USS Casimir Pulaski (SSBN-633)

The Story Of A Cold War Warrior

A Day In The Life...

This page and the following ones marked "Anatomy" will document the day to day happenings that makes up a patrol cycle.  Each strategic deterrent patrol was given a number.  We'll see off crew training followed by the separation of bus away.  Turnover and refit bring the sailor's purpose in life to the fore as the boat is repaired and replenished.  Finally, in a set piece rehearsed many times over, the lines are dropped and the boat gets underway on nuclear power.  Once the patrol area is reached, the SSBN will remain on station with her load of missiles.  Silently plying the water to avoid detection while maintaining radio contact to receive a message that no one wants.  Most of these photographs document patrol number 62 in the late 1980's but other photographs from the 1960's and 1970's will be used as needed.

There were no bullets flying overhead...

nor the sound of artillery.  Indeed, nothing to let you know that we were "at war."  But make no bones about it; the vast ocean spaces of the Atlantic and Pacific were fertile breeding grounds for violence and a virtual state of war existed between us and our communist naval forces counterparts.  Following an SSBN was an act of war.  So every effort was made to make sure that it didn't happen. Silence was the name of the game.  While planes jockeyed for position in mock dogfights and ships played chicken with each other, the submarine fleet, like the cavalry of wars past, remained in the background, waiting to come to the rescue, bugle's tooting and flags flying in the wind.  The odds were stacked in the West's favor.  SOSUS and other listening sensors littered the vital sea lanes through which Soviet submarines had to transit.  Even NATO navies with few ships boasted impressive land based ASW assets.  Everyone, save for a few, flew the Sea King helo with it's serious sub hunting capability.  And then there was the fast boats.  Over one hundred fifty of Ronald Reagan's "600 ship navy" were submarines.  Help would never be far away should we need it.  Our "little brothers" varied but almost always ended up to be USS Atlanta or USS Minneapolis-St. Paul; serious Los Angeles Class killer subs.  USS Atlanta crept into port every now and then, but USS Minneapolis-St. Paul was a mystery.  She buzzed us once at high speed like a high school kid screeching down main street in his Camaro.  This was no Camaro.  This was several thousand tons of armed to the teeth steel.  After the humiliation of being "caught with our pants down" subsided, silent prayers were offered, thanking any creator who cared to listen that we were indeed grateful that she was on our side!  Any joking subsided once the hatch closed.  Our job was to silently live in a patrol area and make sure that if the poo-poo hit the fan, we were ready to plug the source with sixteen multiple warhead missiles. 

The patrol was our reason for living.  The patrol was the reason we commanded the resources we did.  The food alone was unreal.  The submarine cook spoiled his crew daily.  Steak and lobster every other Sunday.  Fresh baked breads and cakes.  Custom, made to order omelettes.  And all in a never ending supply!  The normal sailor dreamed of such a feast.  The submarine sailor took it in his stride.  "Doesn't everyone have pizza baked to order every Friday night?"  Once the hatch closed, any news we had seen or read prior to the hatch coming down was all we had.  There was no CNN or Fox News being piped in twenty four seven.  This made life very interesting.  A surface sailor onboard a destroyer or cruiser would see a crisis develop slowly over several days.  We, on the other hand, would get an order to launch missiles and then have to do it.  Numerous drills and exercises would be run to ensure that we did what we were supposed to do.  Indeed, it was not known whether the launch order was real or fake until a certain part of the missile launch process was reached.  Several of these tests were run every patrol, so no, Denzel Washington's character in "Crimson Tide" would have been weeded out long before he got to be an executive officer.  The entire time I was on the Pulaski we never had anyone that I recall, refuse to obey a launch order.  The Weapon System Readiness Test - or WSRT - was practised until perfection was achieved.  The Ship's Inertial Navigation System ("SINS") would update every so many periods and then the missiles would know where they were when launched and where they're headed. 

Patrol started, technically, when the R & R period ended.  Two months of intense training going over the newest Navy regulations and directives, reviewing lessons learned from our last patrol and those of other submarines.  There were missile team trainers and diving trainers which taught new crew how to drive the submarine, service the weapons, etc.  The Navy will argue with me, but this training period was for the sole purpose of preparing to go to sea.  So technically, this is when patrol "started."  The initial batch of Ohio Class submarines had a nice purpose built submarine base in Bangor, Washington.  The next batch would go to the next purpose built base and the largest Western submarine base, King's Bay, Georgia.  Unfortunately we were there as well, which meant that the third month of the cycle, refit, would take place away from home.  So at the end of two months, we'd say goodbye to wives, girlfriends and family and load up on a bus and travel four hours to Georgia.  Wives and girlfriends could visit and we'd either have them come down for the weekend or we'd pile into a car and head home for a long weekend.  Refit started with the emotional "bus away" when we left Charleston, South Carolina. 

Bus away was pretty anti-climatic for me as I was single at the time; no tearful goodbyes with wives and girlfriends…yet.  Bus away was conducted in true Navy fashion: hurry up getting dressed, packed and ready and then wait two to three hours for someone who knows ‘what’s going on’ to arrive.  And of course, all of this is accomplished in dress uniforms in ninety degree heat.  Did I mention high humidity as well?  Did I also mention that Navy dress white uniforms are un-breathable polyester?  Everything crawls at a pace that only sailors can appreciate.  The heat plus the humidity plus the boredom plus the blues from crying/wailing girlfriends/wives/children just adds to the gay atmosphere.  The slightest thing pisses you off.  “Don’t kick my sea bag asshole!,” “watch where you’re walking dickhead!” and so on.  The drug dog walks our luggage, declares it safe to defend democracy, then we’re off.  Later, when I was married, I would mentally liken the separation to those death camp movies where the evil camp doctor separates the prisoners into those living and those dying.  But as the sympathetic squadron folks would remind us, “if the Navy wanted you to have a wife, they’d have issued you one in your sea bag…” 

 

Doesn’t matter which bus you get on.  Doesn’t matter which one your luggage gets on either.  There are no iPods, DVD players or cell phones at this point in history so the trip’s time will be whiled away using good old fashioned conversational skills or crowding around the one sailor who brought a boom box.  The bus starts moving and takes hours to navigate the base’s asinine five, ten and fifteen mile per hour speed limits.  The speed bump had not been perfected yet on base, so that was one thing to be grateful for.  As the bus would stop at one of the bases 900,362 stop lights, I would fantasize about how easy it would be to jump off the bus and where I’d run to.  I wasn’t even married at the time, but the depression of the whole morning just rubbed off on you.  After what takes an eternity, we finally get outside city limits and head out on the highway, Southbound to King’s Bay, Georgia.  The bus soon segregates itself with nuclear folks in one area, forward folks in the other.  There will be subsections as well; marrieds in one area, singles in the other.  Any talk at this point is small talk.  The trip grinds on as only a bus traveling 55mph can.  Eventually we travel the length of Georgia and arrive at St. Mary’s.   

To call St. Mary’s a one-horse town would be pushing things.  They didn’t even have the horse.  The “base” at King’s Bay was little more than a few buildings and a lot of wilderness.  I’m sure I’m being brutal, but in true U.S. Navy fashion, base building takes care of the “function” first; taking care of recreation/boredom second.  The long concrete pier has nothing near it except the tender, USS Canopus and a floating dry dock.  Down near the tender are two to three submarines including the Pulaski.  It’s anyone’s guess as to which boat is which as none of them have hull numbers painted on them.  “Security” I’m told.  Yeah…  It’s easily 90 degrees in the shade with no cover for miles and alligator infested swamps nearby.  Any Russian spy would be dead after an hour or two.  “They’re not as big as in the books.”  Or are they?  The many smiling faces on the nearest submarine indicate that it is our submarine.  They must obviously be the Gold crew waiting to go home.  The countdown-to-home-clock started when we showed up.  As the buses are being unloaded, we are shoo’d over to a floating barracks barge named “Happy Acres.”  It’s too crowded on the sub for both crews to be onboard at the same time.  Actually it’s “too crowded” for one crew to be onboard, but that’s another story for another day.  Three days drag on.  There's nothing to do, little air conditioning and no where to go.  Can't go on the boat - too crowded.  Can't go downtown - turnover's not over yet.  Once turnover finishes, then we can get issued a "liberty van."  Here, ET3 Meyers, QM2 Rick Terrell, ET2 Frank Hellenberger and FN Mock wait on the pier prior to loading our sea bags onto the barracks barge.

The barracks barge is devoid of everything except a port hole every so many feet.  The Navy will continue to repulsively marvel at how we invariably ended up at a bar every night.  “Why?  Couldn’t you find anything better to do with your off time?”  “No we couldn’t.  But thanks for asking, shit-ass.”  Personalities change during busaway.  Guys are separated from their wives, kids and families.  And then – BAM!  Thrown on a bus and shipped nineteen time zones away to the deep, dark, South.  The Bible belt.  The buckle on the Bible belt.  The little metal prong thingy on the Bible belt.  The culture shock for some is noticeable.  I still had not fully climatized to the South’s brutal heat.  I joined the Navy in England.  A “hot” summer day there is a sweltering 65 to 70 degrees with no humidity.  King’s Bay rarely dipped below the nineties.  Or so it seemed.  Everything felt hotter and more uncomfortable than it probably was.  Everything boils into a nice atmosphere of hair trigger emotions.  People not quite a crew yet, but not at home.  In limbo.  Like wayward spirits searching for the afterlife.  Lost souls waiting for heaven or hell.  I’d obviously ended up in hell…  Finally we muster pierside and go through the pomp and ceremony that is turnover.  The boat’s now ours.  We’re free to move our stuff from the barge and onto “our” boat.  

The atmosphere is tense.  The off going crew wants to go home and we want them off "our boat."  A brief change of command ceremony takes place on the pier with the tender and submarine as a backdrop.  The "burden of command" is read and then each captain reads his orders.  Following this exercise in tradition, the squadron priest prays that we'll come back with the sixteen missiles we're leaving with.  "I had it, you got it.  Have fun with it."  It's then that refit proper takes place...  CDR Plyler (outgoing Gold crew skipper) watches as Blue crew skipper CDR Frank Walker salutes CAPT Albert Konetzni (Commander, Submarine Squadron SIXTEEN).  As a side, trivia note, CAPT Konetzni's father was one of Walt Disney's righthand men, designing many of the rides and attractions at Disneyland.  As a further side note, Vice Admiral Albert Konetzni retired as the commander of all submarines in the Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC) - and to think we knew him before he was famous!

Turnover's Exchange Of Command ceremony is also a good opportunity for awards presentation.  Here, the Commodore, Captain Konetzni, presents Gold Dolphins to those Gold Crew officers that have successfully completed their qualifications in Submarines (photo courtesy of Scott Thon).