I’d like to dedicate this very long post to a certain NROTC midshipman who’s considering joining the submarine force. You have… no idea. You can still make a different choice!
The subtitle of this story is “Why we didn’t let Jethro go up to the bridge any more.”
20 years after the Cold War ended, it’s hard to explain the era’s tension and intensity to someone who wasn’t there. If you crouched under your school desk for a nuclear-attack drill, or if you watched Sputnik humiliate every rocket scientist in the U.S., or if you heard Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speeches, then you understand the nihilism. Those who feel that today’s terrorism alerts are a little hyperbolic would think we 1986 boomer sailors were nuts straight out of “Dr. Strangelove”. Maybe we were, but we were one of America’s finest products of our pressure-cooker environment.
Our LAFAYETTE-class ballistic missile submarine carried enough POSEIDON ICBMs to obliterate a country, and we worked hard at it. We practiced endlessly to convince the Soviets that we were a bunch of deadly stone-hearted steely-eyed killers of the deep, ever-vigilant in our covert patrols and with our fingers itchin’ on our hair triggers to carry out the American threat of mutual assured destruction. Those of you in today’s submarine force may find it difficult to believe that our missiles were targeted on Soviet real estate as soon as we got out to sea– and we didn’t have to put up with any of those wussy “permissive action links” like the bombers and the silos. This was serious war business. We were the pointy end of the free world’s spear and we stayed undetected for 90-day patrols as if our lives depended on it… because they did. If not for our Cold-War paranoia, we certainly never would have attempted the evolution that led to this story.
When you take over 120 sailors to sea for 90 consecutive days of submerged operations, someone (or their family) is inevitably going to have a problem. It might be a serious accident or a loved one’s medical crisis, but the sailor has to leave the sub. If our admiral decided that an evacuation was necessary, then sending one of us home early meant taking a Cold War asset off the front lines (perhaps jerking some other unit around to cover their assignments) to move to a transfer point where the submariner could be sent ashore to begin the trip home. It could take several transit days just to transfer the crewmember and get back on station. It would disrupt war plans for a month and cost thousands of dollars.
It was even more tricky if the submarine was patrolling the North Atlantic in winter. High waves, freezing weather, blasting winds, and savage storms were the norm. Even if the submarine could get close to land, a transfer boat couldn’t leave the safety of the coastline. This meant going pierside or, if the unthinkable were considered, using a helicopter. We’d rather jeopardize the lives of the helo crew (and our crewmember) than risk running a submarine onto the rocks.
When we were directed to transfer one of our crew, no other submarines were available to cover our target assignments. We submariners weren’t going to humiliate ourselves by begging the Air Force to cover for us, so the admiral ordered us to stay on missile-launch alert for the entire transfer. None of us had even heard of such a thing, let alone had to make it happen, but somehow we did. (I remember that our Weapons Officer, affectionately nicknamed “Mad Dog”, was awake for nearly two days straight and spinning almost as fast as his missile gyroscopes.) Tensions were running high and we were starting to fray with fatigue, but we headed for the rendezvous to get this over with.
The day before we arrived at the surfacing point, our squadron informed us that we’d be doing a helo transfer. The “rules” forbid launch-alert submarines from coming pierside, and the unspoken message was that the weather was way too rough for a small boat. There was a crazed scramble to find all of our helo-transfer gear (buried in various lockers for nearly two decades) and then figure out how to use it. I’d only been commissioned for four years, but I was serving with 20-year chief petty officers who’d never even heard of a submarine helo transfer– let alone supervised one.
The next day we surfaced and headed for the transfer point. As the most-experienced junior officer I was the surface Officer of the Deck (which gives you an idea of how shaky our lineup was). I was accompanied on the bridge by a lookout and the commanding officer. As soon as we surfaced we started taking 20-degree rolls. I don’t remember the weather parameters but it was solidly overcast (great flying weather!), freakin’ freezin’, and with wind & waves everywhere. The wind chill froze your nasal snot as soon as you poked your head above the hatch. The waves occasionally splashed up to the bridge cockpit in the sail, 25 feet above the surface. I was wearing an international-orange exposure suit (insulated, buoyant, and highly visible if I fell overboard) with thick rubber-soled boots (to minimize heat loss) and huge ski mittens (I’d been on the bridge in winter before). I’d wrapped a towel around my neck in a futile attempt to keep my torso dry from the water dripping off my face, and I was wearing a thick wool watch cap. These two articles just gave the freezing spray something to build on until we looked like bright-orange abominable snowmen. For you old-timers, think back to the bridge scenes in the movie “Das Boot”. You younger whippersnappers can recall Ashton Kutcher hanging out of the helo in “The Guardian”.
Our stylin’ bridge team also wore the latest in 1980s foul-weather fashion: full-body safety harnesses. These were attached to various bridge fittings by a six-foot nylon lanyard with a carabiner locking clip and a euphemistically-named “shock cord”. Shock cords were just 10 feet of 2″-wide webbing loosely stitched into a tight stack of material attached to the lanyard. The concept was that if you fell off your perch then the lanyard would let you go six feet and jerk taut, popping the stitches and unraveling the shock cord to slow your fall without injuring you or breaking the lanyard. What shock cords mainly managed to do was get in our way and annoy us.
So, there we were. “Head to the transfer point”?!? We couldn’t even see the transfer point. We just kept plotting NAVSAT fixes (a primitive ancestor of GPS) and crabbing through the waves in what we hoped was the correct direction. Both radio antennae and periscopes were raised to try to talk to the helo, let alone see the helo. By some miracle we finally raised the helo and vectored in on each other.
As we approached the transfer point we lowered the scopes and antenna so that the helo pilot wouldn’t accidentally slice a rotor into them. We had our gear ready with the nervous honored guest waiting in the cockpit. The lookout (who was also the phonetalker) crouched down inside the bridge hatch to give more room to the three of us in the cockpit while he relayed orders & updates to the control room. As the helo arrived we got ready to hoist our man out the back of the cockpit onto the top of the sail. We stayed steady on course at eight knots so the helo could approach.
The helo hovered overhead to lower their rescue swimmer on his cable. (“Rescue swimmer”? In that weather the job description would have been “corpsicle retriever”.) Timing the rolls, the winch operator landed him on top of the sail. The swimmer got the second horse collar under our man’s arms, clutched him in a four-limbed deathgrip, timed the rolls again, and signaled the hoist operator. As the hoist lifted, the pilot also jerked the helo up and sideways to clear our sail in case the wind shifted. I was suddenly glad that I was merely freezing my butt off in the bridge instead of swinging it under that helo. The winch operator reeled them in, safe & secure.
We’d flawlessly accomplished the first half of our mission, but we still had to transfer two pieces of baggage. This was going to be easy– the helo would stay higher overhead, lower the line, and hover while we clipped the line to the handles. However, the baggage was bulky enough that we couldn’t do it in the cockpit or even put it up on top of the sail. After extensive discussion at our planning session, we’d decided to put a man (fully suited and harnessed and clipped to a bridge fitting) on the port sail plane. He’d hold on to the baggage as we wrestled it up out of the hatch and passed it to him, and then he’d clip the helo line through the handles. Piece of cake after what we’d just accomplished. Send up the baggage!
Our baggage handler was a man nicknamed “Jethro”. (Google Images “Beverly Hillbillies”.) He was over six feet and 225 pounds of rock-hard muscles, but even he acknowledged that he was not the crew’s sharpest sailor. Unfortunately during our planning sessions he also failed to share with us his concern that his six-foot lanyard and shock cord wouldn’t give him enough range of motion to do his baggage-handling duties. On his own initiative he’d decided to connect TWO lanyards (with their 10-foot shock cords) so that he could move around. (Start adding those numbers together. We’ll come back to this soon.) When we called for him then he scampered up the hatch, clipped on to the bridge fitting, and climbed over the port side to the sail plane. Ready!
We passed him both pieces of baggage. One of them was the sailor’s 90-day seabag and the other was stuffed with 40 pounds of family mail. We lowered both periscopes and radio antennae. We steadied on course & speed again. The helo began its approach from the aft starboard quarter and we all faced aft to watch it.
Submarine commanding officers have a keenly-developed sixth sense for danger, or at least for those times when things seem to be going just a little too smoothly. Our CO’s spidey-sense started tingling, so instead of watching the helo like Jethro and me he began to look around. A couple seconds later he startled me by shouting “Hang ON!!!!”
I turned around. Straight off the bow I saw a wave. “Saw” isn’t quite the right word– I looked up 45 degrees of elevation at a wave that was 20 feet over my head, and we were already 25 feet above the water. My CO started to shout another inaudible order, something about “Oh, s…”, and then the wave hit.
My last look at Jethro showed him crouched on the port sail plane. Instead of “hanging on” to the bridge or his lanyard(s), he’d interpreted the CO’s order to mean “hang on to the baggage”. He had a piece under each arm, he was squared off against the wave, and he was ready to do him some bodysurfin’. The wave hit the sail and he disappeared.
We bridge team had our hands full with another problem. Imagine a four-foot-square toilet bowl with a 21″-diameter bridge hatch drain in the middle. Now put two people in there with a third crouched in the drain line. Just for fun, clip them to the rim of the toilet bowl but dress them in buoyant exposure suits. Now pull the flushing lever and dump a couple thousand gallons of 35-degree seawater on them.
When the freezing wave hit we all gave an immediate involuntary gasp reflex, which of course meant our lungs were out of air. The wave slammed us down into the bridge cockpit. Our buoyant suits began to float us out of the cockpit while we scrabbled to grab onto something, but we couldn’t breathe. We couldn’t rise to the surface, either, because our lanyards were attached to the sub. In retrospect I’m sure the wave punched our bow down into a depth excursion that nearly dragged us under the surface, let alone under that wave.
Undoubtedly it was only 10 or 20 seconds before the wave rolled by and the sub righted itself. I remember my head briefly breaking above the surface to grab a mouthful of air just before my lanyard jerked me back down into the (still submerged) cockpit, and I barely kept from being tossed out of the cockpit by the turbulence.
Once the wave passed, our problems got even worse. The cockpit was full of water poised over a 21″ drain hole down to the control room. As the water swirled down the hatch, suddenly we were all being sucked down with it, still coughing and gasping for air, and scrabbling for holds all over again. (Ski mittens are really bad for this.) The phonetalker ended up with 400 pounds of wet officer piled on top of him, but eventually the water drained off and we Three Stooges scrambled to our feet. Banged & bruised, still gasping for breath, but no serious injuries.
I took a quick look around. No more waves, but no more Jethro either. I saw his lanyard (still clipped to the bridge) and tugged on it– no resistance, completely slack. I know I’ve told this story with submariner black humor and snark, but at that moment I realized my mistake had killed a man. I’d never thought something like this would happen and I wasn’t ready to help when it did. The feeling of failure is indescribable.
So in despair I yelled down the hatch the words I’d been trained to use since my plebe year: “Man overboard, port side!!” Then I leaned back over the top of the sail, over the opening for #2 periscope, while the CO did the same on the starboard side over #1 scope, to see if I could spot Jethro. We could see the helo hovering over the baggage bobbing on the surface, but there was no Jethro bobbing there with it.
Meanwhile, down in the control room under the bridge access trunk, the Executive Officer and the watchstanders had a few problems of their own. The XO had heard the CO’s yell and walked over to look up the bridge trunk… just as a huge slug of seawater came down to greet his upturned face. He scrambled back out of the deluge as it hit the deck and splashed in all directions, startling everyone and soaking everything with water. The spray got into a number of “spray-proofed” electronic cabinets, causing many systems to ground out… or catch fire. Sirens & buzzers blared while the lights flickered and electronics exploded or flamed. As the smoke and spray mist cleared, the soaked and freezing watchstanders attempted to avoid electrocution while extinguishing several small fires and restarting their systems. Then the XO heard the words he’d been dreading: “Man overboard!”
If you’re in the control room for this emergency, the first thing you do is use a periscope (and its high-powered optics) to look for the man overboard and help the OOD conn the sub back to rescue him. Unfortunately the helo transfer procedure had directed that both scopes be lowered into their wells. No problem for the XO: “Raise both scopes!!”
Back up on the bridge, I was just beginning to run my eyes along Jethro’s lanyard. As I lay back over the sail, #2 periscope rose smartly out of its well (boosted by 3000 psi hydraulics) to smack me in the gut and begin raising me, too– but my harness’ six-foot lanyard was still clipped to the bridge fitting. I heard the CO’s startled “Oof!” as he began a similar journey with #1 scope. Painfully aware that this was going to end badly, I used my command voice to issue an order to the phonetalker that was heard all the way down in the control room: “LOWER THE DAMN SCOPES.” After a brief pause (at about 5’11” elevation), we both descended smoothly back onto the sail. Once we’d moved clear we told the control room that they could now raise the scopes.
Still no sight of Jethro. As I gave the rudder & engine orders to retrace our track toward Jethro’s presumed position, we hauled in his lanyard– and it pulled taut! By leaning way over the bridge’s port side we could just spot his exposure suit lying on top of the missile deck.
It turned out that when the wave was bouncing us around in the bridge cockpit, it wiped Jethro (and the baggage) completely off the sail plane. As it carried him down and aft, both of his lanyards hit their six-foot limits and popped their ten-foot shock cords. Jethro lost his baggage and was bodysurfing down the port side on a 32-foot tow rope– from a 25-foot sail. He’d submerged and eventually popped to the surface where he bounced around in the freezing swell as he was towed at eight knots and banged against the hull in the submariner’s version of “crack the whip”. In an unbelievable burst of fear-boosted adrenaline-enhanced strength he had hauled his waterlogged body on the line to bat-walk up the side of the hull until the swell washed him onto the missile deck. By the time we’d finished our excitement up on the bridge he was beginning to think about climbing back up the sail ladder, but he was worried that we’d yell at him for losing the baggage.
If Jethro had worn just one lanyard & shock cord (as required by the safety procedures) then his journey would have ended at 16 feet. He would have been dangling in his harness from the bridge just below the sail plane, but he’d be hanging well above the water and we would have been able to haul him in. He was lucky not to be knocked unconscious and drowned (or strangled) on his towline.
By the time things settled down on the bridge and in the control room, the helo’s rescue swimmer had plucked both pieces of baggage from the water and the helo had headed back to land. (The crewmember was home a day later to help his family.) We hauled Jethro back up to the sail where he was thankful that he hadn’t been killed. As Jethro descended into the control room, the XO informed him that he was also glad Jethro hadn’t been killed: the XO was angry enough about the safety violation to look forward to the privilege of administering the execution on his own terms. Discretion directs that I draw the curtains on this scene, but the XO eventually calmed down and Jethro was happy to be banned from bridge liberty for the rest of his tour. Still on alert missile-launch status, we headed back out to sea (coping with a couple other mishaps that I’ll save for another sea-story post) and eventually submerged in deep water. I resolved to be more vigilant about surprises and safety precautions while “Mad Dog” caught up on his sleep.
The CO signed my command-qualification requirement for helo transfers, and we were both happy to avoid that evolution for the rest of our careers. I was teased for the rest of my tour about my forceful command presence and high-decibel orders.
I haven’t heard from Jethro in 25 years. If you know how he’s doing, please post a comment!
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