A Local Submarine Sea Story
Bill, you recently sent me an interesting article about a homemade "submarine" apprehended near Costa Rica, trying to smuggle a large cache of cocaine. As a former submariner yourself, and a shipmate of mine, your article inspired an untold sea story, which I shall place on my website, i.e. a leftover from my 2006 summer campaign for the Republican Nomination to the U.S. Senate:
Following my graduation from the Naval Academy in 1956, I spent the next 10 years on active duty as a Naval Officer; all except the first year was associated with the Navy's Submarine Force in the Atlantic. I resigned my Regular Navy commission in 1966 to help my father run for the U.S. Senate (he won the Democratic Nomination, but lost to the Republican candidate in the General Election 1968). I decided to try my hand in business, but also maintain my Navy links as a Reserve officer.
As a Lieutenant Commander US Naval Reserve, I got command of the Reserve training submarine USS REQUIN (SS-481) in the late 1960s, albeit with the hull essentially "welded to the pier" in St. Petersburg FL. For a decommissioned ship, my assumption-of-command ceremony surprisingly turned into a fairly big deal; present were the Mayor of St. Petersburg, the Commandant of the Sixth Naval District headquartered in Charleston SC (himself a highly decorated submarine skipper in World War II), and my parents from Tallahassee.
This is a good moment to explain to my copy addees what it means to be submarine-qualified. All submarine officers and enlisted men (NO women serve on submarines...the living is too close for ANY privacy) go to Submarine School in Groton CT. When they are submarine-assigned, each undertakes an intensive qualification program, which yields a highly-qualified officer (approx one year) or enlisted crewman (approx six mos.). Simply stated, each emerges qualified to know the operation and maintenance of all piping systems, air systems, hydraulic systems, electrical switches/indicators, i.e. any on-board equipments of survival interest to the crew at-large. The officers and crew get to know each other through daily observation at very close range. The Submarine Force is very small and select, because of the demands of the formalized qualification program.
USS REQUIN was a Fleet Snorkel conversion after World War II ( i.e. high bridge/fiberglass sail with a Fleet Boat hull superstructure) and most onboard systems/equipments were turned over to my crew in working order...but we converted regular AC shore power to DC in order to run the DC machinery for submarine hydraulic systems, air compressors, trim and drain pumps, etc. (we had no big storage batteries remaining in REQUIN's two large battery wells). We had 110,000 gallons of diesel fuel aboard, but no propellers nor field excitation on the main propulsion motors. The obvious objective was to keep all the sailors trained in their equipment, but not allow them to go to sea...what a strange command! The whole assignment sounds quite uncomplimentary, but all NAVRES submarines nationwide were rigged that way. It was the Navy's way to keep some semblance of training for approx 8 officers and 70 enlisted assigned to each Reserve submarine, without worrying about the hazards of submerging, collisions, movement reports, drydock maintenance, etc.
Our NAVRES duty was performed one weekend per month, and it was my job with REQUIN’s crew to make it as realistic as possible for all hands in my crew. Each of us performed 2 weeks on active duty per year in a current submarine activity. For the officers, it usually meant a diesel submarine operating at sea out of Key West, Charleston, Norfolk, New London, or Carribean ports e.g. San Juan, Guantanamo, St. Thomas. It was enormous fun to be back on active duty for two weeks, then walk away, with very little residual paperwork for another year.
One day in the early 1970s I got a cryptic phone call at my civilian office from someone I did not know, who had been referred to me by a former Naval Officer I casually knew. The latter had an anti-submarine warfare background in Naval Aviation, and had his own business of selling US weaponry to foreign countries. The former wanted to know what it would take to fix REQUIN to submerge no deeper than 100 ft, (one fourth of its original design test depth of 400 ft) and snorkel (a potentially dangerous operation where the submarine runs at periscope depth - as deep as 65 ft - on its diesel engines, breathing surface air from a retractable 12" vertical pipe).
Very briefly, I told him what was needed re equipment and repairs, but I had no idea what it would cost. Moreover, I explained that the Navy could not sell this submarine without involving the U.S. State Department, since most former warships still have potential use as weapons. The conversation did not go much further than that, but ever since then I always thought that the inquirer's criteria for "private reactivation" seemed to be radar avoidance, high cargo capacity, and relatively long range...sounded like smuggling to me. Oh yes...and cost was no object.
But the thought re re-activation of REQUIN gave me further ideas. I decided to get the crew involved in an effort to do our own re-activation, without the knowledge/concurrence of the active duty Officer-in-Charge and his Cadre Crew of half dozen submarine-qualified enlisted men. My Reserve crew included all sorts of shipyard talent, e.g. divers, welders, pipefitters, machinists, etc., most all submarine-qualified. I accepted the challenge of getting two 7 ft diameter 5-bladed bronze propellers for REQUIN delivered locally. My men would get a mobile crane to accommodate our divers removing the tail shaft protective covering underwater, so the propellers could be installed pierside...all this without the Cadre Crew knowing what we were doing.
My job was perhaps the most daunting, because for me to find the suitable propellers, would require some external exposure of the "project," and it required a large flat bed truck to haul in the propellers from wherever they were. I decided to start looking in the Charleston Naval Shipyard during my next two weeks NAVRES active-duty-for-training period. I was familiar with the shipyard since I had been aboard a diesel submarine USS CHIVO (SS-341) undergoing overhaul there in mid-1960.
So, I chose my next active duty with Commander Submarine Flotilla Six (COMSUBFLOTSIX), because he controlled the ballistic missile submarines operating in the Atlantic, he was headquartered in the southern portion of the Charleston shipyard, I had served at sea under COMSUBFLOTSIX when I was last at sea aboard USS JAMES MADISON (SSBN-627), I knew many members of the incumbent staff, and it was within driving distance of my home in Tampa, and to REQUIN in St. Petersburg.
I scanned the REQUIN ship's plans beforehand to get the dimensions of the two propeller shafts, so I could be reasonably certain the propellers I might find in the salvage yard would fit on the shafts of OUR submarine. Once I reported in to COMSUBFLOTSIX, I was now "under the radar" to find two discarded submarine propellers.
My first stroll in the shipyard's salvage yard hit paydirt! Next I had to get LEGAL possession of the propellers from the shipyard's Supply Department. I found a Navy Supply Officer on the Shipyard staff, gave him a requisition signed by me, specified the propellers I wanted, and he accepted it. He even accepted responsibility for delivering them to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, where I had made prior arrangements for temporary storage. This was going too easy.
You can imagine the instant anguish I felt several weeks later when I got a phone call from the Base's security officer who said:
"Commander Collins, we have detained a large truck and flatbed trailer carrying two bronze propellers for delivery here. We have tried to explain we do not use those types of propellers in the Air Force, but the truck driver insisted he was delivering them according to YOUR directions. The driver has given me your name/phone #, so here we are. What should we do?"
I had presumed I would be notified prior to the shipment's departure, not just upon arrival at the destination. Fortunately I had a friend in the Base's storage warehouse, whom I called forthwith, and completed the delivery of 2 Navy submarine propellers at a large Air Force Base.
All this time-consuming planning now leaped forward with great speed, and my small Reserve crew's morale shot sky high. We decided we would send our divers over the side in Bayboro Harbor for the initial dive on a week day evening. I would distract the sole Cadre watchstander in his duty office, while my senior diver, John___, would do the dive under cover of darkness, barely 300 ft down the pier. John would carry a pneumatic chisel tool and use the same air he was breathing from two SCUBA tanks, to power the cutter. While the working depth of approx 10 feet would not use much air for breathing, the chisel might be another story. We would allow 90 minutes to do the job on this first try.
On the night of execution, our task force of conspirators met several blocks away and reviewed our plans. John had an additional diver with him for safety and to help with the light he needed to do the chisel work 10 ft underwater at night. We had reviewed the blueprints beforehand, so we thought we knew what to expect. At Time-Zero, we went our separate ways, i.e. I to the duty office to make small talk with the Cadre Crewman, and John's contingent to pierside, where REQUIN was moored in the humid moonlight.
My devious part of the scheme was easier than John's, but just as important. The duty Cadre Crewman that night was a 2/c Electrician, a very nice young man, whom I liked very much. We had a great time talking about submarine things. I even asked for access to some engineering drawings, to discuss how we might modify the submarine to reactivate its electrical motors. We both enjoyed the discussion, while John was chiseling on the submarine tail shafts very closeby. I could not hear any telltale noises filtering into our office space in the piershed.
Shortly after the 90-minute window had elapsed, I excused myself and went back to the pre-operation rendezvous site to compare notes. John and his fellow diver were already there, obviously fatigued, but at least safe. Their report was not what we hoped for, but maybe it was the best for all concerned, i.e., the chisel consumed a disproportionate amount of air. John figured it would take him several weeks to get the job done, the way we were going about it. We decided it was not worth the trouble and time, ESPECIALLY because it was not authorized. No one was hurt, no harm was done, and we were not caught. But our crew of Reserves thought it was a marvelous effort, and celebrated our game gusto for years to come. But that is not the end of this sea story...
After just a few years as a Reserve submarine in St. Petersburg, the Navy decided to relegate the submarine Reserves to staff support, and eliminate the Cadre crews, and get the Reserves transitioned to supporting nuclear submarine squadrons and staffs. Our Navy was phasing out diesel submarines. While the diesel submarines were cheaper to operate and maintain, their operational capabilities were far less than their nuclear-powered successors. I decided we should try to keep REQUIN in Tampa Bay as a tourist attraction. Agreeing with me was my friend and then Tampa shipyard owner, Gilbert Turner.
Gilbert had a very strong sense of public stewardship, AND his shipyard housed many services the submarine would need, e.g. towing, modifications for easier public access, hull maintenance...all this for Free, as a public service. Further, Gilbert was a prominent member of the Florida SERTOMA civic club organization. We both thought that if some SERTOMA clubs were part of our plans, we might have an easier sell with the leadership of a hosting municipality.
We made a courtesy inquiry with the Mayor's office in St. Petersburg. While that was the obvious host city with REQUIN already in place, we found no interest there. So Gilbert and I decided to put a full court press on the Mayor of Tampa, Hon. Dick Greco, a politician famous for thinking-outside-the-box.
I made the overtures with the Navy to find out what deal the City could get. I likewise contacted the Tampa Mayor's office, which promptly led me to the City Attorney, Ms. Josephine Stafford. Jo said hosting of REQUIN could not cost the City any money or liability. We tentatively chose a mooring site alongside a City parking garage just one block from the largest intersection in downtown Tampa, but all this was conditioned upon the Mayor’s concurrence.
With most everything in place, and an impatient Navy demanding a letter from the Mayor, he was my next call, but he was attending an annual Mayor's Conference out-of-state. He would arrive back home Sunday night, and he lived barely three blocks from my home. Late Sunday afternoon, I took station on his doorstep.
His black Lincoln Town Car pulled in the driveway about 9pm. Gilbert and I were ready. Mayor Greco invited us inside where we laid out on his dining room table our "sales kit" of mooring plans, ship plans, a business plan, and our thoughts for the future. Our initial remark was, "Mr. Mayor, Tampa needs a submarine!" After Gilbert and I finished, the Mayor lit up and exclaimed "the submarine would make a terrific bar!" I hastened to explain to Mayor Greco that a bar would be inconsistent with the Navy's intentions for a museum. Bottom line: If we would include the caveats required by his City Attorney, would he sign the letter we wanted? He said YES.
Thus began almost two decades for public availability of USS REQUIN as a Navy museum in downtown Tampa, the only one between Charleston SC and Mobile AL, but it was not all smooth sailing. The low point came when the Tampa Tribune started ridiculing REQUIN as "a hulk stuck in the mud." We had the submarine purposely aground in the Hillsborough River downtown to prevent the Coast Guard from considering it a potential hazard to navigation. At low tide it would take on a list of perhaps 5 degrees; it was for practical reasons, but its unseamanlike attitude aroused public ridicule nonetheless.
Despite the bad press, REQUIN had a small but steady flow of visitors which helped pay the monthly bills. After several years the SERTOMA interest dwindled, in part because one of the leaders of a youth organization helping aboard was brought up on a morals charge. The Tampa Tribune carried that story big-time. In the middle of that, I got a phone call I needed desperately. The caller was Norman Walker, a regional executive with Diebold Corporation, the famed manufacturer/distributor of bank vaults, ATMs, teller stations, safety deposit boxes, etc. Norm had been an enlisted submariner in the late 1940s and early 50s; he had personally saved a sailor washed overboard near the Arctic Circle during rescue of the crew of the fatally-damaged submarine USS COCHINO in 1949, and this decorated hero wanted to help me. He was a Godsend, whom I promptly interviewed, and accepted...for no agreed compensation to him.
Norm took charge and got things moving on a business-like basis; he gave me monthly profit and loss reports, provided teams of labor to help the maintenance, coordinated with youth activities and the various City offices, trained tour guides, and donated substantial amounts of his personal time and treasure. Norm accepted REQUIN as a labor of love for the duration of her stay in Tampa. But despite his quiet success, "City progress" ultimately intervened under new leadership in City Hall.
The City sold the pierside parking garage to NCNB bank in Charlotte to build the 22-story cylindrical building we see on Tampa's skyline today. Next, the construction company cordoned off access to the submarine. I appealed for restored access to Hugh McCall, Chairman of NCNB, but I was ignored. I contacted the current Mayor, Sandy Freedman, who not only would not support a new City-owned mooring nearby, she initiated a letter to the Navy, which in so many words said: Get this submarine out of my city!
By happenstance, at that same time, the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh PA was looking for a submarine along its riverfront, adjacent to the Museum. They were referred to Norm. Norm contacted me, and we agreed to help REQUIN find a new home. The Carnegie's appointed liaison man was local businessman, Jim Winoker, who was a World War II submarine officer with several war patrols. Norm and I liked him, so Norm represented Jim in dealing with a local shipyard to prepare REQUIN for the long tow up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to Pittsburgh. The Carnegie allocated $750 thousand to prepare for towing, the actual tow, and site preparation at the Carnegie Museum. At last, REQUIN would be given the care and feeding it deserved.
In November 1990, the big day arrived to open REQUIN to an adoring public in Western Pennsylvania. The main speaker was the recently-retired Chief of Naval Operations, and my good friend, Admiral Carl Trost. REQUIN's first skipper and holder of the Navy Cross, CAPT Slade Cutter, was a special guest. I was there as REQUIN's last skipper. Commander Griffiths, incumbent skipper of the nuclear submarine USS PITTSBURGH was there with many members of his crew (Note: just a few months later, Commander Griffiths and his crew were among the first to launch Tomahawk missiles in the early stages of Operation Desert Storm, which rid Kuwait of its Iraqi invaders). Also there, in a typically quiet yet highly distinguished role as REQUIN's lifesaver, was Navy Reserve Chief Petty Officer Norman Walker, my shipmate, and friend for life.
USS REQUIN continues to serve our Nation today, 61 years following its commissioning at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in 1945. In Pittsburgh, REQUIN is loved and respected as any Navy ship should be; what a wonderful choice for a final home port...in freshwater notwithstanding.
Bill, this has turned out to be a far more extensive reply than you expected, or wanted. Your original message simply triggered a story I wanted to tell to the ages.
/s/ LeRoy Collins, Jr.