USS Casimir Pulaski (SSBN-633)

The Story Of A Cold War Warrior

A Pirate's Life For Me...

It was kind of assumed and expected that I'd join one of the branches of the military.  Having lived the "military brat" life for so long, it was kind of an inevitibility.  No one ever mentioned it, but eventually, as one's friends were all similar military brats, you tended to watch them go - normally to the same branch their father was in.  I was one of three children and dad was in the US Air Force from before I was born.  We moved every so many years from base to base and this entailed the horror of having to start school in the middle of the school year!!  As a pre-PlayStation/computer/video game child, I took the normal "boy" route and built models and read history books.  This gave me a good outlook on not only life in general but why dad made the choices he had made.  I did not hate the military way of life, but the sting of constant moves and the regimentation wore on me.  I attempted to start a rock group and that never quite panned out.  Taking photographs for a living was quite lucrative, but the big money was unobtainable unless you were an intern with a cartel.  I went to Canada to visit a pen-pal/quasi girlfriend and secretly set out to guage the prospects for a kid fresh out of high school with no college who played guitar and took photos.  Dismal.  After a few years of post high school freedom the decision was made quietly, out of resignation, to join the military.  But what to do?  This was the Cold War.  The story of the servicemembers killed in Korea during the "tree cutting" incident weighed heavily on me.  And my love of second war history had taken me, via book, to many gripping battles; including Okinawa and Iwo Jima.  Nope...war was not fun and people did suffer and die.  So if I'm going to get shot at for my country, I wanted to make sure that I was in the best position to survive the shooting.  And if I'm going to have to shoot for my country, I wanted to make sure that I was behind the trigger of the best weapon.  My travels kept coming back to submarines.  They had everything a good weapon should have; speed, technology, lethality and survivability.  Yes, my ancestors in the Pacific war fleet boats had tougher conditions and a questionable chance of survival but the boats of today were miles ahead of the game.  I spoke with the recruiter, took the obligatory ASVAB test and then dropped the ball; "I want submarines."  The ceremony was pretty basic and unlike the movies.  Jimmy Stewart would have been depressed...

Well maybe not depressed, but he'd have probably wanted his money back.  The recruiter had a daughter that went to our school but she rarely talked about the Navy.  The Navy base in London is right in the middle of tourist, downtown London.  So a lot of the staff wore civilian clothes.  After giving the oath I was congratulated by the base commander.

Then time for a quick photo with the recruiter, Chief Porter.  Unlike most new recruits, I had a good relationship with my recruiter and was not lied to, tricked, scammed or any of the other terms recruits use when they don't get what they signed up for.

I joined and was sworn in along with three other people.  The four of us were then given plane tickets for the same flight.  The two girls and Henry (the guy) went off to different companies.  I later caught up with Henry at "A" school, but never saw him again after that.

Shortly after signing on the dotted line I then left the comfort of home in England to boot camp in Orlando, Florida.  I joined eighty other screaming hooligans in division five.  Company 134.  There was no political correctness back in 1985.  Not like the luxury spa treatment that boot camp is today.  Nope...they were allowed to yell at us, abuse us and mash us.  "Mashing" was an interesting combination of torture and abuse which involved copious amounts of push ups mixed at insane intervals with everyone starting over if one person faltered.  To add "flavor" to the sessions, we were occassionally dressed in our pea coats and rain coats and on occassion almost drowned in our sweat.  The slightest infraction brought about mashing.  The fear of mashing was worse than that bore by any toddler getting ready for bedtime after watching a scary movie.  And the company commander, or "CC," made sure that we gave him any excuse.  The verbal abuse was the worst.  Not because of "what" was said but because it struck me (and others) as so hilarious.  There was a silly name for everything.  You had to fold your shirt so that when stored in the locker the fold faced towards you.  If it was away from you, it was a "superman" fold (as in "up and away").  Your life was reduced to the space of a locker.  Everything you owned was in that locker and each item had a particular location and position it had to assume. 

Hell week, the fifth week, was the worst.  We had our big dress inspection wearing the dress uniforms that we had just been fitted for.  We had also just learned to tie a tie for the first time.  The inspection was too much.  Here we are in our dress uniforms, in 900 degree heat, standing at attention and saluting.  CC number one found a cigarette butt in one of the guy's pockets.  The poor guy was made to march up and down the ranks and stop in front of each of us and say "gear adrift is un-sat."  While this was going on, CC number two found a guy who had two shirts that were folded the wrong way.  So he took the shirt and made a "cape" out of it and wrapped it around the guy's neck.  The guy then had to similarly march up and down the ranks with his arms out like he was going to fly away.  He then had to stop in front of each of us and say "I'm superman twice; ain't that nice."  Someone inevitably laughed and the CC's made him also march up and down and stop in front of each of us and laugh "ha ha ha!"  This was too much and most of us just started wetting our pants with laughter.  The inspection fell apart after that and we had to run and do push ups.  But the end result was, I guess, to mold us into a fighting unit.  Whatever.  Eight weeks flew by and soon it was time for "uncontrolled liberty."  The choices for Orlando were a little known attraction called "Circus World" and of course, Walt Disney World.  Around half of us chose Disney.  The only problem was that our liberty uniform was eerily similar to the outfits worn by the trash sweepers.  This would cause much laughter later in the day when a young tourist dropped a cup of ice cream and a Disney manager shouted to us "hey - who's gonna pick that up?"   

Having never been to Disneyworld and having been cooped up with 80 other guys for eight weeks, it was refreshing to just get out and see some new sights.  We still were not officially "sailors" yet as we had not gone through graduation, but that didn't matter.  It was great just to get out and see something other than a parade ground and Navy buildings.

After a whole day outside of the Navy base, it was time to return and contemplate the next step in our respective careers.  Some of our company had no "job" and were going to go straight to the fleet to be "strikers" meaning they were "striking out for a career."  The brochure listed "striking" as a fun and exciting lifetime experience where one tries his/her hand at a myriad of tasks until one finds a job that one likes.  Hmmm...sounds waaaaaaaay too good to be true.  Most will end up painting the ship, chipping paint, handling rope, mopping, you know...all the "fun" jobs...  As for me and my immediate group of buddies, we had submarine school in mind.  But first, time to pack up all that cool stuff the Navy gave you and clear your locker out.  Believe it or not, this took a whole day...

Then onwards to graduation!  Time to say goodbye to all of it.  The drop out rate wasn't that bad.  There were a few who had to stay behind, but on the whole, the company had a good presence at the ceremony.  One of our lot passed out due to heat stroke.  To this day I'll never understand why the Navy made several hundred people, in polyester uniforms stand out in the heat.  Oh well.

The day passed and soon it was time to sort ourselves out, collect our sea bags and move on to our first duty station or technical ("A") school.  The majority of us, it seemed, were headed to Service School which catered for a variety of trades and occupations.  After clearing and cleaning, clearing and cleaning, we were separated into groups.  Those going to point A stood here, those going to point B stood there, etc.  We were loaded onto buses and sent to the airport.  There, friendly Navy people were there to herd us like sheep to our next destination.  While at the airport, there was time for a beer (or two), surprisingly...

One or two beers later and I found myself on a plane flying to Merridian, Mississippi for my technical school.  Well of course, Mississippi in late June is only a few degrees cooler than the mean temperature of hell.  And of course, what a better way to endure heat than to wear one of the Navy's sadistically designed, 100% polyester uniforms.  Most of my company was there with me which was great for friendships, cameraderie and basically making one feel less lonely and overwhelmed.  The work was amazingly pedestrian and like all Navy commands, when you weren't doing class work, you were doing yard work, picking up trash, etc.  That in itself is not bad, but the anal retentiveness of watch standing bored into your brain and created a burning hatred.  The Navy couldn't do ANYTHING without making you stand at attention for hours on end while someone who was just getting used to their tongue implant attempted to pronounce everyone's name.  Then there was the safety lecture in how to use a lawn mower.  There were bright spots though, I got to ride a horse for the first time.  One of the few perks of Navy bases at the time was that all recreation gear was free to rent.  So dressed in our finest Navy working clothes, my bestest buds and I picked three stallions with which to learn the fine art of horseback riding.

Not bad for first timers.  The pain the next day was unreal.  The school was shared by Marines which was interesting as it provided us all with an opportunity to interact with other servicemembers.  The Marines for the most part tended to keep to themselves, though a few of them were in our communal barracks.  Due to grade point average I found myself made "Platoon Leader" of our barracks.  As a priviledge of rank, I was allowed early liberty, or more free time.  This was good and was spent studying.  When not studying there was party preparations to be made.  The Navy tended to leave us alone on weekends and young boys with bulging wallets can quickly find "things to do."  One of the things we all liked to do, was rent the pool and go swimming.  Here, SKSA Nick Feola and SKSN Frank Caffiero do some relaxing prior to a swim.  Frank looks silly in his uniform, but at the time, we were too young rank wise, to be allowed off base, so none of us had any civilian clothes.

Luckily the school was self-paced so after a few weeks of hellish Southern temperatures, I graduated out and received my orders to BESS, Basic Enlisted Submarine School.  There were two of us and we left in the morning for the flight to Connecticut.  We finally arrived in Groton, Connecticut for submarine school.  Submarine school was six weeks long and although not as gruelling as BUDS (Navy SEAL school), the drop out rate was equally impressive.  There was book exams and piping charts.  Electrical crash courses.  And then there was the wet trainer.  The wet trainer is unlike any amusement park ride you've ever been on.  The man in the control booth has windshield wipers on his glass.  This is going to be full-on soaking.  The room simulates any part of a submarine with pipes in it.  The control booth decides which pipes all of the sudden spring a leak.  Your team then has to scramble to patch the hole using clamps, plugs and other variety of impliments.  Oh...did I mention that the room floods if you're too slow?  The first time you get in they set off two leaks before you have been trained in what to do.  Within seconds the water rises to your chin and you get a taste of just how serious submarine life is.  After draining, the teacher shows you the various tools to stop a leak and to stop it FAST.  You bond as a team and to make sure that living to fight another day is paramount on your list of priorities, you're put into random teams to make sure that no matter who you're with, you BOND.  The last days involve multiple leaks, faster flooding and did I mention you're in the dark?  Finding several hundred PSI leaks in the dark is unimaginable fun.  Several days of wet trainer beats you senseless as your ears get accustomed to the squeeking of wet shoes.  After drying out, the fire fighting team trainer provides the brain with another taste of submarine hell.  Split into teams of four you are given assignments; door man, nozzle man, hose man, etc.  You alternate until you've tried them all.  For this exercise you wear OBA's - the self contained oxygen breathing aparatus.  The good thing about the OBA is that it's self-contained, unlike the emergency breathing aparatus (EAB) which must be plugged in from outlet to outlet.  However, the OBA's life span is only 30 minutes.  You'd be surprised how fast thirty minutes goes when your back is to the wall with several feet of evil fire coming towards you.  The trainer is in an old fuel tank, so it's round like a sub and can be tilted like a sub which brings all the nice fire towards you.  Several days of fire fighting is enough for anyone.  Submarine history is thrown in to add meaning to what you're doing.  Escape and evasion with the Steinke Hood and general submarine line handling is yet another dimension.  The Naval Submarine Base is unique in that, the boats you're learning to serve on are just a few feet from the classroom, down by the pier.  After school, you could go down and talk to the crews, take tours and basically find out what the real thing looks like.  Here, USS Dallas returns from a Med run and is nudged into the pier by a tug.  Off to her right is the Coast Guard training cutter Eagle.

Virtually every class of submarine was present in Groton.  The USS Nautilus was welded to the pier for refit as a museum.  Then came the Skipjack Class boats, some Permits, Sturgeons, the one-off USS Tulibee and of course, the sports cars; the Los Angeles Class boats.  The crews you met on the base were friendly and pretty soon you had a rough idea which boat you'd like to serve on.  I was still undecided.  Having just finished reading Tom Clancy's "The Hunt For Red October," I was leaning towards a Los Angeles Class fast attack boat.  I spent many afternoons down at the pier watching Groton's numerous 688's including USS Groton.  Off to her right is the escape trainer.  The tower is filled with water and you enter at the bottom and make an ascent to the top, assisted all the way by divers.  After that, you visit the pressurization chamber.

The Skipjack class boats had crews that were fun to talk to, and went out regularly for training operations.  It wasn't too difficult to get permission to ride them as the skippers feared that most of us would want to be stationed on an LA Class boat and therefore they were happy to show us a good time in the hopes that we'd pick them.  The tempo was different as well, being that they were older submarines.  Here, USS Skipjack herself, class namesake, soaks up the sun.

Groton itself is a beautiful location for a submarine base and the whole area had a very close-knit family feel to it.  Downtown Groton itself had the complete sail from USS Flasher, one of world war two's high scoring fleet submarines, and of course, down by the pier was the world war two submarine USS Croaker, now a museum.

The curiculum was intense as the weeks progressed.  The climate was perfect, almost like England, so for me, the Navy's mandatory yard work wasn't a problem.  It was nice to find yourself shivering for a change instead of drenched in sweat.  Then, all of the sudden, it was time for graduation.  This was it.  No more school.  After this, it was time to head to the fleet.  Graduation was brilliant as my family came down for the ceremony. 

Uncle Norman (ex-Marine) was especially pleased with the base and found all the sights and exhibits fascinating.  Especially the captured Japanese midget submarine. 

Off base, the town of Groton had more sights to see as well.  Here I am about to tour the USS Croaker, a museum submarine and conveniently located next to a fine restraunt.

Towards the end of the day, we received our assignments.  I received orders to USS George Bancroft (SSBN-643)(Blue Crew) in Charleston, South Carolina.  I would never reach her.  After graduation, I spent a few days with my parents and aunt and uncle in neighboring New Jersey.  Without a passport and with a few dollars in my pocket, I dressed in my dress blue "crackerjack" uniform and stood around in Philadelphia international airport looking lonely.  I soon obtained a standby ticket to visit my girlfriend in England.  We did the "tourist in London" thing which included being acosted by the infamous "parrot man" - a kindly gent who comes out of nowhere, drops a honking great parrot in your arms and then photographs you and then charges you for it!  Hmmm...

Kind of like the window washing hobos in Los Angeles...  After two glorious weeks, it was time to reach my first duty station.  En route, I learned that my orders had been cancelled and I'd been reassigned.  I arrived at Submarine Group SIX's quarterdeck at midnight and was given a room and a copy of my new orders; USS Casimir Pulaski (SBBN-633)(Blue Crew). 

The Young Man And The Sea

Although the submarines were just a few minutes walk from the classrooms and barracks, and although the instructors ‘suggested’ you visit one (or two), it was never mandatory nor part of the experience that was Submarine School.  It was with such an emptiness that I stepped onboard a live nuclear submarine for the first time in my life.  As I stood on the quarterdeck waiting for the Topside Watch to cross check my name from the access list, it occurred to me that over two thirds of the submarine was below the surface.  I’D BE GOING UNDER WATER!  As I pondered the submarine sitting there like a beached whale, I noticed not one, but four hatches open.  BIG HATCHES!  Hatches that could let water in.  Did the crew know about this?  Apparently so as sailors occasionally popped in and out of the hatches during my wait.  Name cleared, I was motioned aboard and stepped off of the steel brow (gang plank) that separated me from dry land (well, the tender anyway…) and a ship that was already two thirds of the way sunk.  I noticed someone’s head at the bottom of the hatch which gave me an immediate clue as to how far of a drop it would be if I didn’t grab the ladder.  I tried to go down the ladder as fast as possible, so as not to clue anyone that this was my first time onboard a submarine.  I must have bruised myself a dozen times as I scampered down the ladder and landed in Aux Machinery Room 1 Upper Level.  The smell of amine, diesel and Lord only knows what else greeted my nostrils.  “Pig boats…hmmm…indeed.”  No one else noticed (or cared) so I stopped squinching my eyes and nose and pretended it didn’t bother me either. 

 

Un-stowed equipment had been deliberately left lying around for me to trip over and to catch my elbows and knees.  “I must report this to someone; people could get hurt!”  I bent down to move something and realized where all the mess came from; the stuff was mounted there.  Damn.  From the outside, it was hard to guage that there were three floors (levels) onboard.  It was also hard to imagine how much gear was packed into so little space.  Walking forward-ways was going to be difficult.  A slight sideways slant seemed to accomplish better results.  It was the last day of turn-over so the other crew was still onboard.  Twice as many people leaving and entering.  That sideways slant wasn’t sideways enough and soon, the heavy traffic volume necessitated that I just hug the wall and shinny that way.  After an eternity I emerged from Missile Upper Level into the aft end of the Control Room.  I leaned against the Quartermaster’s plotting table and quickly surveyed the area.  Most of Control was rigged for inport, meaning the depth and speed gauges were covered to hide their data from visitors and the periscopes were lowered.  I was surprisingly winded from my short journey and watched as folks packed stuff, took final readings on instruments and otherwise went through the ritual of turnover.  I could hear my Chief’s voice in the background and moved towards it.  Out of Control and into yet another narrow passage way.  The Sonar shack was on the right and I poked my head inside expecting a huge Hollywood set with dozens of sweaty men listening to pinging and depth charge noises.  The lack of gear (and space) was an instant let down.  “This is a submarine isn’t it?”

 

I met up with my Leading Petty Officer, Senior Chief Yates and stood near the door while he finished turnover with the Gold Crew LPO, Petty Officer First Class Sipes.  I probably should have been paying attention but was too busy looking at the equally small space that constituted our “office.”  There were heavy steel bars on the book cases to keep heavy regulation binders from flying at sea.  There were two chairs and the passageway barely fit them.  It was amazing how large the submarine was when it came to navigating through it to find the head (bathroom) and mess decks.  Oh yeah…and berthing.  Seaman Mark Shafer had already made one run before me so the lack of space was nothing new to him.  He navigated his way around the two LPO’s like an old pro and did what he had to do, then suggested we head below decks to check out where my rack was.  It turned out to be one of the visitor (“rider”) racks in Lower Level Missile.  “As in – ‘the missile compartment?’”  Yup.  That be it.  There were four or five other racks with mattresses on them that looked like they’d come from a world war two submarine.  Twice.  Not to worry.  It became obvious to me that I’d be sleeping in my parka that night.  The temperature in Lower Level Missile was almost cold enough to see your breath.  After dropping my stuff off, Mark gave me the tour of the boat, taking care to point out certain safety features like where breathing gear was, fire hoses, etc.  We’d been eating on the tender these past few days, so at lunch time, we left for some chow. 

 

The COB met up with me later in the evening and gave me my ship’s qualification card and a list of who I needed to speak to for learning, signatures, etc.  I had one year – or two patrols – to become qualified.  Failure to do so would result in expulsion from the submarine force.  The crew took it seriously and made great effort to spur the non-qualified crewmen on towards earning their dolphins.  Some of the efforts were quite brutal as most initiations are.  Some men had black tape over their ballcap dolphins and most all were referred to as “NUBS,” “non-quals” or “dink non-qual pukes.”  I say “most” as I was spared this initiation ritual.  Probably because as one of the boat’s three Yeomen, I was responsible for their pay.  Not wise to piss off the guys that pay you!  On more than one occasion, the initiated made their names known to me, so that I’d know who to seek for guidance.  I’m sure a future favor or two would be required, but hey – it’s a small, small price to pay for fame and fortune.  My first signature was a walk-through of Operations Upper Level with First Class Sonar Tech Eddie Beach.  Eddie’s outlook on life and submarining was as unique as you could get.  As Sonar shared a passageway with Radio, it wasn’t long before Radio Chief Harvey Belcher and Radioman Pat King joined my circle of teachers and walkthrough guides.  Pat’s methods were slower but you retained more.  Harvey’s walkthroughs were do or die.  Mark Shafer provided further guidance as to which watchstanders were just wasting my time and which ones I should diligently seek. 

 

The COB’s schedule for me was not that strict and he pretty much left me to my own devices.  He wanted me to experience the whole range of fun that submarining entailed.  This involved deck division – painting the outside of the boat – and cranking.  “Cranking” is the nickname given to the act of working in the galley, assisting the cooks in preparing the food, serving the food and cleaning the galley after each meal.  Cranking is a rite of passage that should be rewarded by four month’s dining in a high class eatery.  Cranking is the job that does not ever end.  And when it does, just as one settles into one’s rack, the drill alarms will go off, robbing you of what little sleep you had.  I was placed on what was deemed the worst crank detail of all – the mid watch.  This lasted from just after dinner to just before lunch or some un-Godly time span.  The duty cook for this slot was Petty Officer Tom Krieger.

 

Tommy Krieger.  There are hallucinogenic drugs that are not as potent as the fumes Tommy would fill the boat with.  No matter how stinky or filthy the sub was, Tom’s night baking would fix it.  Even today, I can’t pass a bakery without thinking of Tom.  The smell of his fresh baked goods would fill the boat from shaft alley to the torpedo room.  The smell did everything from putting you to sleep, to easing depression and anger.  There were people bone tired, who would put in wake up calls, so they’d be able to get some of his fresh bread or cakes.  You’d float to the galley like in those Tom and Jerry cartoons and you’d end up trying to find a seat amongst the crowd.  There’d only be one seat left and it would be next to X, who you hated or couldn’t stand.  The feeling was mutual.  But fresh bread and Navy butter overcomes a mountain of hostility.  Soon you’re laughing at what you both were going to tear each other’s throats out over.  “What dicks we are…”  “Yup…now pass the butter…”  As a Midrats crank and as a novice baker myself, I peeked over his shoulder to see what he did that made common ingredients turn to voodoo.  No bat wing or eye of newt, sadly.  Just normal flour, etc.  The bread was as high class as you could get in the Western world.  It was easy to see how many (including myself) could easily put on pounds. 

 

Submarine eating was reputed to be the best in the military world and I was looking forward to my first real underway meal.  I was not disappointed.  I like greasy hamburgers and fries so there it was.  “Sliders” with fries.  Oh and…all the portions you could handle.  Testing the water, I asked for two.  Yup.  Got ‘em.  Not even a second glance.  Dare I ask for seconds?  “Hey Yo – thanks for fixing my pay the other day – I’m goin’ up for seconds, want something?”  Damn…hell yeah!  After my third cheeseburger and 7-Up, I figured I should probably stop.  Fresh veg and milk lasted for a few weeks and then it was on to powdered milk and canned veg.  Not really a problem when the meal is lobster tail and prime rib.  As I watch cooking programs on television, I visualize Findlater, Kerry, Krieger, Buffet and Troje running around preparing meals for one hundred fifty guys.  They took their share of abuse but it was all in jest.  There were no skinny guys when patrol was over.  When pushed to the limit all could turn out class meals.  The breakfasts were omlets and French toast that Denny’s would be hard pressed to match.