LeRoy Collins Commentary 93

Commentary #93
1 October 2007

Recollections at sea...submerged...with Dad aboard

Earl, thanks for sending me this article from the TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT. It reminded me of an occasion in 1965 aboard my submarine USS JAMES MADISON (SSBN-627).

We had been at Cape Canaveral to shoot a live Polaris A3 missile, our first, to prove we could do it as a crew,...and further prove the missile as a viable weapon in the nation's arsenal of new intercontinental ballistic missiles. I was the submarine's Weapons Officer, so it was a test for me, as well.

We had various riders on board to observe; some were in an official capacity, but a few were just VIP observers. This program was the top priority of the U.S. Department of Defense during the Cold War, so nothing was allowed to get in the way of progress. Nuclear submarines like ours were cycling through this test phase every month or six weeks in those dramatic days of the Cold War. My father was at the time Undersecretary of Commerce in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

With our Captain's permission, I had asked my father to some see us shoot our missile, but his schedule would not permit. But he could join us the next day to go overnight submerged from Cape Canaveral to Charleston SC where we would offload the unused test missiles at the Naval Weapons Station up the Cooper River. That would work for him and be very routine for us with all the other riders having gone ashore.

Our Captain was a Yale graduate, and a gracious host, very bright, and a great submariner. He personally took charge of my father. After getting underway during the afternoon, submerging at the 100 fathom curve, turning north, and throttling up to full speed, he gave Dad a detailed tour of the ship......from the Torpedo Room forward, to the Stern Room aft. I was busy preparing to offload our remaining test missiles in Charleston.

We got back together in the Wardroom with my fellow officers for dinner. I was so proud to have Dad aboard and he seemed delighted, as well. After dinner, I explained he was to be quartered in the stateroom with my Assistant Weapons Officer and me, and in the bottom of three bunks in this tiny cubicle just 6 1/2 ft on each side. It helps to know this space included 3 bunks, two chairs, two dressers/desks, one hanging locker, a sink and medicine cabinet over the sink. Oh yes...the spacing between the triple decker bunks was 22 inches (this is an important factor in this sea story!).

I further explained that I would be turning in (going to bed) early, because I would be up at 0300 to take the watch coming into Charleston. He could stay up later to talk with the other officers, watch the movie, or any other touring he might like. What I failed to tell him was that I would be surfacing the submarine shortly after I came on watch, my Assistant would be up as well, preparing the missiles to offload, that he would be in the stateroom ALONE, and that he might be awakened by the surfacing evolution which is LOUD, because we inject 4500 psi air into ballast tanks forward and aft, and those ballast tanks forward are just outside the pressure hull in the vicinity of the bunk spaces. Of course the noise would barely faze a member of the crew, but for a rider not familiar with submarine operations, it could be very unsettling.

Also, we would be surfacing while it was still dark on the surface and all lighting in operations and bunk spaces would be subdued, and red, for night adaptation of our eyes.

Now the stage is set.........

Like clockwork, at 0300 the Officer of the Deck (OOD) dispatched the roving Electrician to awaken me and my assistant. George and I rolled out already dressed in our Navy blue jump suits (the same ones we wore the previous day; George went aft to the 3-level missile compartment. I went to the Control Room (via the Wardroom for an apple), looked at the myriad of guages, indicators, and listened for the familiar sounds of a 425 ft. submarine of 8500 tons slithering through the water at a depth of 500 feet at a speed over 20 knots. The off-going and on-coming watches were exchanging status information; I knew them all from previous watches together.

I checked all status boards to see what few systems were considered out-of-commission; I read the Captain's Night Order Book which centered mostly around finding the Sea Buoy for entering the Charleston Channel. He wanted to be called when we got there. I looked into the Sonar Room on the starboard side forward briefly to see if they had any surface contacts (they did, but none represented any potential hazard to our surfacing in the next 30-40 minutes). I checked with the navigating Quartermaster on the plot just forward of the periscope stand to see our plotted progress toward the Charleston Sea Buoy. The "bug" on the plot was driven by the Ship's Inertial Navigation System (SINS), and it had been updated with a NAVSAT pass a few hours before. I was ready to relieve my shipmate as Officer of the Deck (OOD). That was routine since the main thing to do was to find the Sea Buoy, notify the Captain and Navigator, then slow down,....and surface. Dad was sleeping soundly....so far.

Perhaps 0415, as the "bug" got within a few miles of the Buoy, I slowed all the way to five knots, which enabled us to hear further with the sonar, adjust our trim ballast, clear our baffles to make certain a large surface ship was not coming upon our track from astern, checked the chart to verify our fathometer soundings, and called the Captain to say I was ready to come up. With his consent via phone, I ordered a deep periscope depth of 65 feet for a lookaround before surfacing; I started raising the periscope at about 80 feet so it would be fully up when its top broke the surface. Just like the movies, I lowered the handles and rotated the right handle forward for maximum field-of-view, hugged it with my right elbow, and grabbed the left handle with my hand so I could adjust the elevation of the optics.

By now we were slow, wallowing in the seaway and I did a quick 360 degree spin around on the scope to verify no surface contacts were bearing down upon us. Typically we would surprise them; it was very ungood for them to be surprising us. Now that it was safe for us to surface, my next search was for the Sea Buoy.....and there it was off the port bow. A quick search with the radar gave us an exact range. SINS had done its job as advertised. I was ready to surface.

Upon my order, the Chief of the Watch on the Ballast Control Panel hit the two toggle switches which started porting the 4500 psi air into the ballast tanks (the forward group of tanks first). That sequence, plus rise on the fairwater planes caused the submarine to take an up-angle, which would minimize the likelihood of an inadvertent re-submergence in a rough sea on the surface. This sea was moderately rough, so the wallowing was very noticeable as we started to float again.

What had seemed routine for all the submariners on board was quite frightening for the Undersecretary of Commerce sacked out in the bottom bunk of the three-man stateroom in the Wardroom spaces......I had forgotten to forewarn him!

He was starkly awakened by the sudden high-pitched hiss of the air engulfing the ballast tanks forward. He bolted up, hit his head on the bunk above, opened his eyes, and EVERYTHING LOOKED RED! Was he bleeding? He crawled out of the bunk, stumbled through the two chairs, nobody else was in the room. He threaded his way through the narrow passeway to the main centerline passageway, and to the Wardroom. Nobody there either!! By this time the submaine had a noticeable up-angle (or was it a DOWN-ANGLE???), and was wallering 10 degrees either side. Here was the oldest man on board, standing in his pajamas (!) barefooted (!) in the middle of a deserted compartment in subdued surreal red light, and the only sounds were the hull creaking from flexing in the seaway. Was this how his life would end?

He looked forward and saw the watertight door to the Torpedo Room opening. Through it nimbly bounced the duty Electrician making his routine Forward-to-Control surveillance inspection following diving or surfacing. The Undersecretary rushed up to him grabbing his shoulders in desperation, and said in his best-controlled, but shaky anxiety "YOUNG MAN, IS THIS NORMAL???".

What seemed normal to the crew was quite terrifying to Dad.

He was assured everything was OK, ....but he did NOT go back to sleep. Needless to say, the incident with my Dad took on epic proportions with our crew within hours. Dad got off the ship when the pilot came on; he was glad to be ashore again. During less than 24 hours, he learned we do far more than bore holes through the water. Once he was safe ashore, he decided we were doing something worthwhile after all.

This may have been the only time in my life where we were together, and I knew more about what was going on than he did. It felt good..... to me.

LeRoy Collins, Jr.


Article published Sep 27, 2007
Come ride with Bob aboard a mighty submarine
By Bob Gabordi

It is just before 2 a.m. aboard the USS Florida when the loudspeaker announces, "Prepare to surface." I'm suddenly awake and out of my deck-level bunk. Gil Ziffer, who owns a Tallahassee advertising and marketing company, is already up.

We head to the control deck, where we had been just two hours ago, but it is now draped in black curtains, lights out, except for a few red lights and the ambient glow of computers. It is a scene that can only be described as the Starship Enterprise on steroids.

Here in the control room -- the brains of the most advanced warship in the Navy -- you quickly understand why only the best and brightest can be U.S. submariners, especially after dark in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

I'd love to show you a picture, but that just was not going to happen -- captain's orders. And no one disobeys the orders of Capt. Bill Traub while aboard his boat. It is abundantly clear this man is in total command.

Hours earlier, the crew responded to his command to battle stations in a time the captain announced as "very pleasing." Minutes later, he announced a confirmed kill of the mock enemy hostile target, even as a real contact - a merchant vessel - passed by.

Now, Ziffer heads up the ladder three stories for an overnight view from the bridge while I stay in the control area with the helmsman as the Florida begins to head in.

Still hours before sunrise, I head to the enlisted mess in search of a cup of hot, black Navy coffee. I'm virtually alone as I wander the boat, though a crew member is never far away. Chief of the Boat Andrew Crider, a sonar technician by trade, joins me in the mess and we begin solving the problems of the world.

If you want to know what is right about America, allow me to introduce you to Crider and the crew of the USS Florida, one of four newly reclassified SSGN submarines, a mighty weapon with a powerful mission.

By the time I go for that cup of coffee, I have been aboard the Florida for more than 14 hours. I do not remember seeing Crider sit down. He is the senior enlisted man on the Florida's Blue Crew, which alternates with a nearly identical Gold Crew to keep the boat on constant duty.

It is Crider's job, among other things, to make sure the captain and the executive officer know how their orders are affecting the crew, their readiness and discipline.

I had toured the boat in June 2006, shortly before it officially returned to service as an SSGN, one of four Trident nuclear ballistic subs converted to carry precision Tomahawk missiles.

This visit will last some 21 hours, plus another four hours in transport via a tugboat to and from the Florida. We board and debark at sea. Once aboard, we travel for hours to deep waters before submerging a maximum of 659 feet. The boat can go much deeper, of course.

The submarine practices what the captain calls "angles and dangles." It moves up and down at up to 20-degree angles while we dangle, trying to keep our feet. During an emergency blow of the main ballast, which forces the boat to surface very quickly, the angles can be much sharper. That's what creates the famous nose-of-the-boat-out-of-water effect.

When we boarded, Crider walked a group of us around the boat. Along with the crew, he showed us where things were and how they worked. What became clear very quickly was that many of these young men -- the average enlisted crew age is in the low 20s, I'm told -- could be earning much more as civilians than the government is willing to pay.

From soup to oxygen, the crew members are responsible for ensuring every aspect of each other's care and survival. Imagine that in your own workplace: 156 or so people whose livelihoods and, yes, very lives depend on each other's competency every minute of every day for weeks at a time.

Don't like your work assignment? Well, you can't just quit and find a new job.

Don't like the person working beside you? You still have a job to do.

Got a cough? Everyone else does, too. Or will.

Too sick to work? Go see "Doc" Peterson, a pharmacist mate petty officer who can dispense medicine the same as a physician's assistant in civilian life.

Just as in the movies, the table in the officers' wardroom can double as a surgical table. Just take off the garnet-and-gold tablecloth -- this is the USS Florida, after all, and the colors from that other university were discarded as the boat was being refitted -- and Doc will work on you.

But no one wants it to come to that, least of all Doc. Traub said the more likely scenario would have the boat surface to airlift a severely ill sailor. By the way, I asked seven people Doc's real first name. They all shrugged and said "Doc."

Peterson is one of many crew members who turned down other, higher-paying jobs to stay in the Navy. It is a tough call, especially for members of the crew with young children. Even if it sounds quaint to outsiders, there is no doubting these men's sense of duty and mission.

His first name is Chris, by the way.

Seven people from Tallahassee are on this trip, joined by six other guests. Among those six is retired Adm. Richard A. Riddell, the last captain of the USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, which was retired from the service in the early 1980s and became a museum in Groton, Conn.

Many of us had been to the Florida before its return to service; we've come back because of the opportunity to see its progress and to overnight on a mission. FSU's vice president for university relations, Lee Hinkle, is the only woman aboard.

Women are still not allowed in the submarine service, something nearly every man I spoke with expects to change and would welcome. Some say they think it makes sense for the Florida to be first.

Crider says what is important to the crew is competency: "We want the best skills we can get out here. That's all that matters."

It is only the competency and confidence of each sailor in every other sailor that allows them to fulfill the mission. They operate in an environment that they create and nurture. At sea, they make their own oxygen and power. They have everything they need to survive very long periods at sea, except for food.

Nothing is taken for granted.

Every man aboard I speak with is acutely aware of what happened in January 2005 when another submarine, the USS San Francisco, crashed into an undersea mountain, injuring 23 sailors. One sailor subsequently died from his injuries.

Having visitors aboard has to remind others of another tragedy at sea. On Feb. 9, 2001, the submarine USS Greeneville struck a Japanese fishing vessel while conducting an emergency ballast blow drill with several civilian visitors aboard. Nine people were killed, including four high-school students.

The men aboard the Florida have absolute respect for the command of Capt. Traub and the competence of the executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Chris Buziak, one of the brightest young men I've ever met.

Buziak patiently explains many hows and whys of the boat's functions in terms that visitors understand. Like so many others, he knows his role. While the captain is asleep or otherwise unavailable, Buziak has command authority. But the captain, he says, is always in command and never out of touch. If it ever is necessary, the captain alone gives the command to fire.

Buziak knows the importance of the role he plays. Just about every day he thinks about how incredible it is to be second in command on an SSGN.

Many of the sailors -- from enlisted personnel to Buziak -- make it a point to tell visitors how much they admire Traub. Lt. Todd Sullivan, a support officer known as Chops, is leaving the Florida on Thursday for sub group duty. He calls Traub the finest commanding officer he's ever served under. His replacement, Lt. Jesse Hubbart, says the opportunity to serve with Traub is one of the reasons he wanted to be assigned to the Florida.

As we prepare to leave the Florida, another group is boarding. These visitors are coming aboard for a formal inspection under a Navy admiral. Traub tells us that visits like ours occur every few years and offer the public a chance to learn what they get for their tax dollars.

Chief of the Boat Crider is standing on deck as we walk across to the bobbing tugboat that will take us to shore. My last thought as I wave goodbye to Crider is that this taxpayer will sleep better knowing that somewhere off the East Coast tonight, the USS Florida is still hard at work and its crew is ready, whatever might come its way.


/s/ LeRoy Collins, Jr.


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