This is my uncle's account of his time on board USS Nevada (SSBN-733) during a week long tiger cruise from San Diego, CA to Bangor, WA. This also happened to be my last time ever underway on a submarine. It's pretty lengthy, but worth the read.
"Battle Ready!," the commander sharply challenged. "Battle Born!," the attending crew immediately chorused in response. That ended the orientation session onboard the sub, but my story begins a few hours earlier. I've resigned myself to the firm belief that I'm one of God's stand up comedy acts. When He needs a chuckle, He tunes in for a few moments. I no longer fret about what might happen. I just wonder what it'll look like this time. I pondered that while smoking my last cigarette at the taxi pickup outside my hotel. I had no way to form expectations for a cruise aboard a missile sub, but felt privileged to participate in the world's most expensive smoking cessation program. It's not everyone who can fire up a $2 billion submarine, hire a crew of ~150 and have them sink you hundreds of feet beneath the surface of the Pacific for six days to force you to overcome that nasty habit. It brought a new perspective on the tips and tricks of other smoking programs I've tried. The taxi arrived. The driver pulled away as I was buckling up, so I didn't provide my destination until we were rolling. When he asked ME for directions, I felt God had dialed in and my time on His stage had started already. I had managed to find the ONLY cab driver in San Diego who had no idea where the naval base was located. Visions of wandering about the city, being late or even missing the ride flashed through my mind, so I told him to stop immediately, go back to the hotel and ask for directions. That proved a good idea.
Once on the pier, we were entertained by a fast attack sub commander who was full of sub lore and advice. Surprisingly, we learned that ballistic missile subs very rarely visit that base because of force protection concerns. San Diego isn't considered safe enough for our strategic assets. He explained that a missile sub goes on patrol and only returns to its home port, unless it breaks and needs emergency repair. He had expected we'd be ferried to the sub while it lay a safe distance offshore. He said, "It only takes one RPG." We boarded the boat down a ladder that would not exist in any commercial building in America. I remarked to one of the Tigers that OSHA would go ballistic if they ever set foot on a ballistic missile sub. He was retired Air Force and emphatically agreed, saying that in the Air Force, we would have had to watch a 15 minute training video before they let us anywhere near that ladder.
We were herded to the crew's mess for our orientation meeting. It seemed that we had just arrived there when we heard & felt the tugs moving us away from the pier. The Navy wasted no time getting the Nevada safely back to sea. The orientation laid the groundrules, which were few. We had the run of the boat and complete access to the crew except for the communications room where the crypto was visible and the engine room where the nuclear reactor was housed. Keeping my particular self away from anything nuclear seemed an exceptionally wise choice. With respect to the Battle Ready! shout out from the commander, one of the mottos of the state of Nevada is Battle Born! Battle Ready! is derived from that. We heard this whenever the commander made a motivational statement to either the boat as a whole or a group of sailors. Even if the Battle Ready! challenge was piped over the boat's communication system, crewmen nowhere near the commander would usually respond with an enthusiastic Battle Born! Orientation complete, we were shown to our berths.
My boss had warned me about kneeknockers. They are the watertight doors that separate compartments. The opening doesn't extend all the way to the deck since a hatch has to be completely sealed to achieve water tightness. On a sub, they are round apertures approximately 4' in diameter. Submariners fluidly vault feet first through them. I was determined to take things more slowly to care for my shin and knee, so I carefully stepped through one on the way to my berth. While my boss would be proud to know I didn't ding my knee, he neglected to warn me about my head. The leg passed easily enough, but when I shifted my weight to the lead leg, I wasn't tucked enough to prevent the side of my head from hitting the top of the steel circle. It hurt enough to force an mmmm out of me. It would not be the last time a sound, or later, full blown expletives left my lips from a self inflicted head blow.
The crew sleeps in compartments built between the missile silos. Each bunk consists of nine racks arranged three high on the three sides, leaving approximately 6' x 8' of floor space to land, dress or stand. One of the Tigers didn't show, so there were eight of us in this room, seven Tigers and a junior lieutenant. There is also one chair, which later proved handy. Before the cruise, I had watched a TV show called "Life on a Boomer." It showed the bunk room and a sailor demonstrating how to exit one of the top bunks. I resolved not to take one of those. It required far more agility than I currently possess. The bunk assigned to me was, of course, the top bunk along the back wall. I asked our sailor guide if there was a ladder or something. He lifted his eyebrow and said, "No sir. You just grab that bar on the ceiling and swing yourself up into it." "Well, that's not going to happen," I said. All of the Tigers roared in laughter and I'm pretty sure I faintly heard a few angels snickering. The only guy who was quiet was the one other Tiger who had been assigned a top bunk. I asked one of the lucky, ground based sleepers what he'd take for his rack. "You don't have enough money," he replied. Seeing he was serious, I gave it a shot, with my fellow top bunker observing my technique. The method described by the sailor was a total non-starter, so I stood on the chair and attempted to swing myself up and into the rack. I got the up part ok, but not the swing, managing to bang the top of my head hard on a bolt. For my second attempt & now respecting the potential for pain, I grabbed the bar, stepped on the middle bunk as a makeshift ladder and then vaulted into the bunk, crashing the back of my head into a support bar that ran the width of the rack. I was in, but my head was throbbing. Seriously, I could hear God laughing. I did finally get the hang of it, making it simpler by first getting on the chair, taking a short step to the middle rack and then launching at a low angle into the rack. That ease was achieved on the 3rd day. Until then, my head always managed to find a bolt, a bar, a plate or a rod somewhere during the launch phase. By the time I became skilled at it, I could play the bruises on the back of my head like a keyboard.
Sleep proved difficult, mainly due to late night calls of nature. While I can deal with that on autopilot at home, it's unwise to just get out of bed from the top rack on a sub. The distance between the top of the 2" foam mattress and the rack ceiling was approximately 20". The aforementioned bolts, bars, plates and rods were all still there, but the light fixture was also something to note. The light bulb was well protected from breakage by a housing consisting of solid steel vanes. The unwary learn quickly that lifting your head presents risk. I was unwary only once. :) To answer the call, it's best to wake up first, get a sense of location & then slide out, grasping the bar as you drop to the floor, angling your body away from the racks so you don't catch your foot on one of the lower bunks. Returning to bed required the same step, step, vault maneuver, so I was wide awake by the time I got back in the rack. Add guilt to that. The serving lieutenant slept in the middle rack below me. I wouldn't have been as concerned about a Tiger, but I truly did not want to wake him by stepping too far onto his rack. One time, his rack felt differently under my foot and I heard a soft whimper, so I know I stepped on him at least once. That really upset me, so the routine I finally settled on was to sleep until the call came, then spend the rest of the night in the crew's mess with my Kindle and their 24/7 coffee. I took catnaps during the day as needed.
I have a natural gift for putting myself "in the way." That talent is on nearly constant display within the confines of a submarine. It's not just my girth, but rather the ability to place myself at a location an instant before another. That's the quality that differentiates me. I don't recall saying, "excuse me," "pardon me," or "I'm sorry," as often as I did on this cruise. No specific example comes to mind, but I'm sure the crew feels that everything seems easier now, even if they can't quite put their finger on why that's the case.
As an ominvore, there's not many foods that I reject. My waistline is an undeniable proof point for that assertion. However, meatloaf is one. It has always been so and actually qualifies as a pathological hatred. I like everything that goes into meatloaf, but the combination sickens me for some reason. One of the very few questions I asked before the cruise was whether or not they'd serve meatloaf. My niece told me they have a 21 day menu rotation, so it's possible I'd be there for meatloaf day. Meatloaf was served not once, but twice during my six days on the boat. A special exception to their 21 day menu rotation seems to have been made. Can anyone still doubt my belief that God absolutely loves to play pranks in my life? No, I did not eat the meatloaf, if you're wondering.
The boat kissed me goodbye. In the last hour of our venture, I moved aside to allow a crewman to pass in the aisle that separates the two banks of missile silos. I stepped right into a 2" diameter bolt protruding from a valve affixed to one of the silos, delivering a healthy knock to my hairline. An expletive wasn't warranted and it actually seemed fitting, so I grinned, gave the bolt a fond pat, and went on my way.
Most of the Tigers were fathers whose sons serve on the sub. It was a sincere and genuine pleasure to see the pride of the fathers in their sons, and the pride the sons had in showing their fathers the responsibility they held and the duties they performed. One father told me he had spent more quality time and was closer to his son on this cruise than he had been for ten years. It brought a tear to his eye and to mine. For two of the fathers, the cruise was timed well. Their sons were due to receive their dolphin pins, which meant they were fully qualified as submariners. The dads had the honor of standing with their sons during the ceremony and pinning the dolphins onto their uniforms. This bonding was certainly the most important activity on the cruise and it was great to see.
We were issued a "qual" card, which was three pages of duty stations we were encouraged to visit. It acted as a good guide to help us learn the operation of the boat and meet some of the crew. Upon completion, we were awarded dophin pins and a certificate naming us Honorary Submariners.
I heard that an officer was planning to complete his final task late one night to qualify for his dolphins. He had to direct the boat in an attack. This I wanted to see, so I made it a point to be on the command deck for the exercise. The Lieutenant chose a surface merchant vessel as his target and began the stalk. It was fascinating to watch the interaction of the various roles as the boat was maneuvered within range and a firing solution computed. The torpedo was a water slug. A torpedo tube is flooded and then 1600lbs of air pressure is applied to shoot the water out the tube. The sound and recoil is much like an actual firing, although the water loses its slug effect in relatively short order. Knowing the speed of the torpedo and distance to the target, run time can be computed. After firing the slug, the boat maintained its fix on the target for the expected run time of the torpedo. If contact wasn't lost, it was recorded as a hit. The torpedo was fired at a distance of 12000 yards or nearly six miles. Run time was in the 5-10 minute range with the officer hawking the fire control station during the entire time. Sonar declared a successful hit, thus minting a new sub officer.
The Tigers were allowed to fire water slugs. Our role was simply to pull a lever. I mention it because of the protest lodged by one of the crew. When the announcement was made that we were going to shoot more water slugs, an engine room tech standing in the lunch line said to me, "We shoot too many of those water slugs. I think we should mount a "Save the Water Slug" movement. We're devastating those poor things." I had a vision of an enviro nut getting behind the initiative and demanding an end to the wanton slaughter of water slugs, imagining them to be hapless, inoffensive, slow moving sea creatures. I lost it.
The heavily advertised Angles and Dangles lived up to expectations, although they limited it to 25 degree dives and ascents rather than the 30 I was warned about. Off duty crew used to grease blankets with shortening and slide down the missile compartment during these tactical exercises. Submarine luge was the name for it. Someone got hurt, so the Navy banned the practice. 25 degrees doesn't sound like a lot, but it feels like a lot if you're standing. You have to lean heavily into it to maintain your balance, and walking uphill is a challenge.
The sub also executed a deep dive. They specifically told us that all we could say about the ship's depth is that it was in excess of 700 feet. As a keepsake, they had us write our name on a styrofoam cup which was then placed in a flooded torpedo tube for the dive. The cup that was returned was about the half the size, crushed by the pressure. The deep dive wasn't just a stunt. It was taken very seriously by the crew. The pucker factor could be seen on their faces and in their quiet attention to their surroundings. The commander also toured the entire boat when we arrived at our final depth, assuring himself of its integrity.
Most of the fathers were interested in the boat itself, so their time at the duty stations mainly covered the physical features, or the control mechanisms of the sub. I don't expect to purchase a ballistic missile submarine in the foreseeable future, or by the time I do, I'm pretty sure the user manual will have changed. I had little interest in learning how to operate the boat. I was more interested in the subjective aspects of submarine life and the boat's capabiities. For example, I wasn't interested in pulling the trigger for a simulated missile launch like the other Tigers, so I didn't. I was very interested in how quickly a missile could be fired once an order was received though, and the processes that made it happen. I spent my time at that station runnng through several scenarios, each of which did yield somewhat different results. It's enough to say that our response from this platform provides very little time for an enemy to find and destroy the sub before it's able to launch. This is truly a deterrent weapons system.
ON LETHALITY AND DETERRENCE
The captain of the sub interviewed for the show "Life on a Boomer" said that a sub is "a steel tube in which we install 6500lb high pressure pipe, 450V DC/230VAC current, weapons of unimaginable destruction and a nuclear reactor. Then we intentionally sink it saltwater. That's not inherently safe. What makes it safe is the crew." Many bad things can happen on a submarine, but the reason things go right is the crew. The number one fear of a submariner is fire. The Chief of the Boat told me about one experience he had with fire on a sub. A circuit breaker overloaded and caught fire. It was a very small fire obviously and was extinguished within 30 seconds, but the compartment was filled with smoke in that short of a time. If a fire were to last 20 or 30 minutes, he said, we would not be going home. Every submariner is therefore a fireman. All but one of the drills I witnessed were fire related. They drill to achieve the goal of having a suppressive agent on a fire in 15 seconds or less. Emergency air breathers are abundant and readily accessible anywhere on the boat. There is even one in a niche in each sleeping rack. Oxygen is cut to the compartment during a fire to retard the flames. Thermal imaging devices are used to ensure there are no hot spots before returning oxygen levels to normal to prevent reignition. Fire is taken very seriously indeed.
The sub's torpedos can deliver 1000lbs of high explosive against an attacker's hull, but they are purely defensive weapons. The missile sub is designed and operated to patrol undetected, so that its missiles can be delivered before it is destroyed by an enemy. Finding a missile sub has been likened to seeing a 20 watt bulb hanging in the depths of the ocean from the earth's orbit. I was told a story about a war game exercise in which a carrier group's escorts tried to find and sink an Ohio class missile sub. The sub's commander maneuvered his boat and achieved a firing solution on the carrier. The admiral on the carrier denied the commander's claim that he'd successfully targeted the carrier. The sub moved closer and again announced the win. The admiral denied it again. Finally, the commander got so close that he fired a water slug against the hull of the ship and then escaped undetected. Lest you lose confidence in our surface fleet, it was explained that a tactical error on the part of the escorts contributed to the outcome. All 12 of the escorts knew there was a sub in the area and were actively pinging, creating a garbled sonar picture through which the sub could maneuver. If only one or two ships had coordinated the search, no one felt the sub could have gotten that close.
When a missile sub reaches its patrol area, it runs silent for the duration of its 3 month underway. Only the officers and a few crew members know its exact location at any given point in time. Our own government only knows the huge box of sea to which it was assigned, not its precise location. How it "cuts holes in the water," and where it goes within the box is the commander's decision. A deployment is considered a success if the sub returns safely to its home port with its crew intact all of the missiles still in their silos.
One missile submarine carries more destructive power than has been unleashed in warfare since the beginning of recorded history. The potential for destruction was likened to placing 9lbs of dynamite on every man, woman and child on the globe. The accuracy of the delivery system is stunning. Sailors call it "warheads on foreheads." The Trident D5 missile is capable of delivering its payload over 4,000 miles downrange and hit a target no larger than a pitcher's mound.
The War to End All Wars concluded in 1918. At that time, it was inconceivable that there could be another global conflict remotely like WWI. That sentiment was widely held and is sadly laughable today. The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction has served to prevent nuclear war for the last sixty years. Does anyone truly believe that men like Stalin or Mao Tse Tung, who killed millions of their own citizens simply because they disagreed, paled at the thought of our destruction? No, there was no nuclear WWIII because our enemies positively knew they could not survive our response. Deterrence is only achieved by fielding a survivable weapons system and inspiring the belief in an enemy that we have the political will to use it. The cold war has ended and there is some thought now that missile platforms like the Nevada are an anachronism and no longer necessary. History shows that thinking to be hopelessly naive. The Nevada, the men who operate it, and its weapons ably fulfill the first requirement of deterrence. We can but hope that a nuclear or biologically armed enemy never doubts our will to use it.
Over the years, when I heard that my nephew was going to sea, the question always flashed through my mind what is that life like? My main goal and hope for this time aboard the Nevada was to gain that understanding. A six day cruise offers a glimpse, but I would not say that it puts one in a submariner's shoes, faced with a 90 day or six month deployment. That glimpse did inspire tremendous respect.
A submariner doesn't have the same life we enjoy. First of all, his day is 18 hours long, not 24. He works a watch of six hours. The next six are spent in training, cross training, drills, a few minutes to eat 3 times a day, and if he's lucky, a little time to watch a movie, read or play a video game. Six hours are allocated for sleep. The free time and the sleep time are little more than goals, however. Often drills and training consume all of the free time and some or all of the sleep. I heard some crewmen speak of more than 36 hours without sleep. I don't find that hard to believe. Surprise fire drills can occur at any time, and he's not excused because he's sleeping. You could even say it's in the boat's interest to train their men to go from sleep to crisis management in the blink of an eye. Short handedness can also cause double watches.
Submariner families feel the loss of their loved one for extended periods of time. Young mothers must raise the family unassisted while their sailor is at sea. Deployments are long and not infrequent, so repeated separation is the norm. It takes very strong individuals to maintain a relationship under these circumstances. The number of divorced crewmen didn't surprise me, but it did sadden me.
The vast majority of the Nevada's crew are young men in their early 20s. What were you doing when you were 21 years old? They undertake more than a year of training before they are assigned to a sub. I asked one experienced crewman if the training equips a new crew member to step in and be a reliable teammate. "Hell no. You only learn the equipment in sub school, not how to be part of the team." "How long would you estimate it takes before you feel you can depend on him?," I asked. He fell silent at that, but after 5 or 10 seconds said, "14 months max, but most are competent in 8. If we don't think we can rely on you by then, you get fired." The key word there is 'rely.'
In the business world, we talk about teamwork constantly. Team this. Team that. It's used so often that it's almost meaningless. Although each crew member has a job to do, they are cross trained in nearly every aspect of the sub's operation. Knowing your role and the roles of others goes a long way toward understanding how you fit into the whole, and also, how important you are to the results achieved by the whole. I'll try to articulate a telling difference between the corporate world and what I saw. During the orientation meeting, we had to learn how to use an Emergency Air Breathing device (EAB) in the event there was a fire. I hope never to encounter one of those again. When I made a remark about them to the commander, he smiled, nodded and then said, "You don't know how much you want to breathe until you can't breathe, do you?" The Chief demonstrated how to put it on, which looked simple enough. Of course, I struggled and wasn't sure why I was having a problem. A crewman who was in the mess observing us said, "Sir, your straps aren't fully extended. Someone didn't take care of you." When finished using a mask, the straps were supposed to be fully extended before stowing it, so that it slips on easily for the next use. He said again with real sadness, "Someone didn't take care of you, sir." What struck me by that was the complete recognition that failure to do one's job wasn't about failing oneself, but rather the impact of that failure on others. The corporate world is so much about personal attainment that the impact of each teammate on the other is often lost in the noise of compensation, personal achievement awards, career advancement, etc. I imagined a world in which each of my business teammates was familiar with the others' jobs, understood how their work affected the rest of the team, and if an error or shortfall occurred, recognized it as failing to "take care" of the team as a whole. If we could get there, our competition would have no chance. There's so much more power in that.
Another aspect that impressed me greatly was that tempers were largely contained. On the last day, my nephew said that anger built up over the cruise was starting to be expressed because the underway was almost over. In other words, while the mission was underway, the focus was on the job. Personal considerations take a back seat. The corporate world is much less disciplined.
FARE THEE WELL
Right now, somewhere in the oceans of the world, a missile submarine is cutting holes in the sea. Its crew is focused on the task at hand, serving each of us as a silent sentry and preventor of the unthinkable. Enjoy your life!! Your pursuit of happiness is in no small part assured by these sons and husbands.
To the officers and crew of the USS Nevada, thank you so very much for what you do and for who you are. Battle Ready!
That was well worth the read. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for the great read. Our son is currently serving on a fast attack sub. Most of the articles that I have come across are for the boomers. This was great insight from a regular guy. That is what makes it so enjoyable.
Thanks again, Mark