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

Chapter 1 - Spook Mission

Our nuclear attack submarine, the USS Sargo, was two weeks out of Pearl Harbor, gliding easily at seventeen knots some four hundred feet beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean and headed for the east coast of Russia. The white numbers on our sail had been painted dark gray to match the rest of the ship and prevent identification, the radio room was stuffed with new electronics, and we had taken aboard three mysterious “communications technicians,” ghostly figures who rarely left their equipment and spoke only to the captain. Once a day we rose to periscope depth to receive any radio messages, then immediately dove to again hide our transit in deep water. It was 1964, the world was awash in the Cold War, and after preparing the ship as if she were going into combat, we were on our way to do some serious snooping in the Tartar Straits.

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The Sargo leaves Pearl Harbor with Diamond Head in the distance
as it heads for a mission in the western Pacific Ocean

The Cuban missile crisis only two years earlier was still fresh in everyone’s memory, and in the short span of time since, President John Kennedy had been assassinated, Nikita Khrushchev had been overthrown as the Soviet premier, and British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was driven from office by a scandal. America was trying to catch up with the Soviet Union in the space race, Russian reconnaissance planes were flying over Alaska, East-West tension was tight along the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Navy was growing at an alarming rate, and American armed forces were being drawn into Vietnam.

The repercussions of such geopolitical events even reached even to the depths of the Pacific, where I was serving aboard the Sargo, a submarine that had already sunk once. Four years earlier, while tied up dockside at Pearl Harbor, a pressure hose carrying pure oxygen into the ship ruptured and an intense fire broke out. Flames shot a hundred feet into the air and the nightmare scenario of fire aboard a nuclear-powered submarine became a reality. As the inferno roared and with one sailor already dead, the captain made the drastic decision to sink his own ship. He sealed off the aft torpedo room, put the stern of the crippled boat on the floor of the harbor with a deck hatch left open, and flooded the compartment to keep the raging fire from reaching the ship’s nuclear reactor. The Sargo was later hauled up by a huge crane, refurbished for three months, and returned to active duty. Now she was my home, and as I was an unqualified "nuc" in training, my bunk during this four-month mission was a vinyl mattress right beside the warhead of a large torpedo.

My duty station was at the plotting table in the control room, noting the position of any ships or other contacts.  It was an enviable job.  Although I was one of the most junior people aboard, I was in the operational heart of the Sargo, just a step away from the dive station and the periscope stand.  I knew where we were and what we were doing.

You lose track of the hours in a submarine, for there are no windows, and no matter where your ship may be, the clock is set at Zulu, the time on the prime meridian, the imaginary line of longitude that passes through Greenwich, England.  So days and nights cease to have meaning to a submariner, for there is no sunrise or sunset, no stars or moon, just the ship’s bells to signal the time for meals, working, and sleeping.  After two weeks at sea, we crossed the international date line deep in the Central Pacific, hundreds of miles from anywhere, far from friend and enemy alike, and constantly challenged by the tedium of routine tasks.  But we stayed on our toes, because absolutely nothing is taken for granted aboard a sub.

After several hours on duty one quiet day with no contacts to plot, I sat listening to the machine in which we lived.  There is a continual din inside any ship underway - the whine of the turbines and reduction gears, the whoosh of air conditioning, the squeal of hydraulic fluid moving through pipes and valves, the bleeps of electronic devices, the straining shakes and shudders as turning screws push the ship through the water.  Everyone feels the comforting rhythm that gives a sense that all is well, and instantly recognizes any change.  I watched the Fathometer send out periodic pulses that returned many seconds later and showed the ocean bottom was eighteen thousand feet - more than three miles - below us.  It made me wonder what it would be like to fall that far, a thought I quickly pushed aside.

The intercom in the control room came on with a request from the engine room, where a minor leak had been discovered in the hydraulic plant.  Permission was requested to shut a valve to stop the leak so a hose could be replaced.  It was a logical, routine decision and Lieutenant Ted Ardell, the conning officer running the sub during that watch, gave consent.

As soon as the sailor closed the valve, it felt as if a giant hand had struck the boat.  The nose of the Sargo pitched violently down and the calm shipboard tempo instantly changed to that of a ship in serious trouble.  “The stern planes have gone to full dive!” cried out the planesman, who jumped to his feet and pulled back on the control stick with all his might.  “I can’t get them back!”  We tipped more sharply and felt the downward angle increase.  I grabbed the tilting plotting table as everything that wasn’t tied down tumbled forward in a sudden avalanche.  Some items rattled past around our feet while other objects launched themselves through the air and crashed against the compartment bulkhead that only moments before had been the wall in front of me.  With the steep angle of the boat, that wall was now well below the stations to which we clung in order to keep from falling.  “Switch to emergency plane control!” yelled Ardell.

The angle only grew steeper, passing forty-five degrees.  “Still on full dive!” called the planesman.  Neither our captain nor the executive officer could reach the control room because the sharp angle and force of the dive had pinned them against the walls of their cabins.  I glanced at the large digital depth indicator, where the numbers were changing so fast that they were a blur.  In a matter of seconds, the ship drove herself down several hundred feet and the bow angle was greater than ever.  The Sargo was out of control and heading toward her crush depth, the point at which the outside water pressure would crumple the hull.  Ted Ardell, a sandy-haired young officer not long out of the Naval Academy, had to act immediately and instinctively, for if he hesitated, we would all be lost.

“All back emergency!  Blow all ballast tanks!” he called, and the Sargo shook violently as her machinery obeyed the command.  The giant propellers reversed and a thunder of compressed air blew some of the water from our ballast tanks.  Everyone held on tight as we listened and prayed that the straining boat would respond.  Our only chance of survival was to use every means available to stop the plunge.  Ardell did everything right, and it worked.  In seconds that seemed like years, we felt the rapid descent slow, and the bow began tilting back up.  The ship’s hull groaned under the tremendous strain, but held.  Everyone in the control room looked at each other without speaking as the ship recovered.  We had gone to the edge of eternity and back in less than two minutes.

The single valve turned by the sailor in the engine room had disabled both the normal and emergency steering and diving systems.  It was an error in the ship's design. There were four other Skate-class submarines just like us, and although the problem had never before been encountered, it eventually would have happened to one of them.  Luckily, we survived to pass along the warning.

We quickly put things back to normal and the Sargo resumed the mission as if nothing had happened.  Responding to emergencies is part of life underwater.

*  *  *

Through the East China Sea, the Straits of Korea, across the Sea of Japan and we silently entered a long body of water between the Russian mainland and Sakhalin Island, a protected sea lane that the Soviet Navy considered to be its own private pond. It was an awkward place for an American warship. While the United States recognized only a three-mile limit, the Soviet Union claimed sovereignty of the seas to a distance of twelve miles from their shore. We would work the gray area in between those distances, a disputed zone where some American subs had been discovered by Soviet warships and slammed by “practice” depth charges, as the USS Gudgeon had been in 1957. Those boats often returned to Pearl Harbor with large dents in their hulls and superstructures, but neither side acknowledged such incidents. The rules of engagement would change if we entered the three-mile limit, where the enemy ships would have the right to capture or destroy our boat. The chart on my plotting table clearly marked that critically important territorial line.

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Early cruise missile launch from the deck of a surfaced submarine

The Soviets were testing an early version of their cruise missiles on a range within the Tartar Straits, launching the antiship weapons from a submarine toward a group of target barges a hundred miles away.  At night, we stayed well offshore, but each morning the Sargocrept in and waited near the supposed launch position.  After a week of hearing nothing, our sonar picked up the sounds of several approaching ships, including a submarine.  We moved closer after they came to a stop and were able to observe the complicated process of how they prepared the ship-to-ship missile for launch.  Small, choppy waves helped hide our periscope during the short intervals when it was raised, and our captain, Lieutenant Commander Robert M. Douglass, settled down to watch.

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The Sargo lurking just beneath the surface with periscopes and antennae up
(Courtesy of the author

The Soviets had no idea that a large U.S. warship had joined their observation group, her ominous bulk hidden beneath just a few feet of seawater only a hundred yards away from their ships.  When the missile was ready, the eyes of all the Soviet sailors focused on the launch.  Douglass then boldly raised our entire package of periscopes, cameras, and antennae.  A bright sun bathed the area, and when the rocket shot away from the Soviet sub, we probably got better photographs of the test than they did.  We also captured and recorded the telemetry and launch signals from the ships and the missile itself.  We picked them clean, grabbing a complete top secret Soviet launch profile while remaining undetected.  Then the Sargo moved quietly away to await new orders.

As a reminder that this game was never easy, our luck turned bad a few weeks later when we were lurking at the far end of the missile test range, hoping to watch one of the weapons impact among a quadrangle of moored barges.  When our spooks learned a shot was imminent, we worked into the area and once more settled down near the Soviet ships gathered to watch the incoming missile.  But this time when the skipper raised the periscope, he saw a Soviet sailor on the bridge of one of the ships pointing right back at him and yelling something.  Douglass, a tall man with a terrific command presence, simply said, “Uh, oh.  I think they’ve spotted us.  Lots of activity on deck.  Down scope!  Let’s get out of here!”

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Soviet destroyer of the types that hunted us while we tried to take photos of their missile launches and landings

The Soviet surface ships scattered to make room for a Kashin-class destroyer that was charging toward us.  She began pinging away with active sonar, and then took up a position across the path we would most likely have to take to reach undisputed international waters beyond the twelve-mile limit.  We were now the prey instead of the stalker, but Douglass, whose calm in such situations was legend, did not intend to make things easy for the Russian destroyer.  Instead of heading out on the direct route, he slid the Sargo slowly forward, between the target barges, which made a jumble of the destroyer’s sonar signals.  When it became obvious that the Kashin did not have a fix on us, and was simply waiting for us to make a mistake, we angled out of the area, sticking close to the shoreline, and slipped into deeper waters.

*  *  *

The next item on our surveillance agenda was shadowing one of the newest Soviet missile-carrying submarines, a boat of their Echo II class, to determine if she was powered by standard diesel engines or a nuclear reactor.  Intelligence sources informed us that one was leaving the shipyard at Komsomolsk-on-Amur and would be coming through the Tartar Straits to reach the ice-free port at Vladivostok, on the southern coast of Siberia.

We found a good spot and waited about a week before picking up the sounds of that sub moving cautiously on the surface behind an escorting patrol boat.  A heavy mist blanketed the sea and hampered their ability to spot our periscope, and the submerged Sargo swung in smoothly behind both Soviet vessels, where the churning and turbulence of their own propellers masked any chance they might have of detecting us with sonar.  They were making only eight knots through the fog, and we were tailgating at less than a mile, closing at ten knots and keeping the sound of their props centered dead ahead on our television-like passive sonar display.  As we slipped up on them through their roiling wakes, we could hear the actual throb of their screws in the water around us.

The captain issued rapid-fire orders to maintain our speed, just two knots faster than theirs, and to start the radiation sensors, automatic cameras mounted on the periscopes, and sound-recording gear.  As we overtook the Echo II, our fully extended periscopes were only ten feet beneath her hull.  The Sargo surged ahead until she came even with the bow of the Russian sub, completing a clean sweep during which our equipment made the important discovery that the Russian boat was indeed nuclear powered.

We slowed and dove to begin our escape, and the submarine and patrol boat moved along to their new home port not knowing they had been electronically mugged.  We had harvested exceptionally valuable intelligence and would add a complete set of photographs of the bottom of the submarine’s entire hull, a power plant radiation profile, and a transcript of their engine and propeller noises to the navy’s library of intelligence information.  If an American sonar man ever detected that sound again, anywhere in the world, he would know exactly which ship it was.  If we survived to relay it home.

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A surfaced Soviet Echo-II submarine

*  *  *

Our final chore was yet another submarine chase.  One of the Soviet Juliett-class diesel-powered submarines had become particularly quiet and hard to detect, a remarkable change for a type of sub that usually made quite a racket with her propellers.  We had to find out why, and began our cat and mouse routine by parking off the big naval base at Vladivostok.

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Soviet Juliett-class submarine

Since it was near the end of the tour, the crew of the Sargo had been honed to sharpness by the work of the past few months.  One exception was the ship’s navigator, a lieutenant with a sour attitude about not having risen higher in rank.  He was a large man who already had gray hair at the age of forty, and was known for trying to avoid even the simplest jobs.  The crew nicknamed him Satchel Ass, for the way the seat of his unkempt khaki pants sagged behind him.  The nickname conjured an image of sloth that suited him well, and soon everyone, including the other officers, took to calling him Satchel to his face, though he never figured out why.  Unfortunately, we had to rely on this weak link to determine where we were in the ocean.

The Juliett appeared to be conducting some sort of tests as we spent days scouting her.  The sub would emerge from port, operate for a short period then return to base.  It was too risky for us to use the tactic we had employed against the Echo, for this Juliett boat moved too fast when she was on the surface, so we watched from a distance as her knife-edged bow threw water aside when she powered through her exercises.  Every day we jockeyed for a better position, hoping the sub might loiter near us just long enough.

Satchel kept track of our location by taking bearings from the peaks of the snowy mountains along Cape Povorotny, and confirmed his position with readings provided by Loran Alpha radio signals, the only electronic navigation device we had that worked in the far reaches of the northern Pacific.  His job became trickier as the weather changed and early summer fog obscured the view of the mountains, often for days at a time.  When he could no longer see the peaks, he was forced to rely solely upon the Loran radio signals.

It came as a surprise to all of us when, on the first day of July, after taking the regular position fix, the navigator pinpointed our boat as being not a dozen miles off the Russian coast as we thought, but smack in the middle of the vast and dusty Gobi Desert.  The captain immediately withdrew to deeper water to find out what was wrong.  Electronic technicians swarmed over the Loran gear, calibrating and testing, and declared it to be working perfectly, only to have the Loran tell us over and over that we were a thousand miles inland, sailing beneath the Gobi sand.  Meanwhile, we could only navigate by dead reckoning from the last fix the navigator made from the mountaintops, which were now hidden by the fog.  Without a good position fix, we could only make rough estimates of how far the strong currents might have carried the Sargo along the coast, and soon had only an approximate idea of where we were.

At that moment, the Juliett gave us the opportunity for which we had been patiently waiting.  She began her run back to port escorted by several ships, and all were moving slowly because of the fog.  At that speed, we could catch her, extend our periscopes, photograph the hull, and figure out why she was so quiet.  Captain Douglass studied the chart with Satchel and was assured that we could accomplish the mission before the enemy sub reached the protection of the three-mile limit.  Using the available data, I plotted an intercept point that would allow us to come to periscope depth right behind our target.

From there, we would repeat the Echo maneuver, dive beneath the enemy sub, and raise our periscope until it was only a few feet below her hull as we moved forward.  We caught up as planned and positioned the Sargo just beneath the Soviet sub.  Our skipper got his first good look through the eyepiece and saw that the Juliett’s propellers were recessed in miniature wind tunnels, which shrouded them and greatly reduced the amount of noise leaving the ship.  This was another exceptionally important find, and Douglass ordered the recording and photography to begin.

But luck again turned against us.  Before we could complete the pass, the Juliett accelerated, which meant we would have to increase our own speed to overtake her.  We went down to four hundred feet to reduce the noise of our own propellers, leveled off, and rushed forward at full speed, planning to rise up at the last moment and finish the job.

Without warning, we hit something unseen.  The whole boat shuddered and the bow rocked up like she was sliding up a boat ramp.  We were all flung forward by the impact even as the captain ordered, “All stop!”

Our momentum at high speed defied his order, and although the engines went to idle and the propellers stopped turning, the Sargo plowed along the seabed, scraping and shuddering.  “I can hear gravel scattering,” called the sonar operator.  We had run aground at full speed, bounced twice off the bottom, and skidded to an abrupt standstill, dead in the water.  We had made so much noise that we believed it would have been impossible for the Russian ships not to hear us.

“Check the chart!”  Douglass ordered.  “There shouldn’t be any four-hundred-foot bottom out here!”  Anger tinged his voice.  Our captain did not like surprises while sailing beneath Soviet warships.

The quartermaster gave him the bad news.  “We’re inside the three-mile limit, sir!” he said.  The chart clearly showed the only four-hundred-foot depth charted in the Vladivostok area was less than two miles from shore, which made us a fair target.  We were well within the forbidden zone in which the Soviets could attack us with full justification.  We listened for pinging from the Juliett’s escorts, or the splashes of depth charges we expected to come raining down, but only silence surrounded us.  So far, we were not being hunted.

“Sonar.  What are the ships above us doing?” the skipper asked in a whisper.

“The ones I can hear are still headed into port, sir.  But they may have left one up there sitting quiet and waiting.”

Damage reports came to the control room, the worst stating that seawater was leaking into the pump room and could not be halted while the ship was submerged.  We could not just sit there idle in such dangerous waters.

“Ahead one-third, ten degrees up angle on the bow planes,” ordered the captain.  He had to know immediately if the ship was still maneuverable, and somehow the Sargo struggled back to life and responded, although awkwardly.  At least our hull was still intact and we had some control, but if they were going to find us, it would be now, and we braced for an attack.  Once again, nothing happened.

Douglass seized the opportunity and pulled us out of the area to the open waters some miles away, where we surfaced and stanched the leak.  Then we limped away toward safe harbor in Okinawa, staying well offshore and steering by compass headings.

Inspections would later show that all of the instruments had been raked off the underside of our boat, half of the big rudder was torn away, and the eighteen-inch-thick rudderpost was bent back at a thirty-degree angle.  We would have been sitting ducks, virtually defenseless and without much ability to maneuver, had we been attacked.

As we made our way slowly back to port, the skipper ordered technicians to rip the Loran to pieces, clean and test every part, and put it back together.  They did, and it still worked fine.  Whatever the problem was, it wasn’t with the Loran set.

The lead electronics technician, baffled by the mystery, had an idea and hunted up copies of recent navigation publications.  After only a few minutes of turning pages, he discovered why we had ended up in such jeopardy, sailing under a desert and slamming into the bottom a stone’s throw from the Russian coast.  The fault was not mechanical, but human.

Clearly spelled out in bold text in a “Notice to Mariners” was that on the first day of July, all signals transmitted by the Loran stations in the western Pacific changed to new frequencies.  That was the day our Loran “failed” for the first time.  The lazy and disgruntled Satchel had not bothered to read the notice nor alter the charts for the new settings.

Captain Douglass was furious.  He accepted the fact that he, the ship and his crew must work in an extremely perilous environment, but he would not tolerate incompetence compounding the risk.  He ordered that the navigator be confined to his quarters for the rest of the long trip, and after that, Satchel’s only contact with the outside world was a sailor who served meals to him in the small compartment.  The rest of us wanted nothing to do with him.  Before we reached Okinawa, those passing through the corridor outside his cabin heard the lieutenant muttering and crying, in the middle of a nervous breakdown.  When we finally tied up, Satchel was escorted topside and taken away in an ambulance.  We never heard from him again.

*  *  *

Crew members on this mission of the Sargo were awarded medals for operating in a war zone.  The official explanation was that we had passed through the dangerous waters off Vietnam during our journey.  The truth is that the potential combat we faced on our mission had not been in the warm Gulf of Tonkin, but far away in the misty and frigid waters just two miles off the Russian coast.

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Between 1963 and 1965 the Sargo earned three Navy Unit Commendations and flew the NUC ship's pennent on the left

In 1966, Commander Robert M. Douglass, United States Navy, was awarded the Legion of Merit for "exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the Government of the United States as Commanding Officer, U.S.S. SARGO (SSN-583), during three related missions conducted in the period 17 July 1963 to 19 June 1965, which resulted in achievements of great value to the United States Government."

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