Forces Adrift

From PigBoats.COM

Forces Adrift

by Frank G. Charlton III ©

We first saw the handwriting on the wall when our skipper received a message that included the phrase "ODAX to act as camel for" a nuclear-powered submarine. USS Odax (SS- 484) was the name of our boat, as we referred to it, our Diesel-powered submarine with an honored history of service that extended back to 1944. Our boat had established a significant first early in its career, when it became the first GUPPY. Guppy was an acronym for Greater Underwater Propulsion Power. The "Y" never stood for anything. Such was the state of the art in acronyms in the late 1940s, I guess.

In any case, the Guppy conversion was an experiment in streamlining the older fleet submarines and in modifying the battery installations, for greater underwater power and speed. This experimental conversion of our boat worked so well that all of the hundreds of such boats that were still in service during the 1960s had received the Guppy conversion within a few years.

But now it was 1970, twenty years or more after our boat had represented the state of the art in delivering death and destruction from beneath the sea. This was a new era. The quiet skill and competence of our officers and crew no longer mattered much. Our honored history of always being in good repair, of always being ready to go to sea to fulfill our own commitments or to fill in for the less reliable sister ships in the squadron, was just quaint, and not valuable. Our boat was now old-fashioned, out of style, and it was OK to treat us with such contempt as to ask us to act as a camel. A camel is a narrow, sturdy raft that is placed between a ship and a pier to minimize damage to the ship's hull from rubbing against the pier. Camels are especially important to submarines, since the shape of a submarine hull leaves it quite vulnerable to damage by sharp features on the pilings that support the pier. Without a camel, a submarine can slide up under the top deck of the pier and rub against all manner of underwater hazards on the pilings. So here we were, a ship of the line, with honored assignments still in our future and commendations to be received that were as yet unimagined. And yet headquarters was equating our once-glorious name and capabilities with those of a camel, an inert lump of wood.

That was the way it was between us and our counterparts ashore. It was ironic. All of my training as a line officer and as a submariner was focused on keeping our boat fit and trim, smooth-running, reliable, efficient and effective. Our biggest obstacle in accomplishing our assignment was the "shore establishment" of our own Navy.

Every Navy office, or shop, or storeroom ashore has a 'mot-to' that is a variation on the following:

The Best Support for Our Forces Afloat

Such a slogan appears over the front door to the supply center at the Navy base. Another version appears on the letterhead of the payroll office at the Navy base. The electrical repair shop at the ship-repair facility ashore typically has a version of the slogan painted in huge letters on one wall of the building. It is an article of faith that the huge bureaucracy of the shore Navy exists to support those who are out at sea.

Messages, letters, instructions, and directives from headquarters echoed the sentiment. "Forces Afloat," as we were supposed to be proud to be known, received the most effusive of praise and promises of support from the Squadron Commanders, from the Flotilla Commanders, from the Force Commanders, from the Fleet Commanders, and from the Chief of Naval Operations. These men (never women) who wore Admirals' broad gold stripes honestly believed that the function of the "shore establishment" was to support the fleet at sea. But it had been far too long since those flag officers had tried to function as a member of a fleet element at sea. And probably none of them, except for the submariners among them, had ever enjoyed (suffered?) the experience of operating independently at sea, with no other U.S. Navy ships nearby to turn to for emergency help.

The middle management ashore is not so supportive as all this sloganeering would indicate, however. There are various institutional reasons for this, and it likely will never change. The Navy has always been able to do its job in spite of this bureaucracy. The attitudes of the bean-counters ashore toward the line workers at sea has consistently been one of jealousy and contempt.

It was dangerous to be around our skipper for the next few days after the "camel" incident. The very next time that we got to port he went to see the Commodore, and many Admirals and their staffs became involved in smoothing over the hurt feelings that had spread from the Odax to the hundreds of other conventional submarines still in both fleets. And this particular incident was finally forgotten by most people. But the basic problem would only get worse as "progress" continued.

There were hundreds of such slights, intentional or otherwise, over the next few years. And one time in particular the contempt that the headquarters staff felt toward us smelly Diesel submarines became expensive and dangerous, as well as profoundly stupid.

We didn't talk much about this particular incident, because it was so similar to so many other such insults. But this sequence of events included one of the most elementary mistakes that a person can make, and it kept compounding itself. I still find it difficult to believe that such incompetence exists.

It all started one day off Portugal, during a NATO exercise with ships of various Navies. We were cruising submerged in water six thousand feet deep. We were making a point of being particularly quiet, and we decided to descend from a keel depth of 120 feet, where we had been slowly cruising for some time, to a keel depth of 200 feet. We wanted to check for better acoustic conditions in the water. That way we could better know how to hide from the active sonar of our pursuers, and we could better use our passive sonar for planning our evasion of the opposing forces.

As we were descending those eighty feet, a loud bang was felt throughout the boat. We started to vibrate alarmingly in the stern. We investigated, and found that we could stop most of the vibration and noise if we brought our port propeller shaft to a standstill.

We needed both propellers to achieve the performance that was required by the exercise, but we could not use our port propeller because of the noise and vibration. We were making too much waterborne noise to be of much value as a submarine, so we surfaced and made an unscheduled stop at the US submarine tender in Rota, across the harbor from Cadiz.

The elite nuclear-trained staff of the submarine tender could not be bothered with a smelly old Diesel boat like ours. So they avoided helping us solve our problem by insisting that it did not exist. (They can't be criticized for objecting to the smell. Only our cooks were entitled to a regular shower when we were at sea. The rest of us, even us officers, were limited to an occasional "bird bath" or "hooker's bath." There was not enough fresh water for anything more.)

We argued and pleaded with these professionals, with no success. We even took some of their "experts" to sea with us and submerged to show off our symptoms, but they still insisted that we were OK. At their insistence we put our boat through some peculiar and pointless maneuvers that would have been safe on a nuclear-powered submarine but that were outrageous on our conventional boat. Their response was to send messages to headquarters certifying our seaworthiness, and we were sent back out to continue the NATO exercises.

Of course, we were lousy at our assignment for the next few weeks. We could never find anyone else on sonar, because we couldn't hear through the noise of our own vibrations. All of the surface ships could find us, though. The situation was reversed from normal.

The admiral in charge of the carrier task force sent us in for further examination. This time we tied up outboard the US submarine tender anchored in Holy Loch, Scotland. We had learned from our experience with the previous tender, so before we described our problem we sent one of our own sailors over the side with scuba gear, to inspect our bottom. He found that one blade of our port propeller was bent -- ten full inches of the blade were bent aft, ninety degrees from normal. This was a spectacularly rare circumstance. We were surprised that our port propeller and shaft had not simply torn themselves from our hull and disappeared, with such an imbalance of mass and of force.

Now that we could provide a clear description of the problem, the tender staff acknowledged that, yes, maybe we did have a problem after all. I checked the reference manuals, and I ordered a port propeller. That was the point at which the situation changed from antagonistic to simply stupid. It was a stupidity born of arrogance.

As with many other ships of all types, when our submarine was in port we always relied on the Navy base or on the submarine tender to handle our message traffic, so that we could perform necessary maintenance on our radio and teletype equipment. So after I got the skipper to sign the message ordering the port propeller, I immediately took the message form to the tender radio room for transmission. The next day I received my courtesy copy of the message that had actually gone out over the air. I noticed that the tender staff had changed the federal stock number of the propeller that I had ordered. When I questioned them about it, they said that I had mistakenly ordered a four-bladed propeller, and it should have been five-bladed, so they had "corrected" my error for me.

I had seen this propeller weeks before with my own eyes, and I knew that it had only four blades. I insisted that a four-bladed propeller was needed. But I was a member of forces afloat, not a member of the headquarters club, so they did not trust me to know how many blades there were on my propeller. The discussion got heated, and soon there were full commanders on both sides of the table, yelling and insulting each other. The discussion was generating much heat and little light. Since our starboard propeller had four blades, putting a five-bladed propeller on the port side would have given us a loud, distinctive sound that would have been noticeable in any sonar shack on any ship in any navy, friend or foe.

Finally the captain of the tender grudgingly agreed to send one of their own divers into the water to count the blades, since he would have more credibility than our diver. This "expert" came up and said that our propeller had five blades, and that indeed one of them was quite badly bent.


We were getting desperate, when I realized that we had an ace in the hole. I remembered an incident several months before, when we were in drydock. Both of our fire control technicians had returned late from liberty one night. Rather than subject them to formal punishment, the chief of the boat had instead required them go into the drydock, under our stern, and to polish our two huge bronze propellers, using brass polish and small rags. It took them two extra-long work days to complete this silly project. Surely these two highly trained technicians could be considered knowledgeable about the number of blades on each propeller, and competent to count them.

Our skipper made an extraordinary request to speak to the commanding officer of the tender; he introduced the two sailors, who told their story. They both insisted that each of our propellers had four blades, and not five. But even with this testimony, the experts on the tender were still not willing to be convinced. So we talked them into putting us in the floating drydock there in the middle of the loch for a few hours so we could all count the blades.

The propellers had four blades. We got the order changed. But most significantly, we were never forgiven for being correct. It was just another day at work for the Forces Adrift.

© Frank G. Charlton III

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