Sunday, June 18, 2006

Submarines and the Cold War

We were operating off the Florida coast, Ft Lauderdale area where I would soon be required to drink my Dolphins as a new Qualified submarine sailor.  The boat was the USS Picuda, SS 382 and she was an aging, Guppy IIa, Balao class, built in 1943, her keel was laid down before I was born and she had 6 war Patrols under her belt by the time I was 3. The Picuda was a “Smoke Boat” which referred to the fact her power plant was 3, large, Fairbanks Morse Diesel engines. Diesel was the operative word here, as those engines all belched Black or Gray smoke when they were running.  The distinction came as a comparison to the new Nuclear Navy that was just coming to age and their power came from Reduction gears, powered by steam turbines which were driven by a nuclear reactor and no smoke.  The Navy was building these boats as fast as possible but that wasn’t fast enough given the war that we were fighting, The Cold War.  It was imperative to get these boats built, staffed with a highly skilled and trained group of sailors and into the North Atlantic as soon as possible because that was where the war was being fought. The smoke boat navy was fighting that war first but their limitations of total time at sea,  time submerged, speed, operating depths and quietness were outdone by the new Nuclear Submarine Navy.  Part of that new Submarine Navy were the now emerging Fleet Ballistic Missile submarines, floating, submerged weapons platforms capable of delivering 16 nuclear warheads deep into enemy territory on a moments notice. The other part of the new submarine Navy were the Hunter/killer subs whose job it was to keep track of the enemy’s submarine Navy and in the event of war to sink all of the enemy’s submarines so they couldn’t fire their missiles or sink our FBM’s. These Hunter/killers were also nuclear armed with some torpedoes carrying nuclear warheads that were capable of sinking a battle group with one torpedo. Part of this war was also taking place right off our own coasts. With Admiral Rickovers plan for providing the highly skilled group of sailors to operate these submarines the first part was to first train them on the submarines of the smoke boat Navy. He figured that if they could qualify on these boats he had the right people for the next phase which was the formalized training in classrooms; teaching these submariners advanced mathematics, physics, chemistry, metallurgy, heat transfer and fluid flow, thermal dynamics, and reactor design theory. It was tough on the diesel Navy to keep providing enough qualified sub sailors to keep the smoke boat Navy satisfied and operating and also to meet the needs of the trainees of the new nuclear fleet.  When I arrived on Picuda in 1963 I had already been to Boot Camp in San Diego, then off to the Great Lakes for Machinist Mate Class A school where I was taught everything I ever wanted to know about: steam, oil and waste plumbing; steam plant operations and damage control; theory on how it all works including how to lap in the scratched seat of a ¾” water valve [good knowledge for your outside water faucet].  From there I advanced to submarine school in New London Ct and then to the Picuda in Key West Florida.

My head was already filled with too muck knowledge and was ready to split but that was before I started the qualification process and my shipboard duties. I remember lying in the bilges of Engines Aft, under the #2 Diesel engine with oil all over me and cranking on a very large wrench trying to move the lower crankshaft around so it would be back in time with the upper crankshaft. It was out of time because, as we surfaced from operations that day and the Engineman went to light off that diesel engine a problem arose that kept the diesel exhaust discharge valve from properly opening. A large backpressure was created which shut the engine down and caused the two cranks to operate at different degrees of rotation via the vertical drive which caused the loss of synchronization and later me to be in the bilge, covered with oil wondering “What the Hell am I doing here? I don’t even like diesel engines as they really stink!”

Once we were through the 6 month qualification process and had our Dolphins, we soon received orders to one of the various Nuclear Power Schools around the country.  This process was probably very discouraging for the regular crew of the various “Pig” boats for they also worked very hard to get us qualified and once we were they shipped us off.  My hats off to them for they get a “Well done sailor” from me and the rest of the non-qualified nukie-pos that crossed their paths. We went off to the rest of our journey very well trained and qualified indeed and very proud to be “Pig” boat sailors, if for only a little while.

I went to Bainbridge Maryland for Nuclear Power School. One of our courses was basic mathematics and I remember well the 1st day of class.  The instructor introduced himself and explained that  we were going to start at the beginning as there were some students with GED’s and some with a few years of college.  He turned and wrote on the black board “1 + 1 = 2”.And I thought “boy is this going to be a boring class”.  Three months later we were all doing integral and differential calculus.  When we hit nuclear physics and reactor design I figured I was doomed.  Not only could I tell you the complete mechanical makeup and all of the metallurgical decisions of the plant but I could give you a complete discourse on what was happening to heat transfer and fluid flow inside and outside of the reactor system.  I could map all of the chemical and nuclear reactions taking place and I could chase those little neutrons all throughout the system telling you where they went and what they did while they were there.  We used slide rules to make a lot of our math, physics and chemical equations and I thought I would never be caught dead with one of those in my hand. This all took place within a time frame of 6 months. We next headed out to land based, operating reactors for more book learning but a lot of time spent watch standing and operating that nuclear reactor.  My reactor was located in Windsor Locks Ct and was built and operated by Combustion Engineers. There was no base there and so they had us find rents in the surrounding towns.  We chose Southwick, MA, got a rental on the lake and partied.  They gave us all sorts of extra money because we had to pay for our rents and food, plus we were submarine qualified so we still received hazardous duty pay and by now we were mostly E-5’s [Non-commissioned Officers] and got good base pay. We had too much money and so we had a great time but that’s another story or at least a couple of stories and I met my future wife there. Single-handedly this was the greatest educational process I have ever been around bar none. I now hold three degrees and I have not ever seen anything like it since.  We were all around 20 years old and they managed to open up our heads and pour in all that knowledge that somehow we understood.  If we didn’t understand it completely, we would never have made those boats go. Being on that ship, in the North Atlantic, knowing the ET’s were locking the control rods so that there could not be an automatic SCRAM [shutdown] of the reactor [A battle condition that made it so the reactor could only be shut down manually, from the Reactor Plant Control Panel] it made me feel better about the situation knowing that everyone knew what they were doing. Beats ME how Rickover and the boys put it all together and made it work!!!!

MY next duty station was the USS Snook SS(N) 592, a hunter/killer operating out of San Diego, California but that too is another story.


Cookie..... said... told my story and brought back a ton of Memories...I was at Bainbridge as well "63"...then to West Milton...

A good read Ted...excellent Bob Hope would have said....Thanks for the memories....

bothenook said...

as intricate and complex submarines are, it's absolutely amazing how well they were put together. of course, it's always my contention that it was US that kept those things punching holes, and not resting on the bottom.

Ted said...

Thanks for reading and you just gave me another posting about Bremerton.

Couldn't agree more

Myron said...

I really have to hand it to you nuke guys. I know there's still a lot of DBF vs Nuke on some of the BBSs but I have always thought that was a bunch of malarkey. We all punched holes in th e ocean. It's just that some of us had tocome up and breath every now and then.


Va Beach Herb said...


I was offered the opportunity to go to Nuke school and turned it down. I wonder to this day if I could have made it through. I have always hade the utmost respect for those that wer able to do it. As it was, I also had excellent training in my 12 years as a "nose-coner" as Bothenoook likes to call
us. Great story and I would enjoy reading more about those early days.

Anonymous said...

Hey was that back in the late 80's, I think I remember you guys, I was browsing and found your post and had a flash back of the navy guys from the lake. We used to party like crazy there in 1986 and every one was really decent. I remember one guys name Scott Farrel.

Ted said...

Sorry anonymous but I was at the Lake in the mid 60's. We were at the start of the start of the Lake Partiers.We used to "Party Like Crazy" and now we have come back [my wife and I] but we don't party. Thanks for the post.

Jen B said...

WOW I never realized the navy guys were at the lakes that long. I grew up in Southwick and the year I graduated from high school in 86 was the first I had heard of them and I remember they called themselves nukes. I'm not partying that much either these days, hahaha

Jen B

Ted said...

Hi Jen B
I think the "Nukes" are all gone now as is the reactor over in Windsor Locks that we studied at. Matter-of-fact Combustion Engineering is all gone also. My wife, grandson and I had lunch today at the Summer House. Thanks for the comments