No finances or other military-retirement topics today, folks. By popular request from my shipmate Jerome Jolly, it’s sea story time. I don’t think he’s heard this one before. Don’t worry– it’s safe for work and it’s even family-friendly.
My first assignment was the ballistic missile submarine USS JAMES MONROE (SSBN-622 BLUE), and maybe it was Jerome’s first boat too. I reported for duty in April, 1984, at the height of the Cold War. For those of you not with us at the time, President Reagan thought of the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” and was ramping up defense spending to force them to back away from their plans to dominate Europe and South America. Current events were tense and we were perpetually concerned that we might actually have to launch a nuclear missile to dissuade some foreign power from trying to invade another country. The situation wasn’t as bad as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but these were the most tense times that we’d known.
Ballistic missile submarines spend 70% of their time at sea making deterrent patrols by having BLUE and GOLD crews. When we took the submarine from our counterparts, we immediately began a three-week refit. We had to fix a long list of things that had broken during the GOLD crew’s patrol, we had to maintain our own gear, and we had to load an impossibly long list of supplies to help us endure the upcoming 90-day patrol. We spent 18-hour days, seven days a week, trying to put everything back together so that we could perform a week of sea trials before beginning the patrol. Fatigue accumulated, tensions were running high, and everyone was focused on just getting it over with so we could go to sea.
During sea trials you attempt to make sure that all your gear works while hoping that you don’t break anything else. Sure, you’d like to catch up on your sleep, too, but you’re kinda concerned that you missed a problem or that something new is going to break. Once you’re past that initial worry, you spend the rest of the week trying to remember how to operate the boat– it’s been nearly four months since you last stood watch at sea. Luckily we steely-eyed killers of the deep had a tried-and-true system for bringing back our proficiency: drill sets. You pretend that an emergency or a casualty has occurred, you try to control it, and then you try to recover from it. Unfortunately drills don’t allow you to catch up on your sleep.
Back then our Engineer was a crusty, grumpy curmudgeon named Sam Johnson. He’d been in the Navy for about a thousand years. He’s probably a good guy when he’s not exhausted, running drills, and trying to fix the gear faster than it breaks. But back then he was chronically short on sleep and that made him pretty short-tempered. I lived in fear of him and avoided him as much as possible. That tactic would have worked a lot better if he wasn’t my boss.
The ship’s newest young officer was Ray Huddleston, one of the last of the Navy’s submariners who only worked with nuclear missiles instead of nuclear reactors. Since he didn’t have to qualify on nuclear engineering systems, he started out in the weapons department (safely sequestered from Sam’s temper) and he began learning how to get a ballistic missile ready for immediate launch. It’s safe to say that Ray was not the sharpest officer in the wardroom, and he got off to a rough start. He was immature, gangly, naturally nervous, and he would frequently break down under pressure even without the stress of the Cold War. He also tended to get a little overexcited and lose control of his actions. These traits did not endear him to his boss, Don “Mad Dog” Cole, so by the time we started sea trials Ray was pretty much on a perpetual hair trigger.
The most critical drill we practiced during sea trials was “battle stations missile”. Everyone had a place to be during BSM, and you had to be there within 60 seconds. Of course that never happened during the first few days of sea trials, so the first dozen or so drills consisted mainly of announcing “Man battle stations missile!” on the ship’s public-announcing system, sounding the general alarm, and then seeing how long it took everyone to report in. It got so bad that we’d stop, reset, and start again three or four times in a row before we were fast enough. The lesson learned from this “practice” was to move quickly and smartly to your assigned space. We finally secured from the drill, but we knew that the commanding officer might announce it again at any second. By this point we were all very tired and getting quite a bit twitchy.
Apparently Ray didn’t know his way around the boat very well yet, and he’d gotten lost a couple times enroute his space. This had slowed down the entire Weapons Department’s report of being ready for BSM, so Ray’s tardiness had earned him a little chat with Mad Dog to encourage him to speed up his response time. Ray was wound up even more tightly after Mad Dog’s motivational speech.
At some point Sam had gone down to his office to prepare the next set of engineering drills. The Engineer’s office was so small that the door couldn’t open inward into the space– it opened outward into the passageway. This passageway led directly to the Missile Control Center, Ray’s space for battlestations.
Just as Ray had returned to the wardroom from Mad Dog’s counseling session, the CO’s voice came over the PA system announcing BSM. Zip! Ray leaped out the door and raced down the passageway at full speed. Mad Dog was pleasantly surprised to see Ray at his assigned station within 60 seconds. As the rest of the wardroom emptied out, we proceeded to the control room only to discover that the last person to man BSM was… Sam. Ruh-roh.
It turned out that Sam had encountered Ray. When the alarm sounded Sam had stood up in his office, picked up his (full) coffee cup, and turned to open the door into the passageway. Just as Sam started to move through the doorframe, Ray rocketed down the passageway and slammed full-force into the door before he could change direction. BLAM! The door smacked shut on Sam’s coffee cup, nose, and forehead– in about that order. By the time Sam got the door open again, Ray was gone. When Sam finally made it to the control room his shirt was soaked with coffee and blood. It would have been a lot funnier if his mustache wasn’t bristling with anger, so we had to keep our comments to ourselves and make sure he didn’t see us smirking. Of course that didn’t keep the CO from kidding Sam about his new attire. It didn’t improve Sam’s humor, either.
The drill finally ended and we headed back down to the wardroom. Sam got another cup of coffee before going back to his stateroom to clean up, grumbling loudly what he’d do if he ever found the schmuck who knocked the door into him. As he warmed up into one of his full temper tantrums, Ray entered the wardroom. Ray, not stopping to apprise the tactical situation before opening his mouth, immediately blurted out with relief: “Boy, I almost didn’t make it that time– somebody opened a door right into me and I slammed it shut just trying to get around it!”
At this point we’ll draw the curtains of discretion across the stage of this sea story. Ray stayed alive until Sam transferred a few months later, but Ray ended up leaving the submarine force shortly after that…
So, Jerome, you know you miss this stuff. NOT.