The sea groans as it does and if one listens closely, as when placing a seashell to one's ear, you can almost hear the voices of ships long past. My trips to the seaside are no different and voices call out as if the sea itself is searching for a home port for all it's lost ships.
We cursed the Pulaski - God did we curse her! She stank us from head to toe. Upon return from patrol, loved ones banished us to the shower to soak for hours in an effort to remove the smell her oxygen scrubbers bestowed on us. And her reliability! Damn her reliability! Picture yourself at sea, stretched mentally and emotionally. The end of patrol looms but - your replacement needs repair and can't make it. Extension time. And there was good old "CP" - old faithful - remaining on station for extra time. She never broke, damn her. And her filth...she took forever to clean! And no matter how hard or how long you cleaned, she took pleasure in displaying spots you missed. Despite it all, she never changed her sound. The rhythmic humming of her power plant and the noises made by various fans and motors was soothing. Sleep came easy inside one of the old girl's bunks. Day after day she carried us back and forth through hostile waters. As old as she was, her sonar suite never failed to protect us, her reactor never failed to power us.
There was bitter emotion upon seeing her berthed. Why on earth after leaving your family would you be happy to see HER? It was twisted but she knew our names. And once on board, it was if we had never left. The knobs were almost in the same position, the spilt soda seemed to be there from last patrol and a bunch of other little details that comprise a halfway decent haunted house story. She was my first boat and I suppose it burned that I could not be there for her passing. One only wonders what she was thinking as her flag was hauled down for the last time, only to be stuffed in a desk drawer somewhere. Who was the last to salute her? An original crew member, or some nub who was just there when the Navy came to round people up?
We all fantasized about our last trip on her. Was it orders to shore duty? Glorious retirement after years of faithful service? Yard duty? Or perhaps to another boat? My last day crept up quickly. I was awaiting test results for an MRI that I had taken. The phone call came early in the morning and by mid afternoon, I was off the boat. I packed excitedly as one would, knowing that later that evening I'd be in my wife's arms instead of separated. And this was to be a Christmas patrol as well, meaning I'd miss our time together had I gone to sea. In the past, I envisioned myself making a walk through of her before I left. Shaft alley where I hid from the COB numerous times; AMR 1 where I failed my first walkthrough and finishing at the torpedo room. Word swept through the boat like wild fire that I was not making patrol. As it was a Christmas patrol, I was presumptuous if I expected widespread happiness at my departure! My emotions then centered on the completely narcissistic thought that I wouldn't be getting another star for my patrol pin. Luckily the XO broke my chain of thought by asking if I'd like to drive his car home for him?
The answer was a no-brainer as I had no other way to get home. I arrived home and within a day or two embarked on a whirlwind medical discharge, comprising a medical board in Washington, DC and numerous other interviews and meetings. The Cold War was over so George Bush Sr. had sailors to trim from the fleet. My mistake was being on medical hold at the time. I had letters from admirals requesting I be retained. No such luck. Four months later I stood in the commander's office at Transient Personnel Unit SIX and shook her hand goodbye. The dreams of Pulaski started shortly afterwards almost like some kind of curse or spell. The ball cap that I hated wearing suddenly became a favored piece of apparell. I was still young and thoughts of death - animate and inanimate - were far from me. I always assumed that one day my son would salute her flag and request permission to come aboard. I was wrong.
I doubt if she still had her name when Joe, the shipyard worker, lit his torch and started cutting into her hull. The cutting was no doubt easy, helped along by years of exposure to sea pressure. I often wonder which part went first. More often though, what was made of her high tensile steel? What plowshare was she beaten into? Was her steel used to make hospital beds, or perhaps crutches for children? How about girders for a retirement home? It must have been an important cause, surely. My son asked out of the blue about her. And one day, with him and his friends in tow, we made the pilgrimage to King's Bay, Georgia. The road grew familiar too quickly. The front gate had not changed. Lower base, however, may as well have been another country. There was building and construction everywhere. Not an empty lot stood where there was once swamp and wilderness. The huge garages for the Ohio Class boats were not only completed but had boats in them.
We were met by the Executive Officer of USS Rhode Island who gave us a tour. The tour was long and complete. As complete as could be given due to security considerations. The boys were duly impressed as was I. The "Hotel" class, was the name we'd given to them back in the day. Monsters of the deep with every provision. No hand to hand stores load on this boat! A huge elevator to take whole pallets at a time! And not sixteen, but twenty four missiles. The smell of amine never changed, that sickning chemical used to scrub the oxygen, that permeated everything you wore. USS Canopus was long gone and her jetty had been swallowed by the massive pier complex. Warrior Wharf stood ominous with it's monolith commemorating the loss of USS Thresher and USS Scorpion. I remember the dedication of that pier as if it was yesterday. USS Canopus and the Pulaski stood off to the side. I could almost see both of them still there.
There was no memorial to the sacrifices made by the original forty one SSBN's. Not even a marker by the pier. All who sailed on them get a "Cold War" certificate, issued in caring government style after numerous tricks have been performed as if by a hound begging for table scraps. A scrap of paper to make up for lifetimes lost. The Cold War's toll will never fully be realized. On Pulaski alone there were families that broke apart due to the strain of sea duty and patrols. There were men crippled in accidents that occured during refit or repair or on patrol itself. And it must have been just as bad on the Soviet side.
Leaving the base took a while. We left and arrived at Fort Clinch. As we walked the ramparts my thoughts took me back to Pulaski crossing the fort, heading out to sea. Her pilot had left her by then and she was heading out on her own. A friendly Los Angeles and Orion would greet her at the ocean's edge and she'd clear her bridge and gently nose down into the deep. The blowing of her main ballast tanks would create a small plume like some happy whale diving down to it's home. As I scanned the Atlantic I thought I saw what resembled a black sail but it was just my imagination and some wishful thinking. There is a heaven for submarines and Pulaski's there. Her baffle is always clear, her tanks empty, her fresh water supply topped up and her reactor is at full power. The smell of fresh baked bread fills her passageways. At peace finally, she'll have her hull number and name proudly emblazoned on her hull. She and her sister boats will all sail together and tell tales of their past glories.
Fair winds and following seas...
Submarine Squadron SIXTEEN or in Navy jargon, Subron 16, was formed during the second world war. Subron 16 submarines sank more than 500,000 tons of Japanese shipping, including warships and merchantmen. For it's efforts, the squadron received the Presidential Unit Citation and six Navy Unit Commendations.
Like most of the military following the war, Subron 16 was disbanded and it's boats either sent to other squadrons or decommissioned or placed into mothballs. Fast forward to the dawn of the nuclear age and the squadron found itself being re-commissioned not in the picturesque South Pacific tropics, but this time in Charleston, South Carolina on the 18th of October, 1963. Subron 16 was the US Navy's second ballistic missile submarine squadron. Shortly after commissioning, the squadron was based in Rota, Spain, arriving on the 28th of January 1964. Headquarters was onboard USS Proteus (AS-19), the resident submarine tender. USS Lafayette (SSBN-616) completed the first nuclear deterrent patrol and refit out of Rota. During the 1970's, Subron 16's boats converted to the Poseidon missile. On the 14th of January 1974, USS Francis Scott Key (SSBN-657) arrived back at Rota and commenced a Poseidon patrol.
All good things come to an end and during normal NATO negotiations with Spain in 1975, it was determined to move the base stateside and close Rota to submarine operations. Congress agreed in the summer of 1976 and it was decreed that withdrawal from Spanish soil was slated for summer 1979. Along with that decision, a former US Army supply port, King's Bay, Georgia, was picked to be Subron 16's future home. After a visit, the site was approved by the Secretary Of The Navy in November 1976. Switching headquarters, Subron 16 found itself onboard USS Simon Lake (AS-33) and arrived at King's Bay on the 2nd of July 1979. USS James Monroe (SSBN-622) followed and became the base's first SSBN to conduct a refit and mount a deterrent patrol.
Since then, King's Bay has been an active SSBN base. The base was slated to receive half of the oncoming Ohio Class SSBN's and to prepare the base for the support of the new boats and their larger missiles, it was decided to convert Subron 16's boats to the Trident 1 C4 missile. In June of 1983, USS Casimir Pulaski returned to the base and performed the first Trident patrol from King's Bay. As the Cold War ended, marked by the 3,000th nuclear deterrent patrol, Subron 16 once again found itself decommissioned, with her boats, including Pulaski, heading towards decommissioning. Subron 16's flag was struck on the 25th of June 1994 after a speech by Colin Powell (acting Chairman JCOS) in which he credited the submarine force "as having done more to win the Cold War than any other part of the military."
Forces dwindled and soon, a novel concept arose whereby a squadron's boats would be reduced to four. This would enable the squadron to better care for it's boats. Each squadron was also given other responsibilities. The Navy, short of experienced SSBN squadrons once again pulled Subron 16 from retirement. Her flag was again raised on the 7th of August 1997. Subron 16 was given the responsibility for off-crew training for itself and for Subron 20's boats as well. Subron 16's new boats are: USS Nebraska (SSBN-739), USS Rhode Island (SSBN-740), USS Maine (SSBN-741) and USS Louisiana (SSBN-743). A far cry from the twelve "41 For Freedom" boats, but once again the smell of amine fills Subron 16's corridors.
It was scary deciding to travel several hours away from my civilian lifestyle back onto a Navy base. I remember returning to the United States in 1992, after having lived in England for a few years. On a whim, we decided to visit Charleston to catch up with some Navy friends. The sight that greeted us was un-nerving. The base was closed and the city was a virtual ghost town. I had some of the same fears as I travelled up Interstate 95 and crossed the Florida/Georgia border. Naval Submarine Base, King's Bay has grown to mammoth proportions. We were met by the base PAO (Public Affairs Officer) who had booked a tour for us onboard USS Rhode Island. I was not prepared for the sight that met me. The Ohio Class SSBN's are, in a nutshell, HUGE! My son James and his friends Frank and Aaron pose for a photo before going below decks.
The scaffolding on Rhode Island's sail brought back many memories of mosquito bitten watches in the early hours of the morning. The garages that we first saw being shaped, were now fully built and housed a variety of tasks; some for missile loading, others for general supply. All of them were full, taking care of King's Bay's nine boomers. I had hoped to maybe run into an old shipmate, but such was not to be. The tour was fantastic and I was amazed at the space and gear that today's submariner's have. As it should be. Only the best for those who today, defend our tomorrows. The Executive Officer walked us topside and thanked us for taking the tour.
All of the boys got ball caps and signed photos, though James proudly wore dad's old, faded, Pulaski ball cap. Her name was known onboard. Indeed, she had only occupied that berth four years earlier. The USS Rhode Island stood at the same berth readying for patrol. In a few days, she'd follow the same channel and head out to the Atlantic. Her officers and crew were highly professional and gave the boys - possibly their future shipmates - a tour they wouldn't soon forget.
The submarine museum in St. Mary's was still in it's youth, and I suppose like all museums, they can always use more stuff and exhibits. An old boomer periscope, control room seats and consoles dominate the bottom floor. Moving on, it was time to head home and make one last stop; this time, inside Florida. Fort Clinch. The fort dates back to the Civil War and has an almost complete battery still intact. She was the ultimate anti-ship weapon of her time and could pound an enemy ship to a pulp with her selection of light, medium and heavy caliber guns.
The fort is largely unchanged even though the National Park Service now has a toilet there and also allows camping within the fort's walls. The sight of the fort was always one of mixed emotions for Pulaski's crew. On one hand, passing it meant the start of a two month and so many day patrol and on the other hand, the return trip meant that the end of patrol had come. The boys naturally, as boys do, enjoyed the cannons and other military pieces throughout the fort.
The fort was the ultimate defensive weapon of it's time. The nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine is the ultimate defensive weapon today. So it's only fitting that Pulaski and her sisters should pass the fort on the way to their patrol areas. What an irony that today, Fort Clinch remains standing in it's entirety while little remains of any of the forty one SSBN's that patrolled the world's oceans, keeping our nation and her allies safe from the threat of nuclear war. From Rota, Spain; Apra, Guam; Holy Loch, Scotland; Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico; Bangor, Washington and all the way to King's Bay, Georgia, the boats and their Blue and Gold crews set sail for the unknown. Sealed against news and weather, they silently remained on station. Updating their locations constantly so that should the fateful message come, the missiles they launched would know where they were headed. Sound travels underwater and it travels fast. Statistics vary as to how many missiles each boat could launch before retribution would arrive in the form of an enemy fast attack submarine. Nevertheless, the crews did their job knowing that performance of their ultimate duty meant their pending death. To continue this devotion to duty there are presently fourteen Ohio Class SSBN's to carry on the tradition of Casimir Pulaski and her sisters. May the present SSBN's continue to return to port with full missile loads.
As times change, so do friendships and relationships. The love that the United States Of America and Poland have had for each other has never really diminished. Though numerous foreign nationals contributed to this country's success during the Revolutionary War, scholars of warfare are quick to point to the ultimate weapons that soldiers wield against each other. In the 1700's, the cavalry was one of the feared weapons on the battlefields of the world. The Europeans were the masters of mobile warfare and the Polish Army cavalry in particular, were known throughout the continent for their tough unit standards, expert training and successes against the enemy. The father of America's cavalry would be Polish Count Casimir Pulaski, an officer in one of Europe's premier horse soldier outfits, the Polish cavalry. Giving the upstart nation a taste in modern mechanized warfare may not seem to have been wise, given the Colonial's lack of horses, but just knowing how cavalry acted and attacked was immeasurably helpful to General Washington. The training given by Count Pulaski was worth it's weight in gold. Training that is still relevant to military units today. As late as 1939, the Polish Army was still a force to be reckoned with. Much to the chagrin of the German Army's mechanized Panzer Corps, the "horse soldiers" were still capable of influencing combat. Although the Germans succeeded in defeating the valiant Poles, it wasn't the slaughter frequently depicted in movies and books. The reality is that the horses could travel paths that tanks couldn't "trod" on and the Polish were masters of striking the Panzers when they were at rest. Although German propoganda efforts of the day portrayed the German soldier as uber modern and mechanized, the truth is that the German Army used horse drawn transport like the other armies of the day. The Polish cavalry cut through many German formations causing disruption of meticulous timetables and other advances. The war ended with Poland being on the side of the communism but America still maintained good relations with Poland. As the Cold War ended and many countries reverted to their pre-world war two alliances, the Polish and American governments once again found themselves friendly. In a technology transfer to the new independent nation of Poland, the US Navy transferred the guided missile frigate USS Clark to the Polish Navy.
USS Clark was one of the original Oliver Hazard Perry Class guided missile frigates launched by the US Navy in the mid-1970's. Laid down in the late-1970's and commissioned in 1980, the USS Clark served with distinction. Although her official US Navy designation was anti-aircraft warfare, the ship was equipped with deadly anti-submarine capability. The ships were cheap yet sturdy: two of Clark's sisters, the Samuel B. Roberts and the Stark, would experience horrific damage yet still remain afloat. USS Stark was hit by an Exocet missile mistakenly fired by an Iraqi jet and the USS Samuel B. Roberts had it's back severely damaged by an Iranian mine. Both ships survived. The Clark was decommissioned from the Active US Navy on March 15th, 2000 and striken from the US Navy's list of ships. In a ceremony on the same day, she was transferred to the Polish Navy and renamed ORP General Kazimierz Pulaski, becoming the second largest ship in the Polish Navy. The turnover took place at the US Navy Base in Norfolk, VA. After twenty years of active servce in the US Atlantic Fleet, she turned over her crew and the Polish flag was hoisted above her.
The Polish Navy's plans for their new warship were fitting for a ship named Pulaski. she would take her place among other NATO warships and prove her training and worth. During her first year of Polish service, the Pulaski met or exceeded all expectations for the young Navy. Although obscelete in American terms, the Perry Class frigates are miles ahead of most technology present in Europe at the moment. With one or two exceptions (Royal Navy Iron Duke Class and Dutch Kortaener Class) the Pulaski is a major weapon system in European waters. Traveling back in time to find a fitting hero to name their ship for, Pulaski's name was easily chosen. The second Perry Class frigate transferred to Poland would be named ORP General T. Kosciuszko.
Although not quite "black" she still strikes a handsome appearance in her Haze Grey color. The proud Polish Navy has sent her on many "show the flag" missions throughout European waters. As such, the Pulaski has made such port calls as Antwerp in Holland, Malta and Faslane in Scotland.
With her new color, the Pulaski joined the Standing Naval Force Atlantic as Poland's contribution to the makeup of that task force. Here is the crew's uniform patch with a familiar face emblazoned on it.
We are pleased on the Casimir Pulaski website to honor our namesake's countrymen and their newest ship. We will try and keep abreast of the happenings of this proud successor to our heritage.