not trapped in the Ballast tanks but rather contained by sea pressure. So if the ship were to come out of the water we would lose all of our air and we did. Yep, you guessed it back towards the bottom we were headed. And this time with too little air to make a difference.
This time the clicks seemed louder and they were defiantly more frequent. I had sat in silence wanting to tell my brother that I loved him and to apologize for talking him into enlisting with me. So while the silent pall had fallen on the rest of my shipmates. I reached across the table and pulled my brother close so that our heads lay on each others shoulders. I said, “Good-bye Brother” and he echoed me.
Now there had been a Mess Specialist (MS) who was not supposed to be here. He had one week left on the boat before we had gotten underway and was supposed to be TAD (temporary assignment) to a shore facility, but a fellow MS had gotten emergency leave and that made us short a cook. So here he was. Well when I had been saying good bye to my brother this man was seated on the bench seat at the table forward of ours. It was too much for him and he sprang to the table tops and began making his way to the forward escape trunk. It was only through an amazing effort he was held down and stopped at the Chiefs’ table. There, he lost consciousness.
At just about this time, those amazing bastards in the engine room were able to complete a start up and recover from the Scram. We had forward momentum along with the stream of orders “OOD! … OOD aye! … All Ahead two-thirds … All Ahead two-thirds, Aye… Make Turns for 12 knots….” was heard in the crews mess. And then that familiar and always awaited announcement was given, “Secure from Drill – Secure from Battle Stations – Re-stow all Damage Control equipment to the Damage control lockers. Clear the Mess Decks.”
Blogger’s Note: I want to thank shipmate and writer Sherman Smith for his “Favorite Memory” aboard a submarine. What started out as a FaceBook comment to a general group question can inspire a rush of writing brilliance.
USS Bremerton SSN 698 News
USS Bremerton SSN 698, the longest serving commissioned submarine in the United States Navy, is home ported in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and is tentatively scheduled for decommissioning in 2019 or beyond.
SAVE THE 698
Join the Movement! Are you passionate about preserving the USS Bremerton in any way shape or form after her decommissioning for the benefit of the public and of naval history? You are invited to a new closed group forum on Facebook “SaveThe698” to be involved in public discussion related to Saving 698. You can see the group site by clicking HERE.