This is the sad tale of a ballistic missile submarine brought to its knees… in sewage.
If you’re eating a meal right now then you should probably come back later. Two or three hours later.
During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy homeported a squadron of submarines in Holy Loch, Scotland. POSEIDON ICBMs had a limited range for their Soviet and Chinese targets, and the best way to assure accuracy was to patrol in the North Atlantic. That was a long transit from Norfolk and New London, so the British government kindly consented to let us borrow some of the most God-forsaken God’s country in northern Scotland. Covert patrols were easy: we’d slip out quietly under cover of fog and rain (Holy Loch was perpetually foggy and rainy), sneak through the Firth of Clyde, submerge, and get lost among the noisy crowds of merchants & trawlers. For the next 90 days we’d patrol an area the size of Kansas at four knots, remaining completely undetected while only minutes away from the threat of mutually assured destruction through nuclear weapons launch.
Before we could start our 90-day mission, though, we had to complete a quick upkeep. Ballistic-missile submarines remained at sea over 70% of the time, but they did it by rotating crews. We’d fly into Scotland and promptly start turnover with our counterparts aboard the newly returned submarine. Four days later the other crew would fly home– leaving us to repair all the problems, conduct sorely needed maintenance, and do a few days of sea trials. We’d usually have 24 days to accomplish all that before starting another 90-day patrol. Luckily the weather in Holy Loch was so miserable that the crew tolerated 19-hour days and three-section duty to get out to sea as quickly as possible.
I’d already served
hard time in a nuclear billet, so this would be my second patrol as Auxiliary Division Officer. (Hundreds of steely-eyed killers of the deep just groaned in sympathy.) “A Gang” was responsible for all the Engineering Department’s non-nuclear systems that nobody else wanted, and for a good reason. If it was toxic, noisy, painful, leaking, or stinking, then some poor A-Ganger was usually in charge of figuring out how to fix it before the crew mutinied in disgust. My job consisted of apologizing to the crew shielding the troops from the chain of command while the chief scrambled his people to get the gear back into commission. Luckily we had an excellent chief and a highly experienced group of enlisted technicians… that’s probably why they “let” me be responsible for A Gang in the first place.
One of Aux Div’s responsibilities was the sewage disposal system politely known as “sanitary tanks”. These tanks were anything but that– San #1 held whatever was flushed down the toilets*, while San #2 held whatever drained from the sinks & showers. Both of these tanks were roughly seven feet on a side. You would think that the inside of San1 would be avoided by all, but that tank tended to flush relatively clean with salt water. The worst tank was actually San2 because of all the hair and soap scum (and the galley’s dishwater) fermenting in a richly organic soup of slimy decay.
*I could do an entire post on things that were “accidentally” flushed down submarine toilets, including personal radiation dosimeters: “I’m really sorry, and can you get it back for me before I go on watch?”
When San2 filled up with a couple thousand gallons from the sinks & showers, it was pumped down with the ship’s drain pump. The pump would take a suction through a four-inch pipe that extended down into the tank to end only an inch above the tank’s deck. The drain pump could draw a suction on just about anything, so putting the pipe so far down into the tank meant that the pump could suck the tank nearly dry. The reality was more like sucking pudding (!) through a straw… the pipe would remove the nearby liquids but the semi-solids would cling to the walls until the tank was coated with a thick layer of glistening, slimy, soapy, hairy scum.
How did I learn these interesting tidbits of sanitary tank trivia? Because even though the tanks were emptied daily, they still had to be scrubbed out every few months. You could only accomplish so much by flushing them with salt water– especially San2. Eventually you had to don protective boots, gloves, & coveralls (and maybe an air-fed mask), unbolt the “manhole” access cover, crawl inside through the dripping hole, and scrape off whatever was clinging to the tank’s interior. Before the tank’s cover could be bolted back in place an officer had to verify that the tank was properly cleaned, that all equipment was operating, and that nothing was left behind. You actually entered with a flashlight, a laminated checklist, and a grease pencil to spend 10-20 minutes crawling around looking for problems. At least that’s what you were supposed to do… your boss wasn’t going to crawl in there with you to see how thorough you were.
“Clean” was a relative term in San2. I once stepped into its interior expecting to place my foot on the tank’s flat putty-colored deck. I immediately learned that the “deck” was actually rounded and that I was quickly sinking in a foot of putty-colored… well… use your imagination. To regain my balance I reached out with my gloved hand to grab a two-inch pipe– only to discover that it was actually ¼” pipe with a one-inch coating of… more imagination. Of course by the time the tank was truly ready for inspection it was much emptier, but I gained a real appreciation for what the troops had to endure to get it ready.
What sophisticated implements were used to clean San2? Unfortunately all tools had to fit through that manhole, so the preferred cleaning utensils were a dustpan and a bucket. Scrape with the dustpan, slop the result into the bucket, and hand the bucket out to be emptied into San1 for later dilution & disposal. If you were in a hurry you could fit two small A Gangers into the tank, but they had to coordinate very carefully to avoid bumping each other’s elbows. Outside the tank a few more A Gangers would hand in the dustpans and run the bucket brigade as fast as the tank’s occupants could shovel.
After a couple of hours of this odoriferous drudgery, the chief would check things over and invite the Auxiliary Division Officer to inspect the tank. You’d think that a young lieutenant would take full advantage of this rare opportunity to explore the tank’s interior while making a thorough examination of its material condition. The reality is that he’d been up for 18 hours, was way behind in his own workload, had to go on watch in 30 minutes, and was feeling a little time pressure. At least that’s how I thought of my counterpart from the other crew who performed the inspection relevant to this sea story.
That’s because it was the other crew’s turn to clean out the tank before we took the boat! They did it as quickly as possible and we were glad to stay well clear of them the area. As we scrambled to finish all the other upkeep repairs & maintenance, we were thankful that our counterparts had already completed this tankless thankless task.
We finally got underway for sea trials. We’d already fixed everything that we could, but sea trials was always an uneasy reconciliation of a less-than-proficient crew with a slew of untested repairs. We had our share of the usual unpleasant surprises, so it was a few hours before we noticed that San2 wasn’t pumping down as well as it should. Within 24 hours it had completely stopped pumping.
The A Gang chief and his experts tried all the usual tricks. Valve lineups were checked. Valves were cycled to make sure they were working correctly. The drain pump’s two-gallon strainers were cleaned and cleaned again. Fresh saltwater was flushed through the drain pump to prime it. Other tricks “helped” by holding an up angle on the ship, raising San2 above the drain pump to have gravity aid the pump’s suction. Today I’m glad that nobody could see us wallowing around 400 feet under the North Atlantic with an eight-degree up angle like a drunken whale, but back then we were willing to try anything. Other tricks included keeping the ship absolutely flat and level to check for suction leaks or loose piping joints or other problems.
The troubleshooting was especially frustrating because a trick would work for a little while and then stop working. Or it wouldn’t work at all one day and then would work flawlessly the next. Some days the showers & sinks would be secured for an entire watch of troubleshooting, and once they were open nearly all day. The chief and I were literally spending 16-20 hours a day figuring out new troubleshooting tricks and then getting the Engineer and the XO to let us try them. The Eng and XO weren’t very happy with me or Aux Div, but the crew was getting especially cranky about the shower/sink limits. I didn’t dare shower or shave or even brush my teeth for fear of setting a bad example while we were working on the problem, so I was getting kinda cranky myself.
Yeah, we volunteered for this duty. And we got sub pay & sea pay too.
By the end of sea trials we were all exhausted and thoroughly disgusted with San2. We had one trick left: surfacing to clean out the tank again. Luckily we were returning to port for a few hours to top off stores before going back out on alert patrol. We knew that as soon as we surfaced the ship we’d be unbolting the cover to dive into the tank, figure out the problem, and FIX IT. Otherwise our CO would have to confess to the squadron commodore that we couldn’t start our nuclear deterrence mission against the Evil Empire… because we couldn’t pump out our shower water. It meant that another submarine would have to stay out on patrol (91 days and counting!) while squadron “helped” us fix our own problems. We all knew that our careers would end before the CO ended his. We’d rather leave the Navy in disgrace, too, than face the teasing of squadron’s maintenance crews.
As soon as the ship was on the surface, “Team San2” was standing by. Bracing ourselves in the passageway against the boat’s rolls, we unbolted San2’s manhole while the designated tank diver stood by in his protective gear. To this day I don’t know if the first man in was chosen for his skill, or because he lost the draw, or because everyone bribed him to volunteer. Regardless he fearlessly turned on his flashlight and entered the tank while we got ready to hand him his tools.
The call came in a few seconds: “OK, hand me a dustpan!”
As a shipmate held his dustpan up to the manhole, we heard “Never mind, I got one right here, thanks!”
The chief and I stared at each other through raised eyebrows. A few seconds later our epiphany echoed from the tank: “Heyyyy, wait a minute…” shortly followed by unprintable streams of salty commentary.
Mystery solved. The other crew had cleaned the tank but had left a dustpan on the deck, where it had sunk into the muck. The chief didn’t see it. The officer inspecting the tank didn’t run his hands over all the tank’s surfaces (including through the glop on the bottom) looking for loose objects, so he didn’t find the dustpan. When the ship got underway, the dustpan slid around the bottom of the tank until it got stuck under the suction pipe. Sometimes it would act like a flapper valve and completely shut off the pipe, and other times it wouldn’t get stuck until the pumping was nearly finished. Our angles & dangles tricks only encouraged the dustpan to slide around the tank, causing trouble in ever-more interesting ways.
With a collective sigh of relief, we gave the tank a quick wipedown. The chief spent a thorough 20 minutes performing his own closeout inspection while the dustpan news spread throughout the boat at the speed of sound scuttlebutt. I went in for my turn at the most rigorous closeout inspection ever and emerged to find my performance being monitored (from a suitable breathing distance) by the Eng, the XO, and the CO.
I still remember the XO’s note in the Plan of the Day: “Missing a dustpan? Please reclaim it from the Auxiliary Division chief!”
The chief had another 90 days to fantasize decide how to discuss the matter with his counterpart on the other crew. (You chief petty officers can imagine the creativity with which he flavored his choice of vocabulary.) I was ready to dish out the same treatment to my counterpart, but he had the foresight to transfer out of the command before we returned from patrol. Instead I had the pleasure of personally indoctrinating his relief in the proper procedures for punctiliously conducting a tank closeout…
My advice to him, and to a new generation of submariners? Wear the big rubber gloves with the cuffs that extend all the way up to your elbows– because you’ll be rubbing your fingers over every square inch of the bottom of the tank and sticking them up the inlet of the suction pipe!
Sign up for more free military retirement tips via e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter!