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

Chapter 15 - The Scientists

The NR-1 was expensive to run.  The submarine had to be ready to sail on a twenty-four hour notice when operational, and even when in dry dock, it usually was undergoing costly changes to prepare for new missions.  At a time when the tactical and strategic concepts of submarine warfare were being revised, it was difficult to find the funding to keep the NR-1 ahead of the technological curve.

Time had overtaken the most basic theme of attack submarines, which emphasized the single task of finding an enemy ship and hitting it with a torpedo.  As years and wars passed, subs had grown and diversified, acquired new capabilities from nuclear power and weaponry, and the accuracy, range, and capabilities of advanced electronics, sonar, and computers were increased.  The attack boats provided an important nucleus, but the undersea fleet had become more ominous as the subs became platforms that could deliver long-range missiles.  Strategy was being conceived for global conflict, not a stealthy one-on-one battle between a submarine and another ship.  Design work was under way not only for ICBMs, but also tactical Tomahawk cruise missiles and Harpoon antiship missiles.

Although the submarine force had an immense amount of influence in the navy, everyone frantically searched for worthwhile missions.  What could the underwater boats do to earn their keep?  The answer lay with the dark arts of stealth and cunning, the submarine’s ability to gather and provide intelligence about current and potential enemies.  American submarines were still tailing Soviet subs, and special warfare operations such as inserting SEAL commandos into strange places were coming of age, but the breakthrough came when U.S. subs began to tap the communications cables of the Soviet Navy, and to locate Moscow’s submarine detection networks as the NR-1 had done in the Med.  We were able to read the other fellow’s mail, listen to his telephone conversations, and find out what he knew about us, all extraordinary advantages for military planners.

Like every other ship in the fleet, the NR-1 had to meet the changing times.  Although it was virtually brand-new, its concept was almost a decade old, and the competition for dollars was made even more difficult for a ship that intentionally remained far in the background.  Publicity might shower down on the surface fleet, but the NR-1 stayed out of view in order to operate with maximum efficiency.  Every crew member was indoctrinated that the less said about the boat, the better.  That cocoon of silence had also been perpetuated within the navy itself, and some people were wondering about the hybrid submarine-submersible, the only one of its kind in the world - “Why do we need it at all?”  The boat would have to adapt to the new budget realities and overcome the status quo if it was to survive.

Enter the scientists.

*  *  *

From the very start, the NR-1 had been designed, built, and operated beneath the guise of being little more than a vehicle that could help advance the knowledge of oceanography.  The time had come to make that a reality, to a very controlled degree, and bring science aboard.  No one doubted that the NR-1 could indeed benefit oceanographers, and it was a guaranteed method of adding value.  Mission money would flow with the expanded role.

The hidden benefit was that such research trips would not hinder the true military work of the NR-1, while providing perfect cover for classified missions.  That pattern, once begun, would expand over the years, and the boat would make historic scientific finds while still carrying out “black” work of purely military value.  The camouflage was perfect.  While in a canyon for a scientific survey, navy observers could poke around for such things as hiding places for enemy subs, Soviet listening posts, and enemy missiles and mines.  On occasion, the scientists would be aboard just to deflect attention from the actual purpose.  Rickover was adamant that the professors from the publish-or-perish world of academia not write a word that could give away any NR-1 operational capabilities, such as its depth and endurance.  They were passengers only, and the admiral’s harsh rules kept many of them away.  Why go out on such a mission if you weren’t allowed to write about it?

Dr. Bruce Heezen of the Lamont-Doherty Geophysical Observatory at Columbia University and Dr. Charles Hollister from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution were the first scientists to come aboard, partly because they were already famous and did not need to write a book.  They had already done that.  The internationally known oceanographers had authored The Face of the Deep, a thick treatise hailed as a landmark study of the geological and sedimentary makeup of the ocean floor.

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Dr. Burce Heezen pointing out the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

Most of their research had essentially been through interpretation of accumulated sonar data, mathematical probabilities, and the careful examination of bottom photographs.  There were many things they still did not understand and time aboard the NR-1 offered them the opportunity to explore firsthand the world they only knew on paper.

Heezen, whose three-bedroom house was chock-full of rolled-up charts of the world’s oceans and seas, was a big man who boasted that he had not done anything physical since the seventh grade.  It was a tight squeeze just to get him down the hatch of the NR-1, and once below, he was dismayed at the lack of personal space and the abysmal food situation.  But he was willing to put up with almost anything to enter a new realm of discovery.  “Heezen was gaga over the deep, and what it looked like down there,” said Toby Warson, the sub’s skipper during Heezen’s first journey.

Hollister was an adventurer as well as a respected educator.  While still a graduate student at Columbia University, he had organized and led a mountain-climbing expedition to Antarctica that was written up in National Geographic.  A tall and handsome man, Hollister had a zest for life and was always ready for a prank or a party.  He would charm admirals and sailors alike with his excitement about the things that the NR-1 could do for science.  But when he was at work, Hollister was totally focused.  A serious academic and a master of many disciplines, he eventually became the dean of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.  The Heezen-Hollister sounding charts of the world’s oceans would one day be on the walls of universities, ships, and naval offices around the globe.

Charlie Hollister had been a student of Bruce Heezen at Columbia.  Similarly, one of Hollister’s own graduate students was a personable and adventurous young scientist named Robert Ballard, who eventually would follow their footsteps aboard the NR-1and carve a swashbuckling reputation as an undersea explorer.

The NR-1 took the oceanographers out to the largely unexplored continental shelf, where they lay immobile on their stomachs, staring with awe through the view ports as the boat dropped through several thousand feet, threaded into the canyons, and crawled along the sedimentary floor. 

In and out of deep valleys, across cobbled ridges, flying over seamounts, turning this way and that, it hauled Hollister and Heezen wherever they wished to go.  Warson was delighted by their first reactions, watching the men of science acting “like two kids with a new toy.”  About two days into the cruise, the ebullience of discovery was replaced by an ominous quiet as the tides and sudden bursts of currents from nowhere changed and chewed the contour of the ocean floor in minutes, right before their eyes.  Eventually, there was no chatter at all as Heezen and Hollister studied the jutting rocks, strange craters, and shadowy, turbulent water.

“We were taking core samples off the canyon walls, picking up rocks, and they were just growing more glum,” said Warson.  The skipper was acutely aware that this voyage, which was no strain at all for the NR-1, was as important as any the boat had ever conducted, for the scientists were needed if there was to be any hope for future “dual use” missions.  He stopped the dive, found a quiet place to park the boat, and had a talk with them around the single little table on board.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.  “What is it that we’re not doing?  What is it that you guys want?  Just tell us and we’ll do it.”

Bruce Heezen and Charlie Hollister were both grumpy.  “We got problems, man, but it’s not you.”  Hollister rolled his eyes in futility.

“We’ve just spent eight years on this book and now we get down here where we can see what is really going on and we find out that we’re wrong,” explained Heezen.  “We’ve got this book three inches thick that has been declared The Book on this kind of stuff and we’re wrong!  We’ve got to go back and rethink this.”

With that kind of backward endorsement, the NR-1 would never lack requests for use by serious scientists.  A new mission had been crafted.

Heezen would become a particularly frequent and favorite rider, and the boat would change character when he brought aboard a cache of his own tasty cuisine and the boat went to sea with meats and exotic cheeses hanging from the pipes.  It was fitting that a few years later that Heezen, with his loud shirts, fancy food, and friendly personality, died doing what he loved most, riding aboard the NR-1, studying the wonders of the ocean.

*  *  *

The turnover of the first crew was completed when Danny Gunter departed in late 1971 as the last enlisted man, and Jack Maurer, the final officer, followed a few months later in 1972.  That cut the tie between the operational boat and those of us who had brought it on line, and the new crews would have no memory of those long, hard years and battles to get the NR-1 into the water.  All of us, including the boat, had new jobs.

My family and I had settled into a small, old house in Coral Gables, Florida, about a half mile from the tropic swamps, a place overrun with vegetation and large, peculiar bugs.  One of the first words ever uttered by our daughter Jennifer was “Ooch,” a baby-talk contraction for the large, flying, hissing roaches that were as much a part of Florida as the sunshine.  I bought Johanna a copy of the book Florida Insects to help her identify whatever might be crawling across the floor.

Originally, I had considered becoming an oceanographer, but engineering paid a lot better, so I plunged into math and science, determined to get my degree from the University of Miami as fast as possible.

Although I was out of the navy and away from the NR-1, the sea still called to me, and by staying in touch with my old friends, I learned of things going on back at Electric Boat.

The yards were awash with projects.  EB was building a dozen 688-class attack submarines, a new generation of missile subs was under construction, and a $400 million contract was in the works for a massive Trident missile boat (known as a boomer), three times as big as the 688.  There was so much work going on, and more on the horizon, that parts of the new boats were strewn about like giant toys until the workers could get to them.  My friends told me that David Lewis, the new head of EB’s parent corporation, General Dynamics, had developed a special relationship with Admiral Rickover, and that the Old Man was steering contracts to Groton almost as fast as the ink could dry.  It was boom time on the Thames.

Tucked within all of those grand plans for the new flights of big boats and even bigger boats was one much smaller project.  Preliminary plans were being made to create an NR-2!  I knew that I had to be part of it.  I did the four-year engineering course in Miami in two and a half years, picked up my degree in the spring of 1973, and went to work for Electric Boat.  Home again.

*  *  *

The SOSUS networks were a particularly odd battleground in the early 1970s, as the opposing American and Soviet fleets went to great trouble to plant lines of their own hydrophones while trying to wreck those of the opposition with tactics as simple as dragging anchors through them. 

In years to come, the U.S. Navy would build sophisticated ships for the sole purpose of finding, repairing, and burying those valuable detection lines, but at the time, such missions perfectly suited the NR-1.  “We could pick up a cable, roll along with it until we found a break, then bring it up where a waiting repair ship would patch it,” said one crewman. After the trip to the Med, the navy recognized that the NR-1 could graze at will among the cables, moving along the seafloor like some giant, curious lobster.

But the NR-1 had not been built to handle the specialized, demanding work on the underwater network, and many of the problems that Toby Warson would weather during his three-year tour as skipper would involve refitting the ship for its new role.  “Toby’s second crew had a lot of problems,” said Chuck Chorlton, the nuclear engineering manager at EB.  “There was hell to pay at some of those meetings with Admiral Rickover and he was throwing people out of the office right and left.”

The boat spent a lot of time in dry dock as it was modified to do jobs that its creators had never envisioned.  Such refits would become frequent in the future as the little sub was constantly adapted to new technologies and needs during its long life span.

One point in the original operational instructions specifically stated, “The NR-1 is capable of recovering/implanting objects, within size and weight limitations, and assisting surface ships to recover/implant heavier objects to test depth.”  That anticipated that the manipulator arm could do the lifting, but it was soon discovered that the arm was unable to pick up more than a hundred pounds.  A guy in a gym could lift much more.  To improve on that, a set of forklike, interlocking tines was installed in the belly of the boat to give it a heavy-lift capability.  This grasping device, supported by the entire lifting ability of the ship, would be able to pick up enormous loads.

Another major change was the addition of a “Jetter,” a cumbersome device that shot water through special nozzles at immense pressure to dig through bottom soils, the same way a garden hose can plow up a garden.  The device expanded the boat’s cable-tending abilities and let it quickly dig up or bury items on the bottom.  Today the navy has a special cable repair ship, the USNS Zeus, that carries an undersea tractor and a sea plow equipped with a modern, multinozzled version of the Jetter, but at the time, the addition of the device to the NR-1 was a closely held secret.

Admiral Rickover, who had his plate full with his battles to get the 688-class subs built, was drawn back into the orbit of the NR-1 as his boat was changed and modified, and it was as though he had never left.  As the alterations unfolded, he made life hell for EB in general and Toby Warson in particular.  The young captain would be abruptly summoned at any time, day or night, to explain why something had happened, or might or might not happen.  “I would pick up the phone and the cord would start to uncurl from all the liquid fire coming down the line.  He would scream at me for thirty seconds or more and slam the telephone down,” Warson recalled.  A personal confrontation usually would earn him “a napalm burst” as soon as he walked through Rickover’s door.  The admiral, although saddled with enough other projects and controversies to break the back of an ordinary mortal, was single-minded in overseeing every design change of the NR-1, right down to personally trying to reconfigure the electronic circuits.  The little boat was more than a passion with him - it was an obsession.  One morning Rickover’s secretary telephoned Warson with some sad news.  “Mrs. Rickover passed away last night,” she said.  “So unless you have something really important, please don’t call the admiral until after lunch.”

*  *  *

Despite modifications over the years, one thing never changed for the NR-1.  It always sailed close to the razor’s edge.  Time and again the sea almost took the small and vulnerable ship, and time and again the crew found some way to extract themselves from danger.  It could happen in some distant undersea canyon, or right on the front doorstep, and almost every cruise encountered a heart-pounder.

A strong side current kept the NR-1 pinned helplessly to the wall of a canyon for hours on one trip.  On another, the lead weights stored aft fell off while the boat was being towed, forcing the stern up, the bow down, and the NR-1 into a steep and dangerous dive.  Fortunately, that happened while the bridge was unmanned, so no one was trapped there when it suddenly went down.  In another incident, an inexperienced pilot drilled the ship into a mud barrier two thousand feet down, and then, because he was not making headway, increased his speed and pushed the nose deeper into the mud.  A cable wrapped around a bottom rock the size of a garage became entangled in the thrusters, and in a similar incident, the boat snagged a SOSUS cable when it tried to dodge beneath it.

Returning home from one job, the NR-1 made it safely to within sight of the Thames, but was prevented from getting through the Race by the monstrous seas of a hurricane.  Instead of trying to dive in the shallow water, the boat sought refuge behind the coastal islands at the tip of Long Island.

The lookout who was strapped into the bridge was having the usual problems of being trapped topside as the heavy seas broke over the rolling boat when he spied something large moving toward them through the rain.  He called Warson on the ship’s phone: “Captain, there’s an aircraft carrier up here!”  The big ship seemed to be bouncing around as badly as the NR-1, and was drifting nearer.

Toby Warson could not dive the boat because of the man stuck on the bridge, there would be no way to dodge out of the carrier’s path if it closed on them, and there was no way to outrun it.  As the huge ship and the little boat shared that small area of storm-tossed sea, a bit of calm moved across the area.  The NR-1 recovered its man on bridge watch, hurried out to deeper water, and dove to safety.

The mystery ship above was later found to be the British carrier HMS Ark Royal, which had been visiting New York when it tore loose from its anchorage in the hurricane and drifted up the Connecticut shore without power.  Had it even bumped the NR-1, the carrier would never have felt the impact, but the submarine would have died within a few miles of its home.

Danger was always a companion, and it is extraordinary that the only fatality on the boat thus far its long career happened when scientist Bruce Heezen suffered his heart attack.  Every crew came back with stories, after every voyage, and anyone who ever served aboard the NR-1 well understood the meaning of a plaque that rested on the desk of President Kennedy, a former PT boat skipper: “O, God, Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”

*  *  *

In January 1973, one of the stars of the Prospective Commanding Officers’ course was Chuck Larson, who eventually would wear the four stars of a full admiral and twice serve as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.  At the time, he was already an experienced captain, and was therefore somewhat surprised to find that his PCO roommate was the most junior guy in the course, an ebullient young lieutenant commander named Allison J. Holifield.  But they had something in common, for both held orders to become the new skippers of two of the most unusual submarines in the navy.  Larson was headed out to command the USS Halibut, the boat that in 1971 first placed a tap around a Soviet naval communications cable lying on the floor of the Sea of Okhotsk.  It was one of the biggest intelligence coups of the Cold War and gave American analysts the ability to actually eavesdrop on conversations between top Soviet naval officials.  The Halibut was a legend in the murky world of intelligence gathering, and not just anyone could be her captain.  Holifield also was headed for a rather clandestine assignment, having been chosen as the new officer in charge of the NR-1.

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

Born in Mississippi and raised in Florida, Holifield originally was drawn toward aviation because his father had been an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps.  Submarines became attractive when his cousin, who was in the navy, arranged for him to crawl all over an old diesel boat.  When the time came for college, he chose the Naval Academy, because upon graduation he would be able to choose between planes and subs.  A training flight that let him experience landing on an aircraft carrier, often likened to a controlled crash, convinced the midshipman to pursue a career in nuclear power and submarines.  Admiral Rickover chewed out Holifield during his selection interview for not studying hard enough, but he actually stood number sixteen in his class of more than seven hundred when he graduated in 1961.  President Kennedy handed him the diploma.

His career had followed normal patterns right up until he finished a tour as operations officer-navigator aboard the USS Narwhal and it was time to take a turn as executive officer aboard a large attack sub.  Instead, he was selected for the NR-1, which he knew only as “the supersecret minisub that was painted orange and tied up north of Pier 15.”  Like Dwaine Griffith and Toby Warson before him, Holifield jumped at the opportunity to have his own command rather than serving as number two on a bigger boat.  The only real drawback was that Warson, an enthusiastic diver, insisted that Holifield also qualify as a navy scuba diver, which forced him into that exhausting course at the age of thirty-four, when the next oldest man in it was only twenty-two.

The normal transition for a new man aboard the NR-1 was to work for six months beside the person who was being replaced, so for the rest of 1973, Holifield was slowly introduced to his new ship and learned every trick in the book.  He was totally intrigued by what the boat could do.

The change of command ceremony in which the broad-shouldered, athletic, boisterous Warson was replaced by the small, slim, quiet Holifield was held in December 1973, a quiet affair in a little briefing theater at the New London headquarters of the submarine fleet.  No invitations were issued.

Toby Warson, despite an outstanding record,  would see his navy career end a few years later.  “You screwed up one time too often,” Rickover told him before exiling him from the boats to a desk job in Washington, never explaining why.  Although he had worked only in submarines before, Warson was intrigued by what he found in the corridors of power, dealing with influential people and thinking up out-of-the-box solutions to intricate and important problems.  He was eventually selected to become a captain, but he chose to retire with the rank of commander after nineteen years of naval service.  He accepted the lowest-paying civilian job offer he received, a midmanagement post with Honeywell, and then proceeded to skyrocket in the private sector.  Before he was done, Toby Warson held civilian titles such as chief executive officer, general manager and managing director of Fortune 500 companies, and had private offices that were larger than the entire working space aboard the NR-1.  One of Rickover’s major failings was that he helped drive away a large number of such very talented officers, costing the navy several generations of talent.  That was all in the future, for long after he left the boat, Toby Warson would have one important and final mission with the NR-1.

Al Holifield felt on top of the world when he took command.  He loved his new boat and how the men called him “Captain.”  He could only imagine where they would go, and what they might do, and there was a definite bounce to his step as he and his wife, known to all as Muggsy, went home that night to their house in nearby Gales Ferry.  The new skipper did not know he would soon be facing “Black Saturday.”



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