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It was the mid-1980’s and we were still at the height of the cold war. It wasn’t until 1989 that the Berlin wall came down. Our nuclear submarines were constantly on patrol in all oceans of the world, providing the best form of deterrence against a third world (nuclear) war.
At the break of dawn on a particularly clear and beautiful morning, I was on the crew of a 640-class ballistic missile submarine headed out on a deterrent patrol from Holy Loch, Scotland to the North Sea. I was the Officer of the Deck (OOD), and myself and an 18-year old phone talker were all alone on the top of the sail while we navigated out to open ocean. We were cruising on the surface in the Irish Sea between Scotland and Ireland on what was to be a most eventful morning.
Scotland was on my left, Ireland on my right, and I had never seen such lush green hills. The Irish coastline was just magnificent, and to top it off, there was a pod of about 40 bottlenose dolphins jumping on both sides of our bow wave. I was in my mid-20’s back then, but truthfully, I can’t think of a more glorious moment in my 40-year professional career…OOD on a ballistic missile submarine heading out to protect our freedom and our national interests. Best-job-ever!
We submerged the boat while still in the Irish Sea and our newly minted Captain chose to fly the communications buoy, against the advice of the Chief of the Boat (the senior enlisted on board). I moved my station from the sail to the control room as I was still the OOD. Later that morning, we started getting an alarm that there was something in our baffles (directly behind us). So I maneuvered right and left to clear baffles, and our sonar did not hear anything…very strange. This happened several times and we could not figure out what was triggering the alarm.
At noon, my shift was over and I went do the wardroom for lunch. Not 5 minutes into my delicious plate of spaghetti and meatballs, I was summoned to the control room. We had received a “flash” action message from Washington DC. It said that there was an Irish fishing vessel being towed backwards in the Irish Sea, and that we may be involved. We put two and two together and realized that was the cause of the alarm at our baffles. We went to periscope depth, looked to the rear, and there was the fishing vessel. It had caught our communications buoy! When we slacked the line on the buoy, the fishermen reeled in our buoy and cut our tether; we were now without our main means of communication for the entire patrol. Needless to say, there were a lot of red faces in the control room at that moment, including mine.
Shortly after we hit open ocean, we spotted the Russian trawler. They were easy to spot because typically, fishing trawlers do not carry more than 20 antennae…they look like spy boats. They hung out waiting for our submarines to come of out port, so they could radio ahead to the waiting Russian fast attack submarines. The job of the fast attack submarines was to sink our subs before we could launch our 16 ICBMs. Little known fact: if we were to receive the order to launch missiles, there was a high likelihood that we would not launch all 16 before we were sunk by one of their torpedoes. Thus began a cat-and-mouse game that marked the first week of every patrol. We rigged for quiet and maneuvered to evade the enemy subs for as long as it took to shake them off our tail. All we could do was listen for them, at the same time that they were listening for us. About three days into this game of wits, the Russians made a mistake: our Sonar heard a sound that could only come from another submarine. Our guys were so good that they could tell that someone on the Russian sub had dropped the toilet seat, and the sound carried through the water for miles. We marked the bearing where the sound came from, and quietly slipped away in the opposite direction. A big benefit of not being rigged for quiet is that we could finally have movie night!!
During this patrol, one of our sailors had to be sent home because of a death in the family…but we were on station. We paused our deterrent patrol (which was a big deal) and the Royal Navy sent a helicopter to meet us in the middle of the North Atlantic. The helicopter hovered just a few yards above the pitching deck of our sub, and not too far from where I was on the top of the sail. The lowered this tiny sling to hoist our sailor onto the helicopter; it was one of the most dangerous maneuvers we could ever do on a sub and I can’t imagine how that sailor was feeling as he was being lifted off the deck. I happened to be the OOD on the surface for that evolution and got some incredible photos:
For most of that patrol, I was the butt of a lot of jokes about that poor fishing trawler. But the story about the trawler was not over: as we headed back to Holy Loch a few months later, a tugboat came out to greet us and four JAG Corps officers came on board – Navy lawyers. They took statements from all of us involved in the fishing trawler incident, because the fishermen sued the US government for pain and anguish! I never heard about that incident ever again, but it made headlines in Ireland.
My time in the Navy was special. It set me up for life with a wonderful career that (thankfully) is not over yet. I learned a lot about myself during that time, and I was no longer worried about any challenge that would come my way. If I could be the OOD on a ballistic missile submarine during the cold war, I could manage my way around any challenge.
Join the Navy, see the world.