Twilight has descended on the eight officers and ninety-four enlisted men of the submarine Blueback (SS-581), and on this warm Saturday evening in mid-October the waning of an era has occasioned some serious celebrating. Garbed in suits, tuxedos, and dress uniforms, the crew of the last diesel-electric attack submarine to be commissioned by the United States has gathered with wives and girlfriends to mark the boat’s twenty-fifth birthday. They’re all mingling in the Chief Petty Officers’ Club at the Ballast Point Submarine Base on Pt. Loma, and to those interested in naval history, it is a historic gathering.
Of course, all submariners are interested in naval history, and remain closer than even infantrymen to their dramatic and bloody heritage, and the Blueback crew seems to sense the significance of this event. They’re the caretakers of one of only five remaining diesel boats in the U.S. fleet, a boat that in many ways was the link between the technology of World War II and the nuclear navy of today, and they know that in five years their boat, like this night, will only be a fond memory.
The sinister black shape of the Blueback, whose namesake is a species of salmon, bobs beside a pier just a few hundred yards from the CPO club. The boat is a collection of machinery and weapons of the Barbel class, a group of three submarines known as the “B-girls” that is considered to be among the most successful diesel boat designs ever created by any nation.
Though, like their boat, they are now all but obsolete, the Blueback crew is celebrating like the group of elitists all submariners consider themselves to be. In a banquet room whose walls are decorated with photographs of beloved old subs, after a meal of roast beef, baked potatoes, and mixed vegetables served by a Filipino waitress, the revelry is touched off by a young black officer.
As he gets up in front of the large group of sailors, voices are hushed and glasses are put down, and the officer begins a skillful rendition of the Drifters’ hit single, “Under the Boardwalk.” The chorus is sung by the rest of the crew, and the camaraderie in the room is obviously strong and deep. Soon any lingering inhibitions that were caused by the presence of women are cast aside, and the officer and enlisted quartermaster are singing and dancing comically together to great applause and laughter.
An enlisted man who has been standing by the keg sipping a beer greets a shipmate who has come over to get beers for himself and his attractive girlfriend. The enlisted man has been admiring his friend’s girl, and he says, “I just want to ask you one question.”
“Thirty-six B,” says the submariner, and the two men laugh heartily, though that wasn't the question.
Before things get really out of hand. Lieutenant Commander Dennis Fargo, the Blueback's soft-spoken executive officer (second in command), gets up to make a speech. He first explains why the skipper. Commander John Haigis, isn’t present. Haigis’s absence has caused snide comments among the prideful crew, some of whom seem hurt that their commanding officer couldn’t make it to his boat’s historic party.
Fargo says that the skipper’s love for his boat and crew is surpassed only by his love for his family, and that a family obligation took precedence. (Haigis’s son has returned from college for a brief visit.) Some of the crewmen nod their heads sarcastically. But they all listen carefully to Fargo’s speech, because they know of his eloquence and feeling for the boat, even though he’s only been assigned to it for four months. He speaks of his sword, which all senior naval officers possess, and how there’s a pair of dolphins engraved on all such ceremonial swords, so navy officers have no choice but to honor the hallowed symbol of the submarine force.
He points out the crucial importance of the submarine in modern military preparedness, and of the important role the Blueback has played in the country’s development of such awesome submarine power. “And the Blueback is still operational, and we’re able to celebrate her twenty-fifth anniversary, because of the men who’ve served on her,’’ Fargo says. “You must remember that without you. there is no Blueback. You are the Blueback."
After heartfelt applause, the party begins in earnest, complete with men dancing together, and on tables, and with each other’s girls. The Blueback crew has no trouble living up to the submariner’s reputation for wild good times. But their reputation for preparedness is also evident: an on-duty shipmate stands ready with a vehicle to transport home his blotto buddies.
There aren’t that many of those wild times left for the Blueback sailors. The U.S. Navy doesn’t operate its submarines for more than thirty years, and the boat’s commissioning date of October 15, 1959, is fast fading toward the horizon. The Barbel class of diesel-electric submarines was the last postwar class to be built before the navy turned exclusively to nuclear-powered boats. And although the only subs ever to have proven themselves in combat were diesel-electrics, the submarine fraternity considers diesel boat sailors to be die-hard romantics. American diesel boats have a history, but no future; nuclear boats have only a future, and a combat role that no one wants to see realized. Though many nations, including the Soviet Union, continue to build diesel boats, the United States hasn’t built another one since 1959 (not counting the deep-diving research submarine Dolphin, completed in 1968 and now stationed at Ballast Point). “We all wish the United States would build diesel boats again, but I doubt they ever will,” laments Master Chief Don Hatch, the chief of the boat (COB), highest-ranking enlisted man on the Blueback. ‘‘Admiral [Hyman] Rickover was such a powerful personality and a force for the nuke boats, but there wasn’t an equivalent voice for the diesels. That’s been our disadvantage — we don’t have a Rickover.”
The United States has two types of submarines: attack boats, whose role is to destroy enemy submarines and shipping, and Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) boats, which carry up to twenty-four intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at strategic targets in the Soviet Union. The U.S. has ninety-five attack boats, compared to Russia’s 280, and thirty-four missile boats, compared to the Soviet Union’s sixty-two. The FBMs, called “boomers” by submariners, are almost constantly at sea, hiding in the black depths and forced into port only when they need more provisions. All of the West Coast-based FBMs tie up in Bangor, Washington. Of the forty-five attack boats based in the Pacific, eighteen call San Diego home. They are attached to either Sub Group Five, or Sub Squadron Three. Only one of those eighteen boats relies on fossil fuel.
Though the debate over buying diesel boats continues every year in Congress and the Pentagon (the diesels are much less expensive to build and maintain than the newest Los Angeles-class nuclear submarines, for example, which cost about $700 million apiece), diesel boat sailors are realistic about their prospects. They’ve seen the diesel attack boats dwindle from fifty-nine in 1970, to four today. “There won’t be any diesel boats in the fleet in the 1990s,” says Captain Colin Saari, who was the skipper of the Blueback between 1973 and 1975 and now is commanding officer of the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Training Center off Harbor Drive beside the Admiral Kidd Club. “The diesel is really tethered to the surface; it is less capable and slower than a nuclear submarine, and speed and endurance are important now.” The demands on today’s attack submarines require that they be able to stay submerged for long stretches of time, up to three months, and that they have the speed to move ahead of carrier task forces to search for enemy ships and subs. This “sprint and drift” technique, in which a sub darts out ahead of the task force and roams the area, then darts ahead again as the carrier approaches, ultimately requires that it not be detectable by enemy ASW forces. The Blueback, which can only stay submerged for about a day before it needs to come close to the surface so it can run its diesel engines and recharge its batteries, simply cannot stay covert. A sub near the surface is a dead sub in the next war.
Still, the Blueback has its place. Though until two years ago it was rotating out to the Western Pacific for its regular patrol assignments, now it fills a training role. Spending most weekends tied up alongside nuclear-powered boats at Ballast Point, the Blueback is out at sea most weekdays. Three weeks ago it spent several days submerged off Camp Pendleton, allowing navy frogmen to practice commando operations by emerging from the boat’s escape hatch, ascending with small rafts to the surface, and making covert landings on the beach.
Other days it spends time as an “electric rabbit,” trying to escape and avoid detection by ASW planes, helicopters, and ships. “I think that we're useful,” says Lieutenant Commander Fargo, sitting in his tiny stateroom aboard the Blueback. “The Soviet Union operates close to 200 diesel boats. Our people need to know what the bad guys are going to sound like — if they ever become bad guys .... Excuse me,” Fargo says suddenly. “Chief, do you smell smoke?” he calls through his doorway. “I think I smell smoke.” After four men sniff alertly in the area of the wardroom, Fargo is assured that he’s smelling paint from work being done topside. “We use our noses a lot, and try to develop a sixth sense,” he explains.
Nestled in among the other submarines based at Ballast Point, the Blueback seems to differ only in its size. At 219 feet long and about thirty feet in diameter, it is considerably smaller than the modern attack boats, but its hull shape is nearly identical. The three Barbel-class subs were the first to employ a radical, teardrop-shaped hull and single propeller that all subsequent nuclear-powered boats now utilize. The prototype for this rounded shape was the submarine Albacore, a revolutionary design completed in 1954 that was capable of a then-incredible thirty knots submerged. (Today the newest nuclear-powered attack boats of the Los Angeles class, some of which are based in San Diego, can exceed thirty-five knots submerged, but their exact speed capabilities are classified information.) The primary change that the Albacore hull ushered in was the capability to go faster while submerged than surfaced. All World War II submarines, which could only submerge for about a day at a time, moved faster on the surface. Their standard operating procedures were to stay down to a maximum depth of about 400 feet during the day, and ride out the night on the surface. Their hull shape, which was more a long box than today’s long, tapered tube, was designed for surface speed rather than speed at depth, primarily because of submergence limitations of the diesel-electric propulsion system.
Enginemen on the Blueback aren’t that far removed from their World War II forebears. Though the boat has only three diesel engines instead of the four used during the war, the propulsion system is essentially the same. The engines aren’t actually used to turn the propeller; they’re used to turn generators which charge the batteries. These batteries then send power to an extremely quiet electric motor, which turns the propeller. The diesel engines only operate when the sub is on the surface, or close enough to the surface to send up a snorkel. The batteries on the Blueback contain 504 cells that are about three feet high and eighteen inches square, and they extend for about one-third of the length of the boat. The Blueback’s batteries were recently replaced, probably for the last time before decommissioning.
The few remaining diesels subs — the Darter based in Japan, the Barbel in Pearl Harbor, the Bonefish in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Blueback — are referred to affectionately as fossil boats or ghost boats. And it’s no wonder. Modern nuclear-powered attack submarines are so far advanced as to be almost incomparable. But the Blueback can compete with the newer boats in one area: silence while submerged.
One outgrowth of the tremendous complexity of a nuclear-powered submarine is that its machinery is inherently noisy. The nuclear reactor is used to make heat, which has to be translated into power, and this takes a lot of plumbing and reduction gearing. Though this equipment is mounted and insulated specifically to reduce noise, the modern sub also creates noise simply through its spinning propeller and the speed with which the hull moves through the water. A sizable chunk of the navy’s budget is being funneled into research, in labs like the Naval Ocean Systems Center (NOSC), next to Ballast Point, trying to find ways to make the subs quieter, faster, and deeper-diving. Though all of this research is highly classified, it is known that the navy is working on a new kind of outer coating, similar to one being used by the Soviets, which not only causes less deflection of sonar pulses but also insulates the sub’s internal noises. This coating may also eventually add speed. Scientists are using fish as their model, and are trying to duplicate the soft body and slimy skin of a fish in the steel cylinder of the submarine.
Another area of tightly guarded research at NOSC is concentrated on the arctic ice sheet. The U.S. has recently become concerned about increased Soviet submarine activities beneath the ice. A missle-carrying sub resting among stalactites beneath thin polar ice is almost impossible to detect, and earlier this year the navy increased funding for research at NOSC’s Arctic Submarine Laboratory. Here scientists are growing sea ice in a sixteen-foot-deep pool, and are studying ways to improve techniques submarines use to break through the ice, and other arctic warfare tactics: Last year, for the first time in the lab’s thirty-seven-year history, an active-duty navy officer became its director. The officer, Capt. Jack Sabol, declined to be interviewed for this story.
The main tactical advantage of a submarine is its covertness; once a sub is located, it’s extremely vulnerable. That’s why submariners and submarine researchers are so security conscious; they have the inbred attitude of the hunted, and they’d just as soon stay invisible both at sea and in port. Submarine commanders are taught to think that when they’re at sea. they have no friends. While at sea most try never to transmit, even to American ships, for fear of disclosing their position. This cloistered atmosphere makes the submarine navy a separate and distinct entity, which prefers to move silently and undetected through the world’s consciousness. The Blueback fits snugly into this fraternity, even if it is something of a relic. “It’s considered an honor to be assigned to a diesel,’’ says Petty Officer second class Thomas Smith, a yeoman on the Blueback. "It’s like being on an old Cadillac.’’ But that’s also part of the problem with diesel boats: they’re as easy to spot as old Cadillacs. Though they’re about as quiet as a nuclear boat when submerged, and thanks to the Albacore hull can dive almost as deep (actual depth capabilities are classified, but the navy admits to operating depths of 1500 feet; in reality, however, this figure is laughably inaccurate), the criticism of diesel boats is that to kill them, you only need to wait them out. Regardless of how deep they hide, and despite their tricks, such as releasing clouds of bubbles that appear to be schools of fish to enemy sonar, sooner rather than later they must ascend to recharge their batteries. That makes them relatively easy targets, given today’s detection and weapons technology.
But if a war were to break out tomorrow, diesel boats might outnumber nuclear-powered boats on patrol. Most NATO countries employ diesels, as do the Russians, in great numbers. The Israelis are trying to buy them from the United States, and Japan has some that are quite advanced. And while most of the sea-based nuclear weapons are installed on nuclear-powered subs, the diesels are capable of launching nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. In a war, boats like the Blueback could wreak terrible havoc; they would just be easier than nuclear submarines to locate and kill.
Off the coast of San Diego, and indeed along the entire Pacific and Atlantic continental shelves of the U.S., sophisticated arrays of hydrophones have been planted by us on the ocean floor to help detect the presence of enemy submarines. Though this system is only part of the worldwide American antisubmarine warfare effort, it is not a subject that submariners wish to discuss. The ASW system includes spy satellites that monitor Soviet submarine movements, hydrophones placed at strategic geographical “choke points” that the Soviets must traverse to enter the open oceans, and^ constant patrols by American aircraft in search of Russian subs. It’s an impressive collection of equipment and personnel, but it’s never been tested in combat. A potentially foreboding harbinger came about during the recent war in the Falklands, when the British, who have an ASW system considered almost as effective as America’s, could not destroy an Argentine submarine that shadowed a Royal Navy task force for weeks. Though the Argentine military’s shortcomings became almost a global joke, their submarine was able to fire several torpedoes at British ships, which survived only because of guidance problems with the torpedoes.
San Diego is a crucial link in this country’s ASW system because of its sub base, research center, the fleet’s Anti-Submarine Warfare School, and the Naval Air Station at North Island, which is a base for S-3 ASW jets (whose aircraft carrier operations provide the country’s sea-based ASW patrols), as well as ASW helicopters. With this concentration of submarine activity, not to mention that within San Diego is the largest military complex in the Western world, our city is of extreme strategic importance to the Russians.
“We give the Soviets credit for an equal ASW capability,” explains Lt. Comdr. Jim Trotter, the Blueback's navigator and operations officer. Though military experts generally believe the Russians have nowhere near the sophistication or accuracy that the U.S. has in finding and tracking enemy submarines, American submariners like Jim Trotter give them the benefit of the doubt. Like most of the Blueback's crew, Trotter has been assigned to nuclear boats before, and he knows what it’s like to be the hunted. He’s been tracked by Russian trawlers, listened to the maddening pings of active sonars scanning the depths for him, and ridden out North Atlantic storms while trying to maintain communication with friendly forces. “One time in the North Atlantic we were at 250 feet, doing only about four knots, trying to maintain communication with these little gizmos we put out [a towed antenna], and the storm was so bad we got sucked right up to the surface,” says Trotter, speaking carefully to guard against saying anything that would be considered classified. “It was like going up an elevator shaft, real fast. One minute we’re rocking and rolling at 250 feet, the next we’re on the surface with seventy-foot waves.” For all the Russian world to see.
As operations officer, Trotter’s job involves coordinating missions with other ships and aircraft. He says working on the Blueback “is a little more fun” than working on nuclear-powered boats, because the Blueback goes on lots of different missions. One day they’re part of mock commando raids, and the next they’re out playing hide-and-seek with some of the most sophisticated ASW aircraft the country has. On those operations, Trotter says, the boat is often told only to proceed to a certain sector off the coast and commence evasive action, without first communicating with the hunters. Some ASW crews are good at finding the boat, others aren’t. Enlisted men on board say the P-3 Orion turboprop airplane, which is land-based at Alameda, is generally more effective at finding the boat than the newer S-3 Viking, which is carrier-based.
How effective the Russians are at finding American subs is an open question, and remains to be seen. Says one ASW expert, who asked that his name not be used, “The Russians have a lot of primitive ships, but given their best ship, maybe they’re as good as we are in ASW. Their aircraft are getting better, but they don’t patrol as much as we do. I’m sure they know more about our subs than we think they know; if not, they’re being stupid.”
As the boat’s navigator, Trotter relies primarily on visual fixes, such as lights on the beach, but when the Blueback is out in open ocean the preferred navigational aid is Navsat, the navy’s navigational satellite system. Here the Blueback differs markedly from her nuclear sisters. The modern boats rely for navigation on a piece of technological wizardry known as SINS, Ship’s Inertial Navigation System. Developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the 1950s as an over-the-horizon weapons targeting system, the apparatus consists of four gyroscopes and some accelerometers mounted on a platform. The equipment measures both the boat’s direction and its speed, and gives a constant read-out of the sub's position. In the words of a tongue-in-cheek, but accurate (and unclassified) training aid, which is also an indicator of the complexity of nuclear submarines, SINS works like this:
The SINS knows where it is at all times. It knows this because it knows where it isn’t. By subtracting where it is from where it isn’t, or where it isn’t from where it is (whichever is greater), it obtains a difference or deviation. The SINS uses deviations to generate corrective commands to direct the ship from a position where it is, to a position where it isn’t; having arrived at the position where it isn’t, it now is. Consequently, the position where it is now is the position where it wasn’t, and it follows that the position where it was is the position where it isn’t. . .
The differences in the complexity of diesel-electric boats as compared to nuclear-powered boats can be measured in the respective crews. “The character of the crew of a diesel boat is different from the crew of a nuclear-powered boat,’’ explains Comdr. John Haigis, skipper of the Blueback. “You have to have more schooling to be nuclear-qualified, so the nuclear crews are a little older, and more of the men are married, so they socialize in a different way. Diesel boat sailors are younger, more are single, so their get-togethers are different.” For this reason, Haigis says diesel crews can be more tightly knit than nuclear crews.
He should know. At a trim forty-three, Haigis has witnessed the onrush of the nuclear navy from the vantage of both an enlisted man and an officer. He enlisted in 1961, when the navy was launching the Thresher class of nuclear submarines, a series of attack subs that will start to be decommissioned in the late 1980s. He was an electrician. Haigis entered Officer Candidate School in 1969, and became skipper of San Diego’s last diesel boat in April of 1983. The Blueback is his first, and probably only, command.
“You usually get only one command opportunity,” Haigis explains, sitting at a small desk in his stateroom just off the wood-paneled wardroom. From this boat he can go to an administrative job on the squadron level, or a staff job with the sub group command, or perhaps to a surface ship (a “skimmer” in the submariner’s lexicon). One previous Blueback skipper is now the executive officer of the Dixon, a submarine tender at Ballast Point. Another is chief of training and readiness for the surface fleet in the Pacific. And the commanding officer of the Anti-Submarine Warfare School is also a past Blueback skipper. Certainly all are good jobs, but it is an accepted fact that submarine officers who aren’t in the nuclear field have a limited career trajectory. Admiral James Watkins, the chief of naval operations, is a former nuclear submarine commander. All the top jobs leading to that assignment from the submarine navy go to nuclear-trained officers.
By all accounts, Haigis is a respected stickler. “The previous skipper wasn’t very friendly,” says Petty Officer second class Gerry Hardy, a sonar technician. “But this guy [Haigis] will personally come down and tell you if you’re fucked up — or if you’re doing a good job. I was on a nuke boat and I almost never saw the skipper.”
“I think he’s a little egotistical,” says Michael Riley, a second-class fire control technician. “It’s like his whole life all he’s wanted to be is a commanding officer on a submarine, and now he’s having the time of his life. But I’d take a rowboat into Vladivostok harbor for him, if he asked me to.”
Haigis’s main link to his enlisted crewmen is through his old friend, Master Chief Don Hatch. The chief of the boat on a submarine is usually the most experienced and knowledgeable sailor in the crew, and the job is two parts personnel management and one part tactical. “On a sub, in a shooting situation, most officers are tied up in fire control [aiming and firing the weapons], so you need a guy who has the big picture over the enlisted men,” says Hatch. “It sounds funny, and I hope you don’t take this wrong, but you end up being the father for all these young kids. I have kids that are as old or older than some of these guys, and if I treat ’em as my own kids, they respond better, and seem to respect you more.”
There are far fewer officers as a percentage of the ship’s population on a sub than on a surface ship, so the chiefs (there are nine on the Blueback) have a more responsible role than in other parts of the navy. The COB, who is the senior chief, is a role that began with the first American submarine, the Holland (SS-1) in 1900, and other branches of the navy recently have adopted variations of the same position. The relative autonomy of the enlisted men on board submarines is one reason why sailors say that while discipline is* strong, ‘‘you don’t have to hassle with all the military bullshit.”
Comments Petty Officer Riley, standing on the windswept quarterdeck of the sub tender McKee, where the Blueback is tied up, ‘‘On this ship [the McKee], if guys go to captain’s mast [nonjudicial punishment], they really get shafted. But on a sub, the captain knows you know if you’ve been fucking up. He doesn’t have to shaft you.”
When Haigis took over the Blueback, he called Hatch and asked him if he’d like to be the boat’s COB. Even as a kid Hatch had wanted to be a submariner, and he watched every episode of the television series Silent Services (he’s seen the movie Das Boot five times and reads all the submarine literature, including the gripping book Iron Coffins, an account of World War II U-boat operations by one of the few surviving German U-boat captains). He became a missile technician and spent most of his career on missile boats, but he jumped at the opportunity to work with his old friend Haigis, and in the process make a significant leap forward in his career.
Unlike the skippers of diesel boats, COBs like Don Hatch have the opportunity to climb to the top of their respective heap, which is the position of Master Chief of the Navy, highest possible rank for an enlisted man. As he stands at the end of the pier where nuclear subs such as the La Jolla, the Houston, the Bates, and the Guitarro bob peacefully against their ropes. Hatch is razzed by some of his men as they head toward the Blueback. “Hey, you’re gonna be a star, chief!” “You don’t be tellin’ no lies now, COB.” Hatch laughs, and calls back, “Yeah, I’m prefacing everything I say with, ‘No shit.’
“Really, they’re looking for a leader when they interview you for this job,” he continues. “And you have to have traits that make people want to come to you with their problems, even after you’ve just chewed them out. They want the stable rock, the guy to be looked up to, the guy that came all the way up.”
One of the things that COBs have to watch for in their crews is the divisiveness that can come from too much cliquishness. This can be a more serious problem on nuclear-powered boats than on a diesel, because of the reactor. The Navy is extremely concerned about the possibility of a nuclear accident aboard its submarines, so only those who’ve been intensively trained and who continually requalify are allowed anywhere near the power plant. The rest of the crew is excluded. “What divides a crew up is not being able to work together,” explains Senior Chief James Garvin, sitting at a small table aboard the Blueback in the chiefs’ berthing quarters, which sleeps six. (Three other chiefs bunk in the enlisted men’s quarters.) “Torpedomen should be able to help engineers, or whatever. But on a nuclear boat, you can’t do anything having to do with the nukes unless you’re trained. Some crews accept that and work well together, others don’t.”
Enlisted men say there are about four identifiable cliques on the Blueback: the guys who embrace new-wave music, those who favor country and western, a group that’s involved in car racing and four-wheeling, and the quiet, laid-back types. But the groups are loose, and the sailors shift back and forth among them, and Chief Hatch is quick to point out that his crew is as cohesive as any he’s worked with. That cohesiveness is something considered imperative to the safe operation of a submarine, and it’s a byproduct of every boat’s systems qualifications program.
The symbol of a submariner, the twin dolphins he wears above his left breast, is not automatically given to every seaman who finishes sub school. The dolphins must be earned by the sailor, after an arduous process that can take anywhere from six months to two years, before he’s considered submarine “qualified” Each man (as yet there are no woman submariners) must learn how the boat works, how the various systems are integrated, and what every valve and switch is for.
“The first thing they learn is how to drive the boat,” says Torpedoman first class Glen Hill, pointing to the Blueback's crowded command center. Two aircraft-type steering wheels protrude from a jumble of instruments and gauges, just in front of the periscope. Walking forward to the torpedo room, and turning sideways to allow shipmates to pass by in the narrow passageways, Hill explains that in order to get his dolphins, each man must learn how to “fight a casualty” in any area of the boat. “Casualty” in submarine parlance refers to both humans and equipment. So, for instance, every crewman must know the basics of working in the torpedo room with its 3450-pound, nineteen-foot-long Mk 48 torpedoes, and its six torpedo tubes. Though the newer subs have only four torpedo tubes, located amidships, and carry SUBROC nuclear antisubmarine missiles (which travel up through the sea surface, fly twenty-five to thirty miles, re-enter the water, and detonate), and some now carry sea-launched nuclear cruise missiles, all American submarines deploy with the Mk 48 torpedo. It’s wire-guided, utilizing a thin wire attached to the submarine, with a range of twenty miles and a conventional warhead. “This boat, being so old, takes a lot more work,” explains Hill, changing the subject from weapons to men. “Keeping this thing around this long is really a reflection of the crew.” Like many Blueback sailors, Hill asked to be assigned to a diesel boat, and wants to be aboard on her rumored decommissioning date in 1987.
About seventy-seven percent of the crew is submarine qualified, which is considered a good percentage. One man, twenty-six-year-old Tracy Koch, was due to get his dolphins one day last October, and he was excited. For a submariner, getting one's dolphins, and then getting them “tacked on” by every member of the crew striking the dolphins against the man’s chest, is a memorable event and a high honor. “The more people who tack on your dolphins, the better you’re liked,” says Koch, who’s from Casper, Wyoming.
“You learn each system, piece by piece,” he explains, standing by his bunk in a narrow compartment that beds down twenty-four enlisted men, “starting with the auxiliary systems. Potable water. The air conditioning system. Then the trim and drain system, used for fire fighting and leveling the boat. You have to learn the piping, all the valves, like this one right here behind this bunk. Somebody asks you what that’s for, you gotta know it. It comes down to having to take a molecule of air from outside, and get it to the rack right here.” Koch was assigned to a nuclear-powered missile boat, the Ohio, before coming to the Blueback. He prefers the harder life of a diesel boat to the “floating hotel” he was on before. The Ohio had nine-man staterooms. Coke machines, the works. On the Blueback it’s noisy when the diesel is running, and it vibrates, and when the seawater protection valve closes over the boat’s snorkel, the air is momentarily vacuumed from the boat, and your ears pop. Plus the boat rocks and rolls with the surface swells, and at sea the crew is limited to one shower a week “and just bird baths the rest of the time. You really get to stinking.” But he loves it.
“I wanted to be on submarines because they’re smaller, they have better crews and better chow than the skimmers, you get to know everybody, their wives, their sisters’ birthdays, their brothers. Plus, it’s exciting. More exciting than I even thought.”
Koch still remembers his first dive on the Ohio — many submariners keep meticulous track of the number and duration of their dives — and what fun it was. He was down seventy-two hours that first time, and later spent many more days in the depths, part of a crew waiting for an order to fire the machines of Armageddon. Didn’t he miss the sun? ‘‘I sunburn easily,” he cracks. What about real air? “You get periscope liberty,” he laughs. “They let you look through the periscope for a few minutes every once in a while.”
A couple of days later Koch got his dolphins, and the crew validated them with their fists. One veteran submariner, who still prizes the bloody T-shirt he wore when the pins behind his dolphins were pounded through the shirt and into his chest, says the ritual signifies your acceptance by the crew, and the placing of their collective trust in the new submariner’s ability to save any one of their lives. But he’s not sure that even if one hundred percent of the crew had their dolphins, the Blueback would be a better boat. “There’s an old saying: the boat you’re going to is always better than the one you’re on, and the one you’re on is nothing compared to the one you came from.”