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

Chapter 14 - Black Sail

“Captain, we’ve got a problem.”  A second crew pilot was driving along the floor of the Mediterranean Sea and reached around to shake the shoulder of Toby Warson, who was in his usual sleeping position behind the two pilot chairs, simultaneously sound asleep and not really resting at all.  Warson blinked, looked at the screens, and shuddered.  Every TV camera on the boat showed the NR-1 was in the middle of a field of mines that had sunk to the bottom during World War II.  The sonar, for reasons unknown, had not warned the pilot of the danger, and now the boat was completely surrounded by the ominous spines of the black mines.

“Jesus!  Don’t move!  Don’t do anything!”  Warson was wide awake, knowing that high explosives become very sensitive when immersed over time in salt water.  Every so often, some unlucky fisherman hauls up an old German mine in his nets and is blown away.  A mere touch by the submarine’s hull on one of those ominous spines and the NR-1 would share the fate of those fishermen.

The captain also knew his boat could not remain where it was on the bottom, because a sudden current could slide it into a mine.  Gingerly, the downward thrusters were brought on line to press the ship firmly in position, while the pumps forced water from the ballast tanks.  Everyone aboard was sweating bullets, for the submarine had to rise straight up, not very far, but exactly straight up.  There were too many mines on the TV screens to count.  As if recognizing the danger, the boat obeyed as if it also wanted to tiptoe out of danger, rose to a safe height, and flew away.

Life in the Mediterranean, or simply “the Med” in navy terms, has always been hazardous for mariners, and in 1971 it was perilous on the surface, along the shores, and, as the NR-1 routinely discovered, time and again, on the bottom.  The boat came upon a grim reminder of the dangers when the cameras showed a line of strange shapes lying on the bottom sand.  Warson had the boat move closer, and the objects turned out to be the canvas-shrouded bodies of a large number of dead people who had been buried at sea after some unknown disaster.

As he stared at the macabre scene through a view port, he asked one of his crewmen beside him, “Why don’t we just go over there and shake one to see if someone is still alive in there?”  The young sailor thought Warson was serious, and cried out, “No, Captain!  Don’t!”  The skipper then had to talk the crewman, who was shaken by the thought that the NR-1 might disturb the bodies of the long-dead sailors, out of resigning from the navy.

The NR-1 would become very familiar with the Med, for shortly after Warson took command, the boat began to go “black” and entered the silent world of high-level intelligence work that deals more with shadow than with substance.  As it began to sail in dark waters, the sub gradually disappeared from the navy’s daily operational rosters.  The escort ship, such as the Kittiwake or the Sunbird, would show up in lists of ships at sea, but not the NR-1, for the U.S. Navy had imposed a virtual cloak of invisibility on it.  The ship was not even to be seen by outsiders on some missions.  Riding so low in the water that it was hard to spot in a moving sea even when painted bright orange, on the missions when the sail of the NR-1 was painted black, she simply disappeared in plain view.

*  *  *

The ship’s very first Med mission for the navy was just such an assignment.  The Mediterranean teemed with United States and Soviet warships, and Moscow had taken the strategic edge.  In February of 1971, there were forty-eight Soviet warships in the eastern Mediterranean and forty-three American ships.  A fleet intelligence officer observed, “This makes us definitely Number Two.”

“The fact is that there is no longer a permissive environment where once the Sixth Fleet moved at will,” wrote Admiral Ike Kidd, shortly after he commanded the U.S. naval forces in the Med.

The dramatic increase in Soviet heavy bombers flying in the area from land bases in Arab nations and an attempted coup in Jordan in late 1970 had brought the Cold War to a near-boiling point in the volatile region, which was known as the “Camel Crossroads.”  Many times, the two enemy fleets intermingled in a near-combat environment, as Soviet men-of-war shadowed U.S. aircraft carriers, and American vessels tailed major Soviet ships.  At least on the surface of the water and in the air, the two sides could keep track of each other.  Underneath the sea, things were different, and the Command History of the Sixth Fleet noted, “The number one threat in the Mediterranean is the Soviet submarine force.”

The U.S. fleet updated the position of every Soviet surface ship every four hours because, as Ike Kidd observed, that was the best way to counter a sub-launched missile.  “When a new one [radar contact] pops up, you know it’s a sub,” he said.

The Soviets felt the same nervousness about the American submarine force and geared a substantial part of their intelligence-gathering efforts to tracking our subs.  Of particular interest were three narrow choke points - the Straits of Gibraltar at the mouth of the Med, and the two that separated the U.S.-dominated western Mediterranean from the large eastern portion where the Soviets were openly challenging our naval forces.  The Sicilian Channel, between Tunisia and the island of Sicily, and the Strait of Messina, between Sicily and the very toe of the Italian boot, were of vital importance to the U.S. Navy.

Our subs had operated with impunity in the open oceans of the world and in the Med for many years, but things had changed.  By 1970, when our boats entered the eastern Med, whether coming in completely hidden after weeks in the Atlantic or departing from the forward deployment tender at La Maddalena on the north coast of Sardinia, they often picked up a Soviet submarine tail just after passing through the narrows at either end of Sicily.

It was disconcerting, for it indicated that the Russians had vastly improved the passive sonar aboard their submarines, or had managed to lay some sort of listening device, perhaps a line of submarine-tracking hydrophones or sonobuoys, across the straits.

The U.S. operates sound surveillance systems (SOSUS) in similar bottlenecks, such as the GIUK Gap between Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom, and both sides constantly tried to disrupt the SOSUS nets of the other.  Since the Soviets did not seem to be tracking our subs well anywhere else in the world, analysts did not believe that Russian sonar capabilities had taken a huge technological leap.  That put the odds heavily in favor of a bottom-mounted sound detection system, and one place that Soviet ears definitely were not wanted was across a narrows in the Med.

Navy intelligence began a quiet search for the suspected listening posts.  Side-looking sonar systems were pressed into service to paint shadowy images of the seafloor and make any objects detected clearly stand out.  For months, surface ships towing a number of detection devices prowled possible areas of interest, and transducers were mounted to the sides of submarines to further expand the reach of the system.  Still, side-looking technology was in its infancy and the wet paper images produced were blurry and hard to interpret.

The hunt went on for months and was kept highly classified.  Washington was not certain that there was such a listening device down there at all, since there could be other explanations for the Soviets’ recent success in tracking our boats.  We also did not want to let the other side, if they did have such a system, know that we were on to them.  We definitely did not want them to figure out that we possessed the means to find objects on the seabed.  In the arcane game of intelligence gathering and use, everything depends on not letting others know what we know, or don’t know.

The searches eventually turned up something that could not be explained near the Strait of Messina - a narrow passage tortured by high winds and strong currents that has preyed upon unwary ships and sailors dating back to Odysseus and Jason and the Argonauts.  In Greek mythology the monster Scylla lived on the rocks on the Italian side, ready to snatch up and devour seamen from passing vessels, while the deadly whirlpool Charybdis guarded the Sicilian edge.

The moist sonar readouts showed a long, straight, dark line stretched along the bottom.  It appeared to be an underwater cable, but was in a location where no cables were supposed to be, and there was no indication where or how the cable terminated.  Another, more ominous discovery nearby was a pattern of metallic objects, some close together and others scattered about.  Intelligence analysts could only conjecture what they might be, and their conclusions raised flags of alarm.

The United States recently had developed an extraordinary weapon known as the “captor mine.”  It was deployed like a traditional mine, but that was where the similarity ended, for it contained sophisticated computer technology that essentially turned it into a smart, homing torpedo.  Captor mines are programmed to lie on the bottom of the sea and they remain dormant for months or years until activated automatically at a specific time or by a given signal.  They can even be programmed to attack one specific ship that has a certain acoustic signature and ignore all others.

The analysts had to consider that the Russians might have developed a weapons system similar to our captors and possibly have sown them in this choke point used by ships of many nations.  A battery of well-located captor mines could deny U.S. warships access to the eastern Med at some future critical moment when the Soviets and their client states stirred up trouble among Middle Eastern flash points.

The entire delicate balance of the Cold War could be thrown off by such an action, and the political ramifications were frightening.  Everything hinged on knowing what was down there, and naval intelligence could not verify what it was seeing on the faint readouts.  U.S. submarines lacked the depth and bottom-operating capability needed to investigate the objects, and should a deep submersible be launched from a surface ship right over the suspect area, the Russian navy would know exactly what we were doing.  The job was handed to the new kid on the block, the NR-1.

The first problem for the Submarine NR-1 Advisory Group was to somehow sneak the boat into the Med with the Red Fleet prowling about.  The sensitive nature of the mission ruled out another surface tow across the Atlantic, and underwater tows by other submarines, which eventually would become routine, had not yet even been tried.  The navy chose to piggyback the sub over aboard a giant Landing Ship Dock (LSD), and that became the second problem.

For six months, starting even before we returned from Project AFAR, the LSD Portland sailed around Long Island Sound while engineers and naval personnel tried to figure out how to load the NR-1 into the cavernous well in the aft portion of the ship.  While the sub was being built, there once had been a plan to construct a special sled that would simply pick up the NR-1 and carry it aboard an LSD, but that had been discarded in the financial crunch that surrounded the construction process.  The latest version of that idea was for Electric Boat to build a wooden cradle aboard the LSD, which would then flood down as low as she could in the water and then have the NR-1 move slowly and carefully over the cradle.  The LSD would then rise back up by pushing out the excess water and be ready to go.

It took months of trial and error as the LSD kept having to go lower and lower and lower in the water, and risked its own stability as it did so.  Tons of concrete blocks were brought aboard, and at one point, a small landing craft was even placed on the helicopter deck to push the big boat still deeper, and she still was not low enough in the water.  Eventually the ship was sent to the shipyard at Portsmouth, New Hampshire where parts for the USS Nimitz were being built, and that new aircraft carrier’s anchor chain weighing thousands of pounds was brought aboard.  The Portland had never carried anything as heavy as the diminutive NR-1.

The submarine’s crew showed up for work wearing astronaut-like jumpsuits that were bright orange and emblazoned with shoulder patches.  The new uniforms were a great morale boost for the NR-1 crew, marking them as being somewhat special in their otherwise drab, confined and overworked existence.  “We pranced around the LSD and managed to piss everybody off.  We thought it was cool, but the squadron commander didn’t,” Jeff Davis said.  The unamused captain of the Portland barked at Toby Warson, “Get your guys out of those damned things!  This is my ship and you are not going to make my men look second-rate!”  Unlike the astronauts, the NR-1 crew lacked the clout needed to stand out from the rest of the navy.  Since the captain of the Portland wore four stripes on his sleeve and Warson was only a lieutenant commander, the jumpsuits were discarded and rarely ever worn again.

The LSD dipped her stern down to the maximum depth it could go and the NR-1 inched aboard, stern first, and was secured on the wooden cradle.  The LSD expelled the water from the aft well, leaving the submarine sitting high in a sort of floating dry dock.  It was then covered by a tent that shielded it from prying eyes and set off on a mission that would cost $100,000 a day.

It was hoped that the LSD would provide a better method of transport than the debacle of surface towing on the AFAR mission, but the entire trip across the Atlantic was a nightmare.  “The vibration was unbelievable,” said Jeff Davis.  Links of the carrier’s anchor chain clanged like big cowbells, and timbers of the shoring cradle creaked beneath the strain while the submarine wiggled around so much that loose screws came out, inside cabinets collapsed, equipment failed, and some exterior gear actually fell off.  Maintenance on the little sub, which was fresh out of the shipyard, became a major challenge.

On the way over, the sail of the NR-1 was painted black.

*  *  *

The Red Fleet gave the Portland an extraordinarily hostile welcome, for the big tent on the back of the LSD meant that something was about to happen and they wanted to find out what.  The U.S. Navy was just as intent that they would discover nothing, and tucked the Portland into the heart of a Sixth Fleet carrier battle group.

As the unarmed NR-1 huddled out of sight beneath the tarp, sleek and nosy Russian gunboats rushed up to the Portland to try and see the mysterious cargo, and U.S. escorts would cut them off.  “They came right up on both sides of the LSD and one closed in directly astern while their planes buzzed overhead,” said Fred DeGrooth, the Sperry tech rep who wore a khaki uniform to disguise his civilian status.  “If Portland had slowed down, we would have been rammed.  We just gave them the finger and sailed on.”  Officers knew that an intentional collision might be attempted to force the Portland to stop and perhaps reveal her hidden cargo.

When the LSD reached a position that put the NR-1 within range of the target area, the U.S. task force closed in tight around her while the Soviet hounds circled close by.  Late that night, Portland turned off her running lights, plunging the area around her into stygian blackness.  The LSD flooded her dry well and dipped her aft section below the surface, and using only handheld flashlights for illumination beneath the tent, the NR-1 slid into the warm, salty waters of the Med and immediately dove to the sanctuary of the bottom, where it came to a dead halt.  The entire operation took only twenty minutes.  As long as the NR-1 remained deep, silent and motionless, it would not be picked up by Soviet sonar, because the floor of the Med is a centuries-old junkyard.  Ships of a dozen vanished civilizations litter the seabed and it is impossible to tell one from another.

The surface task force got under way and departed the area, in a gigantic decoy operation that pulled the curious Soviet bird dogs along with it, while leaving the NR-1 on its own.  The battle group took a sweeping tour of important Med hot spots during the next two weeks, sailing from Sardinia almost to the entrance to the Black Sea, which alarmed the Russians who were following along.  Getting your opponent to look the other way is the essence of an intelligence operation.

Once the surface boats were out of the way, the NR-1 got to work.  Because of its range, it did not have to be dropped right on the target.  Not having to surface meant that it could fly almost anywhere on the compass.  It had the ability to carry experts from naval intelligence to the true targets, in person or through detailed reports and photos of close-up examinations.  It did not take long for the NR-1 to find the suspect cable and follow it to a set of hydrophones, which were photographed thoroughly with the boat’s 120mm handheld and 35mm bow mounted cameras.  While looking at the mysterious objects through the view ports, we could be poke and prod them with the manipulator to reveal additional features.  With the ability to rest on the bottom, we could gaze at them from any angle we wanted, for as long as we wished, and the ship took its time.

Fifteen days passed before the task force returned to a predetermined spot, not the drop-off point and far from the Straits of Messina, and the NR-1 climbed back aboard the Portland in the dead of night and was back under the tent before the sun rose.  Toby Warson flew to the United States where he showed the photographs to a select group of analysts, then flew directly back to the ship.  “They want more pictures,” he told the crew.  The entire sleight-of-hand mission was repeated and left the Soviets more mystified than ever.

Not even the crew of the NR-1 was told much of what they were doing, even while they were doing it.  With such clandestine operations, their job was to go to a certain place, find a certain depth or spot, and accomplish a specific task.  The crew was made up of submarine and nuclear experts and most were not expected to be able to tell a hydrophone from a xylophone, or a mine from a melon.  It was not necessary to be experts at all things, and in cases such as this the crew did not need to know the overall purpose of the mission in order to execute it.  What they did not know, they could not reveal, even by accident.  The work was done with no publicity, wives and families and friends were told nothing, and even when some job appeared rather obvious, it probably was not what it seemed.

Naval intelligence secured all of the photographs and records at the end of the first Med mission, and the cover story was that the hydrophone setup and the mines were only some relics from a distant war.  It may be true.  It may not.  The mission was so compartmentalized that few ever knew the whole story, and the U.S. certainly was not going to reveal to the Soviet Union what had been found, where it had found it, how it was discovered, or even if anything at all was found.

The intelligence game was played that way.  A good result would be for us to know where the hydrophones and mines were and what their capabilities were.  An even better outcome would be if we gathered that information, but the enemy did not know that we knew.  Somewhere in between is the foggy place where we would want them to think that we knew something, whether we did or did not, or vice versa.  The truth is always elusive in the intelligence game and the cards are played according to what the other fellow is doing.  You could go crazy trying to envision all of the possibilities.  Deception and disinformation are powerful weapons.

In a scenario that would be repeated many times in the long life of the NR-1, the mission remained under such tight secrecy that the crewmen who were aboard that voyage thirty years ago still are not allowed to speak of it. Their job was to get there and back, and get the needed information covertly, and they did it well.  What was found there was left there, and fell beneath the firm cover of classified information.

*  *  *

While on the mission, the NR-1 caught a glimpse of its future by seeing the distant past.  On the floor of the Med, the submarine, with its view ports and TV cameras, was able to see things that had lain buried in the silt for untold eons.  Steering through one passage, it rolled up on the skeletal remains of what was believed to be a galleon that had sunk during the years when the Italian peninsula was a mere province of Greece, perhaps even prior to the rise of that great civilization.  The wood had disintegrated over the centuries, but the iron fittings were still there, as were remnants of the scattered cargo.

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A jumble of amphorae on the ocean bottom reveals the final resting place of an ancient Roman merchant ship

The discovery had nothing to do with the official mission, so the find was more of a curiosity than something to be studied.  Jack Maurer reached the manipulator arm out, gently plucked up a vase, and put it in the collection basket as a unique souvenir.  He thought little of the peculiar artifact as years passed, and left it on a shelf in his home until the day it was broken when the Maurers moved to Monterey, California.

An art expert spent three months carefully piecing it back together, and encouraged them to have it identified.  A curious archaeologist from the de Young Museum in San Francisco determined that the beautiful vase, some ten inches in diameter and nineteen inches tall, was either a Greek or Phoenician amphora dating from the third or fourth century B.C.  When experts wanted to know how such a rare piece of pottery had come into his possession, Maurer could only reply with a mystifying, “Sorry, I can’t tell you.”  He also did not want to reveal that after picking up that one small vase, the NR-1 rolled right over a lot more of them as it continued on its true mission.  Science still wasn’t a part of the job, but the little vase was a harbinger of great discoveries yet to come.



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