A Bubblehead's Life - Volume Two
When last we left, I was finishing my first off crew period. All trained and rested, my crewmates and I boarded a charter flight in Hartford for the trip to Scotland.
We landed at Gatwick, and the several-hour road trip to Holy Loch was my first time in a foreign country. Passing through small Scottish villages reminded me of the movies, and I still remember how GREEN everything was!
The bus dropped us off on the dock at Holy Loch, where several crew launches waited to carry us out to the tender. The tender is a large surface ship, painted battleship gray and containing every possible service a modern nuke boat could need to fulfill its mission.
The tender is truly a floating city, with the sole exception of the guys (Marines) with guns who protect the nuclear weapons. Alongside the tender, creating a stark contrast, were the long, sleek outlines of several submarines.
Once aboard the USS Stonewall Jackson, a colleague from the Gold crew checked me in. These guys didn't care that I didn't know my elbows from my, well, you know, just that I was a Blue crewmember there to relieve him.
Seabag in hand, I clambered down the 16 feet or so into the Control Room. The first thing you notice about a Navy nuclear submarine is the odor. Diesel oil is the most noticeable, but other fragrances linger, creating a unique bouquet.
I was shone to my bunk, my one escape from the daily grind for the next 68 days. The berthing area is on the lowest level of the boat, two decks below the Control Room.
The best way to describe the bunk is to tell you to examine a casket at the next funeral you attend. At your head is a small storage compartment, and above you is a long tray that you can lower down to hold personal items.
Along with a bunk, each of us was assigned a small locker. To be more specific, the only way to hold your clothing and personal hygiene items in there was to roll your clothing into tight balls to preserve space.
Next up was a walking tour of the boat. Rearward from the berthing area was the head and shower area. Head is shipspeak for restroom, and like just about everything else aboard a sub, even going to the bathroom is an adventure. After you complete your "business," you turn a valve to run water into the bowl and pull a large handle to roll a ball valve.
Pretty simple, huh? This operation is fraught with Stephen King-like terror, though. If the sewage tanks are bring "blown" (cleaned by forcing high pressure air into the tanks, expelling the sewage overboard) when you open that ball valve, human waste will be propelled by several hundred pounds of air pressure into the same space you occupy.
Needless to say, the sewage tank clearing operation was well advertised, with little metal chains and tags hung over the toilet stalls.
Beyond the heads were the laundry, library, and berthing for higher ranked enlisted personnel.
More on the library and relaxation aboard the boat in a later entry.
Below all of this was the battery compartment. Now we go back through berthing to the ladder (stairs are also called ladders aboard the boat), and up to the second level.
At the fore (the front of the boat) is the torpedo room. A lethal but essential component of our nuclear triad, the torpedo room is also an amazing combination of technology and WW II elbow grease. Pretty impressive to walk into that space and see those MK 48's stacked up in racks, the green painted body and black warhead pointed towards the tubes.
Aft of the torpedo room is officers' country. Actually, that area is only about 30 feet long, with the officers' berthing areas on one side and the wardroom, or the officer's dining/meeting hall, on the other. Officers sleep in two man staterooms, with a bunk bed, lockers, and a fold down writing table.
Aft of officers' country is the crew's mess (hey, don't blame me, I didn't pick the names). I guess the name comes from the quality of military food, but I found chow on the Jackson to generally be very good. Across the passageway from the mess was the goat locker (that name thing again), or the berthing area for the chief petty officers.
The ladder just outside the crew' mess leads up to the top level. Forward of Control was the Commanding Officer's stateroom (fold down bed, desk, table, and an array of ship system indicators), Executive Officer's stateroom (much smaller, less impressive but private) and the Ship's Office (no computers, just IBM Selectric typewriters in 1978).
Just aft of the ship's office was the Sonar room, and across the passageway from Sonar was the Radio room. These two spaces had so much equipment in them that there was barely enough room for the operators.
As it turned out, I spent most of my first 68 day patrol in the forward part of the boat.
This section of the boat was called Ops, and aft of Ops was the missile compartment. Beyond that was auxiliaries, then the reactor, and finally, engineering.
As much as I'd like to give you a detailed tour of the aft section of the boat, there a few reasons I won't.
I'll be explaining my first patrol, and I spent most of my time in the Ops compartment.
Also, I signed an agreement that I wouldn't divulge detailed information on the Jackson's operating capabilities, weapons systems, and engineering plant.
You can read all about these things in any of Tom Clancy's early works, but I'll honor my agreement.
After spending a few weeks getting familiar with the boat, and more training, we got underway for the first time.
Leaving the safety of Scotland's inland waterways, I made a painfully uncomfortable discovery.
This sailor, who had spent his juvenile summers on Jersey's southern shore, gets violently seasick.
Forget the patch or Dramamine; I'm talking green-gills, bucket carrying nausea.
A brief word about Navy sailors. They are not known for their compassion and understanding. By example, as soon as the old timers knew I was ill, they would bring sardine tins into whatever space I was in and eat sardines with whatever they could find (gravy, peanut butter, and chocolate syrup were used).
My first job was to operate the stern planes, or large control surfaces that maintained the angle of the ship.
Since there was no need for that skill on the surface, I was dispatched to the sail to be a "lookout".
Lookouts are armed with very strong binoculars, robed in a kapok (life preserver) vest, and tethered to the sail.
Our job was to constantly scan the horizon looking for ships or planes. Given the state of my stomach, and the affects of the sea on a circular platform, I was more than happy to be able to breathe fresh air.
A humbling moment is to look through a powerful set of binoculars and see nothing but Atlantic Ocean in every direction.
This relief was short-lived. As soon as the boat had entered water deep enough to submerge, the diving alarm (think AAHOOGAH, AAHOOGAH from the old WW II sub movies) sounded.
The bridge team, including the lookouts, scampered down the ladder. Usually, the Officer of the Deck or senior commissioned watch stander was the last person to come down. They would call out: "Last man down, hatch secured".
At this point, the most serious and careful procedures kick in. A display panel in Control contains indicator lights for all of the major hull penetrations. In order to begin the dive, all of the indicator lights MUST be green. A red light would mean a valve or tube is open.
Throughout the ship, watch standers are located in critical compartments with sound-powered phones to watch for any signs of seawater intrusion.
If all of these indications are normal, and ship systems are functioning as expected, the ballast tanks are flooded, the control surfaces are pushed down, and the boat moves to its optimum operating environment.
Up next: Running HSN (Hot, Straight, and Normal), punching holes in the ocean, and the intricacies of living underwater.