by John Wallace
In January 1955, when USS Nautilus signaled “underway on nuclear power,” the ability of the U.S. Navy to conduct covert submerged operations improved dramatically.
The nuclear submarine of today’s navy is able to generate its own oxygen supply and no longer needs to surface periodically to charge batteries. It can remain submerged for months, limited only by the durability of its crew and the infrequent need to expose an antenna to communicate. There are, of course, a number of unexpected and usually unpleasant events that can force even this self-sustaining triumph of technology to the surface — fire, loss of propulsion, or mechanical malfunctions leading to loss of depth control. Depending on the circumstances, the consequences of such an event can be severe.
My own experience with covert submarine operations left me with nothing but the greatest respect for the dedication and technical skills of the men in the silent service. This respect is renewed each morning as I cross the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base on my way to work and observe the menacing lineup of fast attack submarines of the Pacific Fleet at their moorings. Very little of a Los Angeles class submarine is visible as it sits at rest in port — a sail, a rudder, and a few feet of freeboard; but beneath the water, in the other 90% of this lethal leviathan, are a potent array of modern weapons, cramped but livable space for a 100-man crew, and the nuclear reactor that makes the submarine such a versatile and effective weapon in both war and peace.
My morning route also takes me past the Submarine Memorial Park, where plaques bearing the names of Pacific Fleet submarines and their valiant crews lost to enemy action or peacetime accident, are a reminder that those who serve in this elite branch of the navy do so at great personal risk.
I was privileged to be associated with the submarine force at times during my career and learned firsthand that submariners, like aviators, earn their hazardous duty pay. My duties required that I lead teams of specially trained men who embarked on submarines for periods of time to conduct covert missions. None of us were trained submariners, but we had other special training and skills required for these special operations. and like the ship’s crew, we were all volunteers. Some of our specialists weren’t sure what they were getting into until actually faced with the prospect of disappearing down the hatch into the unfamiliar confined space of the submarine’s interior. On more than one occasion, I saw men unable to make that descent. If you’ve ever tried to put a cat in a wash tub you can picture that moment of truth. The prospect of many weeks in a confined space; breathing manufactured air; forsaking sunlight for artificial light, living with the constant awareness that a mistake, mechanical malfunction or, in some cases an adversary, could earn you a place on the memorial wall, sometimes didn’t sink in until faced with that open hatch.
One crisp autumn morning in an unnamed port somewhere in the world, my team and I made that descent through the hatch, embarking on a mission that came close to being a one-way trip. The aviators have a saying — a midair collision can ruin your whole day. In the nuclear submarine navy, the corollary might be — a reactor scram in the midst of thine enemy is not a good way to meet new people.
Entered the Naval Air Reserve out of high school in 1955, serving with VF-782 as an AT striker at Los Alamitos NAS, CA.
After graduation from college, attended OCS and was commissioned in March 1961. His duty assignments included USS Polk County (LST 1084)as Deck and Gunnery Officer; Navy Language School in Anacostia, MD, studying the Russian language; ACNSG Fort Meade, MD. as a submarine rider; NSGA Bremerhaven, Germany as Communications Officer; Vietnam as OIC of Special Support Group to MACV SOG; NSG HQ in Washington, DC; Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA; NCS Rota, Spain as Operations Officer; NSG HQ; ACNSG at Fort Meade; CINCUSNAVEUR London, UK as Deputy DNSGEur; NSGA Puerto Rico as Commanding Officer; NSA Fort Meade; NCPAC Hawaii as Deputy NCPAC.
Retired in January 1989 and remains in Hawaii.