Steve Woods

A Sea Story

In What Day is it? on October 27, 2009 at 2:13 pm

It was a confluence of sensation.  It began with my feet: a gut-wrenching downward movement of the submarine, and a guttural, rumbling shudder.  Then my eyes and ears were brought to bear, as a massive column of salt water shot down the stairs next to me, shouts from above, and the clarion call of the collision alarm went off.  The last two jolted me out of my quiet, purposeful oblivion.  Was this really happening?

Fear shoved my entire body forward one inch, chest first, as I heaved a heavy, loud breath.  The gasp did its job, breaking my paralysis and turning my mind back on.  My legs carried me around the first bend, as I trod through now-ankle-deep water flowing outward into every nook and cranny, each filled with electrical cabling, switches and equipment, shouting all the while “Flooding, flooding!” at the top of my lungs.

An older chief, known for his light-hearted joviality, rushed past me, now serious and wide-eyed in fear, rapidly unlatching and closing the hatch that separated the forward compartment from the one with the massive missile tubes and accompanying crew’s quarters.  As the door was shoved shut, I could see through its narrowing opening a variety of still-sleepy crewmembers leaning out of their bunkrooms, some bolting out semi-nude and dressing in the hall, fumbling in unlaced boots to their battle stations.  As the old chief turned to face me, both of us trapped in the affected forward compartment, I could hear the rush of the water still coming down the stairs….

Today is Navy Day, a set-aside if you please to ponder on our first military branch, our sea-borne projection of power (and hope for peace) around the World.  It is a day to think about the engineering marvels we put on and under the World’s oceans, and the incredible men and women who serve on them.

Basic Training

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Yes, it's me...

I celebrated in silence my 23rd birthday on the first day that I showed up in Orlando, Florida for Basic Training, not wanting to draw one iota of attention to myself.  As soon as we arrived, our personal items were looked through for contraband, and stored until we finished boot camp, as nothing was needed but our bodies and minds for the ordeal ahead.  Names were called, and we rapidly were assembled into groups by bored staffers, then led to and bunked down for the night in large rooms on squeaky, lumpy beds.  Over the next few days we were given immunizations, filled out piles of paperwork, were measured and weighed for proper clothing, and issued workout gear.

The U. S. Navy processes over 54,000 new recruits through its facility at Lake Michigan (the Orlando facility shut its doors years ago,) with much of the training occurring indoors, including marching, drills, confidence courses and weapons training.  Recruits must learn Navy conduct and values, the various parts of a seaworthy vessel, how to properly care for their bunk and clothing, and how to survive tortuous physical exercise, all the while living under the constant scrutiny of two Company Commanders, men and women with an eagle eye for weakness and non-assimilative attitudes.  Additionally during the 8-week course, recruits give up smoking, eat, sleep, shower and use the restroom by strict schedules, learn to swim, handle fire hoses, and fight their way out of a tear-gas filled room.  In boot camp, you learn to work as a team, the value of supporting each other and making sure all get through an ordeal.

recruits

Navy recruits in line for the next thing...

While serving my basic training, it was noted that I had a keen ability to learn the large assemblage of trivia provided to us during long, hot training sessions.  Fighting off the urge to fall asleep like so many others, I took concise notes, and utilized rapidly-drawn illustrations to bring concepts together.  One of my Company Commanders noted this, and after a short conference with his partner, informed me that I would be in charge of follow-up training for my company of over 70 men.  I spent hours drawing ships at varying angles and labeling the parts (forecastle, port, starboard, quarterdeck, stern, rudder, keel, cleats, etc) while the rest of my Company scrubbed and polished the floors.  They did not seem to mind the disparity in jobs, as our Company’s academic awards rolled in, providing for a loosening of restrictions against us by our Commanders.

“A” Schools

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Learning the tools of the trade...

Following the 8-week basic training course, many sailors are sent to short-term training environments, or “A” Schools, each with an area of emphasis, depending on what field of work you are entering.  It’s important to iron down, in writing with your recruiter, what job you are going into when enlisting in the military, or you may find yourself unpleasantly surprised at this point.  Before enlisting, I had obtained a rock-solid guarantee that I would be entering the Navy to become a Nuclear Machinist Mate, which meant that on whatever vessel I was stationed, I would ultimately be tasked to watch over, maintain and repair the propulsion-related equipment of the nuclear reactors and engine rooms.  For the next 3 months I attended the Nuclear Field A School for Machinist’s Mates, where I learned how to use those tools used in an engineering setting, from your run-of-the-mill wrenches, hammers and screwdrivers to bearing presses, pressure switches, micrometers, calipers and depth gages.  I also gained knowledge of how to transition to the rigors of boot camp to the somewhat more relaxed environment of navy training.

Advanced Training Schools

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Nuclear Power School patch

Although many sailors move from A School to their first at-sea assignment, there are a number of fields in the U.S. Navy that require advanced training in order to perform in them.  Navy Cryptographers, Sonar Operators, Missile Technicians, Torpedo men, Nurses, SEALs and those operating the nuclear reactor equipment are among those that must attend this additional instruction.   After completion of my A School, I went on to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Training Unit in Orlando for 6 months of intensive training in what is billed as one of the most difficult educational environments in America (a whopping 40% drop-out rate.)  During my tenure, I completed rapid-fire courses in physics, metallurgy, reactor plant thermodynamics, and more.  There were weekly tests administered, late night cramming sessions every night for most, and an even looser after-school environment.

Advanced training can often include hands-on learning environments, to ensure knowledge level, and provide for more tactile learners.  After Power School, I headed to Nuclear Prototype for 6 more months, oddly enough to the deserts of Idaho’s National Engineering Laboratory.  I rode a bus for almost 3 hours in each direction daily, sleeping against a cold window.  I studied continuously, seeking clarification from staff members, and performed a variety of tasks in the A1W Nuclear Prototype plant, which was essentially a fully-functioning replica of one of the engine rooms from the U.S.S. Enterprise, replete with reactor plant and steam-driven propulsion system.  I did so well that I was picked up as a staff member, and served there for 2 more additional years, enjoying the rarity of shore duty before time at sea…

Surface or Submarine Assignments

Nearing the end of one’s initial training, sailors are given the opportunity to decide whether or not to become surface sailors or submariners.  Where one actually serves is almost entirely taken out of your hands, but a sailor is provided a few requests and a prayer…  I decided from day one that I wanted to hide out under the waves in the silent service, as a submariner.  And in particular, I wanted to serve on the Cadillac of submarines, an Ohio Class Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarine.  And as luck would have it, that is exactly what I got.

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An Ohio-Class Nuclear Missile Submarine

The Navy has a variety of types (or classes) of vessels in use: Aircraft carriers, Cruisers, Destroyers, Frigates, Corvettes, Patrol Vessels, Minor Surface Combatants, Mine Warfare Vessels and Amphibious Warfare Vessels.  Each has a very specific set of armaments, compartments, propulsion capabilities, and working surfaces to perform its job.  The ships that project the most power are the Aircraft Carriers, capable of launching a variety of heavily-armed advanced fighters airborne at a moment’s notice.  Working in tandem with other classes of vessels, it is almost impossible to attack and/or destroy a modern American Aircraft Carrier.

Interestingly enough, my first (and only sea duty command,) the U.S.S. Nevada, is considered only to be a Minor Surface Combatant, despite its array of advanced torpedoes and 24 Trident II D-5 nuclear missiles, each capable of carrying up to 8 individual warheads.  It’ll do a lot more damage than any fleet of navy jets, but of course is maintained as a weapon of last resort, as it should.  It is the modern equivalent of the big stick President Theodore Roosevelt alluded to, but hidden away under the ever-moving ocean waves.  Our job as submariners was to get underwater, transit unnoticed to a predetermined sector of the ocean, and make very large figure eights while staying as quiet as possible.  It is said that to find an American ballistic missile submarine, one has to look for quiet spots in the ocean, little black holes of noiselessness back dropped against the cacophonic clicking of krill and other sea life.

Underway

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So many things to do underway...

I spent five years stationed on the Nevada, spending a total of 2 years underwater.  Patrols were around 2 ½ months in duration, monotony broken by the almost-daily drill schedule of pretend fires, floods, hydraulic leaks, reactor SCRAMs (loss of reactor power,) steam leaks and any other disasters dreamed up by our supervisors to keep us alert and knowledgeable.  We had half-way parties filled with pizza and king crab legs, held ugly beard contests, watched movies incessantly, and drank tankards of coffee.  And we spent long hours at our watch stations, thinking about those still at home while cleaning, painting, making adjustments to equipment, and logging activity.  Showers were short and unconvincing, but one of the few bastions of alone time we got.

While underway I crawled all over the inside of the submarine (or boat as we called it,) learning how to shut down and restart systems vital to survival.  I qualified to supervise operations in the reactor plant and engine room, helped cooked breakfast in the galley when fancy struck me, learned to cut hair and performed for a time as ship’s barber, clipping many a head prior to pulling into shore at San Diego or Hawaii.  I hung out with all variety of sailors on board, learning a bit about their jobs, their families, their lives.  I explored the philosophical values of a variety of individuals while standing watch, and learned the value of liberal thought and acceptance.  In short, I had a good time underway.

Finishing Where We Started

For certain, I could regale you with so many stories from my time in the Navy, but this is a blog, not a book….  I’ll end with the one I started at the beginning:

While on my very first patrol, I served galley duty, as all new sailors have to do.  We were transiting out from Alameda through an area known as the “Potato Patch” due to its exceptionally rough waters.  It was mid-November, and the sea churned admirably, causing half of the crew to lie down at their watch stations, between throwing up in trash cans.  The ship’s doctor was busy handing out motion sickness pills while admonishing everyone for not visiting him before the transit out.  The Nevada was buttoned up tight for the journey out of the bay with the exception of the conning tower, which had its hatch open a full 75 feet above the missile deck, and wherein stood the officer of the deck, an old crusty chief and a brand new fresh-out-of-boot-camp sailor.

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Ohio Class Submarine Conning Tower

As the submarine maneuvered on the surface, the boat steered in a manner that drove it over a very massive swell, lurching the front of the submarine up and then down, under the crest of the following wave.  The propeller (or screw) pulled slightly out of the water, cavitating momentarily.  As soon as the submarine bit into the oncoming wave, the propeller caught again, and pushed the submarine down, a full thirty feet over the open hatch and the heads of the three surprised men.

The Officer of the Deck held tightly to the lip of the opening atop the conning tower and held his breath, as he watched the young seaman momentarily suspended overhead in the water, as the old chief held his hand, one hand tightly gripped the edge of the opening.  And as soon as the wave passed over, it pulled away again, and the water level dropped almost 100 feet, exposing once again the conning tower and occupants.  The chief never let go of the sailor, who went over the edge of the tower and hit the edge of it with a thud, quickly pulled back in as everyone coughed and sputtered wildly.

During the submersion, a thick, brackish column of water shot through the open hatch into the conning tower and down the stairs, right by the tiny compartment I was working in, smashing trash to shoot out later in deeper waters.  After the chief closed the compartment hatch to isolate the damage to our compartment, I noted many small calamari littering the floor of the path.  Everyone in the forward compartment rushed to and fro in preparation for significant damage, as nobody knew what had happened yet.  After the men came below and the conning tower hatch was secured, the compartment hatches were reopened, and we all got to work mopping up and drying the water.  A few in their haste to control the water from causing damage in the torpedo room pulled mattresses from bunk rooms and put them on the floor and over the stowed torpedoes, much to the dismay of the individuals who had been previously sleeping on them.  It was a mess for weeks, as we continued to find salt deposits in obscure locations.

The flooding incident was one of the more exciting adventures that took place on the Nevada.  Perhaps as the months progress, a few more might make their way out of me…

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