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NR-1 - The US Navy's First Nuclear Powered,
Deep Submergence Submarine

Chapter 13A - Change Of Command

Toby Warson’s family moved to the East Coast while he was under the North Pole aboard the Queenfish, a patrol on which his executive officer suffered a nervous breakdown and retreated to his stateroom for more than a month.  Warson took over as XO for the front of the boat while the engineering officer took care of the back end and the reactor.

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LCDR Toby Warson
(Courtesy of Capt. Allison J. Holifield, USN-Ret.)

When Warson arrived in Washington to begin training as a Prospective Commanding Officer, the thirty-one-year-old lieutenant commander was thrown in among men of much higher rank and experience, and discovered his roommate was a senior captain on his way to a carrier command.  “I was a naïve and wide-eyed kid compared to the rest of them,” he said.  For the next thirteen weeks, Warson was immersed in an intensive course that centered on the intriguing small nuclear reactor and the equally small vessel that he was to command.

When he eventually stepped aboard the NR-1, he felt that he knew exactly what he was looking at, and was comfortable with the job.  Dwaine Griffith welcomed his successor warmly and Warson liked the man on sight.  ”He really had his act together and I was nervous about taking over from him,” Warson said.  “He built this thing, knew every nut and bolt, knew all the bits and pieces, and knew how to run it.  I walked in at an ideal time, because when I got there, it was ready to operate.”

The change of command ceremony, with everyone dressed in whites, had to be held dockside because there was not enough room on the boat.  Dwaine Griffith had made us proud that he was our captain, and proved the navy had chosen the right man.  He went on to an illustrious naval career, rising to rear admiral, commanding other ships, including the missile submarines Casimir Pulaski and Sam Rayburn, working with intelligence-gathering groups, and becoming director of the navy’s Deep Submergence Systems Division.  Before he retired in 1991, Griffith had collected two Distinguished Service Medals, the Legion of Merit, and four Meritorious Service Medals.  Not bad for an ROTC kid out of the University of Idaho.  Dwaine died in 1996, admired by everyone who knew him.

*  *  *

Toby Warson soon discovered that learning to operate the ship under the guidance of an experienced captain and crew did not lessen the inherent dangers of the NR-1.  Few ships in naval history would have as many close calls, repeatedly, over many years, than its smallest nuclear-powered submarine.

One of his earliest missions, almost a training exercise, was another one of those milk runs up to Narragansett Bay, where the boat encountered one of the worst things that could happen to any submersible or submarine, almost as if the NR-1 were saying “Welcome aboard!” to its new skipper.

The navigational problem of locating your place underwater had not yet been solved, although improvements had been made on the NR-1.  It went out to test transponder ranges and techniques for recovering items on the bottom, tasks that would have to be mastered if the submarine was to participate in the dark, secret world at the bottom of the sea.

Roger Sherman of Sperry was recording data from some of the new instruments as the boat tracked along the bottom, using an electronic transponder planted as a navigational guide.  A nor’easter churned the surface of the Atlantic, but a thousand feet down; the ride was smooth for the men aboard the NR-1.  They never saw the line before it snagged them.

At some time in the past, a huge wire cage from a fishing trawler had got stuck on the bottom and had been cut free.  One of the lines leading to the trapped debris waved like a slender thread in the current, and when the NR-1 went by, the line was sucked into the number one thruster, where it became as entangled as a monofilament line around a fishing reel.  In a moment, the boat was firmly lashed to the bottom of the continental shelf and was pulled right down to the floor.

“All you could see was mud,” Sherman said.  “Everybody was up by this time, Toby and Jack were in their underwear, and we saw this black cable going out of view.  At first, we thought it was steel, and I started reviewing my life.  We had just spoken to the support ship an hour before and agreed we would not be back in touch for another eleven hours.  We were tied to the bottom, out of communication, and I thought, ‘Our ass is grass.’” 

Sherman climbed out of the view port area, and a new member of the crew, the irrepressible Jeff Davis, asked what was happening.

“We’re anchored, baby,” the tech rep replied, his eyes huge as he recounted their dilemma.

“Aw, don’t worry,” Davis reassured him.  “They’ve got a contingency plan for this.”

“What’s that?”  Sherman had been with the NR-1 from the start and although he was certain that no rescue plan existed, he wanted to hope that maybe he had missed something.  He knew that if something wasn’t done, they all would die.

Davis grinned.  “The navy’s going to get the battleship New Jersey out of mothballs and come drag for us.”

Although the idea was ridiculous, Sherman took comfort in the fact that crew members could joke about the situation.

After deliberating what to do, the officers decided not to drop the tons of lead that the boat carried to try to force a trip to the surface, and decided that blowing the ballast tanks also was too chancy.  In either case, if the line didn’t break they would be tethered to the bottom - nose down, stern up - possibly at an angle that would trigger an automatic reactor shutdown that would leave them without power.

The answer this time was the articulated arm, and Jack Maurer worked the manipulator’s blunt metal jaw to gnaw at the snagged cable.  Although the line turned out to be one-inch-thick polypropylene and not steel, as originally feared, it was covered with thick barnacles that fought the attempt to sever it with the blunt-edged jaws.  Maurer spent about three hours biting on the line with the mechanical arm before it finally gave way.  Today, he has a length of that line mounted on a plaque in his home, and the NR-1 has sharp cutting-edge jaws for the manipulator arm.

Sherman wanted off the boat, but when the NR-1 surfaced to transfer him to the support ship, the sea had gone wild.  The Sunbird was still there, but other ships in the group had fled for port.  Even the ever present Soviet fishing-intelligence gathering ships had circled up in the distance, their big boats protecting the smaller trawlers, and were steaming slowly into the huge, oncoming waves.  It was impossible to transfer Sherman in such weather, so the NR-1 submerged again and resumed the transponder work in exactly the same area in which they had been snared only a few hours before.  “I was not a happy camper,” Sherman recalled.

The next day, the captain agreed to try the transfer again.  Although the situation was still dicey, Sherman was ready to swim to the support ship if necessary, and departed in a wave-tossed small boat.  He arrived aboard the bigger ship soaking wet, wearing civilian clothes with no insignia, but having a military-equivalent rank ID.  The Sunbird sailors, who were never allowed on the NR-1 and were never told what it did while submerged, thought he was from some sort of initialed government agency.  The stormy ride back to port was a nightmare of seasickness for everyone on board the support ship, including everyone on the bridge, but to Sherman the wild seas represented safety, for he was no longer trapped on the floor of the ocean.

He finally walked into the kitchen of his home on Fishtown Road in Mystic, Connecticut, and found his wife, Karen, and her mother cooking in the kitchen.  He wore a vacant stare and a terrified face that neither of them had ever seen before on this normally placid man.  “I’ve been praying for you all week,” said his worried mother-in-law.  “I thought something terrible was going to happen.”  Roger sat down at the table, thankful to be home, but unable to tell his family anything about the potentially deadly ordeal.  Keeping secrets was hard, and it took weeks of puttering around the house and garden before Sherman emerged from his personal fog.  Then he went back to work aboard the NR-1, and dove again.

In late 1970 when we started conducting extensive bottom searches again, the always balky Mark XV computer seemed to go on strike.  It would lock up unexpectedly, the automatic guidance would freeze, and all data-gathering functions would cease.  A computer “crash” while we were deep would stop us in our tracks.

After several unsuccessful attempts to diagnose the problem, Sperry reached out for the old pro, Brian Wruble, who was now involved in a Wall Street “research boutique,” and asked for help.  His new employers gave approval but said it would cost the navy $3,500 per day to rent the services of the once low-salaried engineer.

While Sperry and the navy pondered the price tag, Wruble dug into his old manuals and spent about five hours of his own time sniffing through the problem.  He tracked the problem through twenty systems and determined the Time of Mission counter used during bottom searches was at fault.  When he and his team had been programming the original computer, they had saved some memory space by designating the years with only a single digit.

Betting that the system would be replaced by the end of the 1960s, they had not set aside a designation for 1970 and the computer no longer knew what year it was.  Now he had the Sperry engineers perform that simple adjustment and thus gave the computer another eight years of life.

The Year 70 – Y70 – problem was an exact precursor of the Y2K problem that would cause so many problems in computers worldwide thirty years later.  Wruble solved it so quickly on his own that the navy was never charged a cent.



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