Murmansk is our Playground

by Steve Gentry
 
 

FOREWARD

Skipjack (SSN 585), was commissioned in '59. New hull design, 5-blade screw, she was maneuverable as hell, real fast (40+ knots submerged), but awfully noisy... like a Chevelle 396 with glasspacks and the AM/FM radio cranked up. We were cool!!! But when we were turning an 'All Ahead Flank' bell, you could hear us coming 1/2 an ocean away... At least by today's standards.

So, Fast Attack warfare tactics were rapidly changing... The original Hunter / Killer mission of the hull design and 5-blade screw (rapid hit-and-run tactics and speed) were giving way to the need to remain undetected and to implement a more stealthy strategy. Skipjack was kinda caught somewhere in that vast middle-ground between evolving sonar capabilities by the Rooskis and the inherent advantages of remaining undetected. As all of us who rode the boats know, once detected and triangulated, you had a very good probability of kissing your ass goodby. Thus, our normal outbound patrol strategy was to pull the plug when we hit the 100-fathom curve and not surface again until reaching a similar point when inbound. (I.E. Remain Undetected)

Two thirds of the Skipjack crew were 'nuclear power trained'. An elite group, schooled without regard to cost, honed to a fine edge, then cast upon the waters to make the rest of us 'forward of Frame 44' pukes envious of their lofty position on the food chain. Most crew interaction was based on 'Frame 44'... Those who worked forward or aft. I worked forward. I was a certified line handler, mess cook and planesman... And I also got to drive that sonuvabitch!

Our normal program consisted of occasional 3-5 day ops, lots of 7-20 day ops, all intended to be shakedown preparation for 60-80 day patrols off Murmansk... These patrols were what SSNs were all about. Because we were a nuke, there weren't many good liberty ports that allowed us to come in and visit anyway, and it seemed that constant pressure was placed on us to get out there in the Rooski's front yard and wait for something interesting to happen... Pursuit of targets of opportunity!

Fast Attack boats have one crew... None of that Blue/Gold stuff. Unbeknownst to us at this time ('67-'69), there was a lot of pressure being put on the navy by Congress concerning the cost of upkeep of SSNs and their frequent need for overhaul. Consequently, SUBRON 6 had put us on an OPS schedule that seemed to have us at sea all the damn time. The navy needed to get more bang for the buck out of the SSNs and logging max hours at sea was the solution. (Remain Undetected!)

You can see I'm going somewhere with this 'Remain Undetected' bullshit, huh? Well...

'This is a no shitter...'

THE THRILL OF THE CHASE

It's May '67 and the memories of Dunoon, Scotland are still fresh in my mind. I'll never forget my first sight of the USS Hunley (AS-31) as we rounded some spit of land that jutted out to meet the sea in the Firth of Clyde... This is the Holy Loch!

We're running on the surface, got the safety lines set up on the fairwater planes and 10-12 of us are standing on the planes getting our first look at Scotland. We'll have line handlers on deck in 30 minutes or so, but for this brief period of time I was able to just soak in the jagged coastline that juts from the sea, the sounds of the captain on the 21MC as he calls rudder angle changes to the Diving Officer or speed changes to the engine room on the 21MC... The snappy responses...

"Con, Bridge... Left 20 degrees rudder."

" Bridge, Con... Left 20 degrees rudder, aye."

" Bridge, Con... Rudder's left 20 degrees, sir."

A few minutes later, we spot the tugs who will bring us the harbor pilot and steer us the rest of the way to the tender, where we will berth for a couple days and venture out into this small town of Dunoon. For this young kid, these were some pretty heady times... Driving a submarine, seeing Scotland, drinking dark beer and scotch that nearly made me puke. Damn!

It was late May and the weather was brisk... Summer-like, for the folks in Scotland. I learn later that winters are long and cold, and the wind that sweeps down the fjords will chill you to the bone during the long winter months. But, its nice weather now and all the new stimuli are making me feel excited and full of anticipation. I've heard all the sea stories about going on patrol and now I'm finally on my first.

F*ckin A, this is big time!!!

"Kildin Island... MARK!!", the officer on the scope calls out. The QM reads back the bearing, marks it on the plot map, and records it in the Ships Log. Kilden Island is a navigation light on a small island just to the northwest of Murmansk.

I'll hear 'Kildin Island... Mark!' at least a couple thousand times during the next couple years... Yet, right now I'm driving the boat and absorbing every new detail of patrol off the USSR's major North Sea Naval Port. We're finally here and this is what its all about!

It takes a couple weeks to really get into the routine of being on station... Mostly just cruising around at 3-4 knots looking and waiting... Looking and waiting for something, we just haven't found it yet. Oh, we observe a number of coastal merchantman and Rooski naval ships... In fact, over the course of a week or so we have detected several man-o-war ships (subs and skimmers) that have fallen in behind a couple of them and shadowed them briefly, but whatever we were looking for, they weren't it. We'd just reverse course and return to that same 'ol location off Murmansk.

One morning, sonar reports a contact... Determines that its a man-o-war surface ship and we fall in behind this contact. We don't raise the scope any more than necessary, especially when other ships are in our close proximity, so sonar provides the bulk of our info. On this morning, there is a lot of chatter between the sonar shack and the con... The OD, XO, and captain are exchanging a lot of glances and from their discussion, its apparent that this contact MAY be the one that we have been waiting for. Its apparent that our 'sit and wait' game plan has now changed to 'follow the Rooskis'.

For about a day and a half, we follow this ship northeast of Murmansk. At some point in time, the captain decides that we have been shadowing the wrong ship and that we will return to our position north of Murmansk. We've trailed the wrong ship for a about a day and a half and must hurry back to station. Whatever we are looking for, must be important and there is concern that our objective may have left Murmansk while we were tailing the wrong ship.

We reversed course, went to about 400 feet and hummed along at about 25 knots to get back on station. Making some good time without letting everyone know we were here. At 25 knots, sonar was pretty marginal... Our own noise and the rush of water across the hull made it difficult to listen very far ahead, when the routine business of the control room is interrupted by,

"Con, Sonar... Contact bearing 075!"

The OD orders "All stop!" and asks sonar if they can identify the contact. Sonar says that they can't yet, BUT there are additional contacts bearing 015, 270, and 330...

"There are a bunch of them, sir."

The OD calls the captain to the con and things swing into action. Pretty soon we got us a full blown plotting party going and the control room is full of folks. The contacts are all identified as man-o-war and they are all around us.

We work our way up to periscope depth... 250 feet, wait a bit... 100 feet, check the baffles... And we come to periscope depth to take a peak. Holy shit!! The captain is raising and lowering the scope every couple seconds, observing a Rooski ship, lowering the scope again, and describing each ship that he observes! We have accidentally stumbled right into the midst of some Russian Fleet Exercise!

For 24 hours or so, we maneuver amidst the Russian fleet. Some real interesting activity and the descriptions that are being relayed from sonar to the con and the Captain/OD to the QMs, is the stuff movies are made of... And there we were, right in their midst and them Rooskies didn't know it! We were totally full of ourselves. The chatter amongst the crew was high energy... Stories were handed down from watch-to-watch as such interesting episodes continued to unfold.

We are the Silent Service, we are the hunter, and damn, we are good!!

THE WORM TURNS

Well, one must always guard against over confidence and complacency. If you are a crew with relatively little experience, this warning magnifies about 50 times! Such is the lesson to be learned for Skipjack.

Have you ever heard good 'ol US Navy types tell stories about some poor unfortunate Rooski boat that is detected by our surface ships and is literally hounded unrelentlessly? Dogged to the point of exhaustion, utter shame and embarrassment? Well, we must've come pretty damn close to being the Russian Navy's version of that scenario.

Into the 2nd day of moving more or less at will through the Rooski ships, everyone was getting tired. The excitement kinda faded due to fatigue (sleep loss) and the adrenaline flow had subsided. The more senior officers were catching a few winks with instructions to call if or when anything unusual came up.

A junior officer (LT or JG, not sure) had the deck/con by himself and we had the boat positioned a couple miles from the main Rooski activities. We were just tooling along at 4-5 knots (no wake from the scope) and from this distance the officer (Lets call him Mr. 'L') was making random observations through the #2 scope and the QM's were making log entries. At odd intervals he'd raise the scope...

"Up scope... Bearing MARK! Light cruiser 10 points to starboard... Down scope!"

"Up scope, (quick turnaround to scan the horizon)... Bearing MARK! High speed patrol craft... Down scope!"

"Up scope... Bearing MARK! I see several ships in the distance... Superstructure only... Just over the horizon... Down scope!"

"Up scope... Bearing MARK! Destroyer... Looks like a helicopter lifting off the stern... Down scope!"

Moments later...

"Up scope... Oh, F*CK!!!"

" DOWN SCOPE!! FLOOD NEGATIVE!! MAKE YOUR DEPTH 400 FEET!! ALL AHEAD FULL!! SOUND BATTLE STATIONS!!"

'CLANG, CLANG, CLANG...'

" CAPTAIN TO THE CON!!"

Things have just turned to MAJOR SHIT! The helicopter lifting off the Rooski destroyer moments earlier had taken up position right on our periscope!! Thus began 6 hours of the most gut-wrenching, escape effort ever undertaken in peace time!

We attempted every evasive maneuver known to man... Go deep, go fast, go slow, go quiet, go quieter!! Reverse course, noise makers, F*CK!! They were on us like stink on shit! Pounding us with practice depth charges, pinging on us with such volume that I'll never forget that sound... Just as we thought we'd gotten away, they were right back on us again! I very vividly remember the increasing gap of silence as we finally managed to escape their grip.

I sure would have liked to be a fly on the wall in the wardroom when the captain's debriefing took place. Mr. 'L' sure was rather sheepish the remainder of that patrol... Must have been a pretty major ass chewing. I have a feeling that Mr. 'L' got a remedial lesson in the benefits of REMAINING UNDETECTED!

Well, that sure humbled us a bit. From being 'king shit' one moment, to 'eating shit' the next. You can guess that the remainder of the patrol was rather uneventful. We were so shell-shocked that we kept our distance and you gotta know that them Rooski's knew we were in the area and just ran about PINGING the shit out of things. Well, lacking alot of confidence and bearing the scars of near-battles lost, we finally rounded the coast of Norway and started the long transit back to Norfolk with these words echoing in our muttled little brains...

REMAIN UNDETECTED!

If you hung with me through that without giving up or falling asleep, I'll share another Skipjack Moment with ya'll later.

Radix Nova Tridentis

 

BACK