Custom Built by ORION (AS-18)


by Steve Gentry
FOREWARD

One's memory begins to fail after all these years. It seemed like I'd vividly recall the dates and times forever, but I should have written this down many years ago. I want to be accurate, because this is important in Skipjack's history. As I first began to write a little 'sea story' about our adventure off Murmansk back in '68, I found myself struck by the significance of this event, and also by what little I really knew about it. I decided to contact a few shipmates who I knew would have some interesting insights. There assuredly are others, who would contribute, but I couldn't find them, they didn't respond, or I didn't ask. I don't mean to slight anyone.

I don't pretend that the situations captured herein are totally accurate; They are only an accumulation of some real time experiences, captured in the fuzzy context of normal 'human frailties', without benefit of the transcripts of the investigative hearings that followed this event, and many years have passed. What I'm saying is- I made an effort to be reasonably accurate. No more, no less.

One other point- Fast Attack boats had a special utility when conducting 'information gathering'. It was not uncommon for SSN's to get real close to USSR ships/subs and Naval Bases. Occasionally, it is rumored, the SSN's may have even violated Territorial Waters of other Nations. Now, I'm not saying that Skipjack ever (EVER) ventured into such waters~ but, ya never know!

We were on station, some miles east of Kilden Island. It was winter in the North Atlantic, 1st couple weeks of November crawled by as we continued our repetitious movement north of the mouth of the river entrance into Murmansk Naval Base. Usually at periscope depth, nothing much to see, the boat is rigged for red, and the seas churned as storms came and went, and what little daylight existed was in hues of gray. Occasionally some Saint Elmo's fire to view on the masts…. that was the extent of 'periscope liberty'. Every few days the storms got bad enough that we'd descend to 300'-400' to ride them out, rolling port to starboard, ice forming in the torpedo room and in the bilges, return to periscope depth and do it some more. A sonar contact would peak our interest from time-to-time, and we'd maneuver to investigate but not much is going on.

This tedium grated on the majority of the crew, same ol' shit day after day. Just to keep us on our toes, field day was scheduled often and we conducted drills just for the sake of doing something. We'd have preferred to crawl in our rack and wish this patrol were over. This was the bleakest I'd seen things… We had a good crew and the officers tried their level best to keep the boat moving in a positive direction, but it wasn't happening. Boring, except for those who really knew what we were doing. It's remarkable that so few of us, coexisting on this small boat, actually had knowledge of what our operational objectives were. Most of us just did our jobs, watch on/watch off. I wish I had known more, because I would have appreciated the accomplishments and shortcomings so much more!

On this patrol, I was stuck with alternating watches in the CO2 Scrubber Room. A tiny space with a couple of machines which scrubbed crap out of the air so we could breathe, barely enough room to sit, although I did find a way to lay horizontal and catch a few winks but it was a noisy dungeon of an existence. The scrubbers, oxygen bleeds, and lithium hydroxide candles, were the ingredients necessary to keep us submerged. We did not use the diesel to ventilate once we arrived on station, for fear of being detected.

When off watch I'd usually play cards, watch a movie, eat/sleep, drop by the control room/sonar shack to see what was happening, drop into the torpedo room where there was usually someone hanging out. I'd help someone who was doing ships quals, and if really bored I'd do a tour aft to see what was going on with the guys at the Reactor Plant Control Panel. (Note: do you guys remember the unique smell as you open the tunnel hatch through the reactor compartment? Weird!) Just let the next 30 days go by as quickly as possible because I really don't want to be here! We're working 6 on/ 12 off, I got relieved in the scrubber room and after moving around the boat for some exercise, and a change of scenery, I reposed to my rack to reread some crotch novel and see if I could sleep away another day.

WHAT THE HELL?

I was startled awake by the boat lurching heavily to port, which rolled me out of my rack, a heavy jolt and shudder, and a terrible crunching sound of crumpling steal, and the Collision alarm was screaming. In a couple steps I had reached the ladder that leads from crews berthing to mid-level Ops. Compartment. I met a couple other wide-eyed mates right by the gyro at the foot of the ladder (by the Goat Locker). We just silently looked at each other, mouths agape, listened to the noises, felt some real fear, and tried to comprehend what was going on. I expected to see water flooding into the boat and my 1st reaction was to pull some mattresses off of the bunks to cover the battery access hatch. I'm not sure why. Within seconds, it became evident that we weren't flooding, there was, however, water coming down the periscope wells. I immediately moved up the ladder into the galley area and saw the torpedo room hatch was dogged so I rushed up the ladder into the control room to see what had happened.

Flooding (more like a leak) was now controlled after pumping some grease into the packing glands around the masts, and there was water on the deck around the periscope stand, the diving stand, and the 400-cycle switchboard. We flooded negative tank in an effort to put some distance between us and whatever we had just hit, simultaneously descending to 250 feet and started making greater headway. As our speed built up we turned toward the north to get the hell out of there. A banging sound was intermittently heard from our sail area. Apparently the #2 scope was bent over and was clanking against the sail, which made quite a bit of noise. There was concern that the packing glands would leak more than they currently were. Our forward speed was limited because of this clanking noise, and we haven't been able to assess the extent of our damages, but we were still breathing. That was a possitive sign! What the hell had happened?

SONAR DESIGNATES CONTACT - 'MASTER 125'

For several hours prior to the collision, Sonar had been monitoring some contacts moving in our area. These contacts were a mix of small Russian civilian ships: i.e., coastal merchantmen, tankers, etc. navigating the shipping lanes in and out of Murmansk. Sonar would give each contact a unique identifier, a 'designation', for their tracking and analysis purposes. One of the contacts, a large tanker, had been tagged 'Master 125'. As we maneuvered around these various contacts 'Master 125' would come to our attention, as we would cross courses, or be on a converging course, with this tanker several times.

It was time for the change of watch in the control room, 0400! The planesmen complete their musical chairs choreography and settle in, while the BCP and Diving Officer assume their responsibilities. The change of watch for the Officer of the Deck (the Deck and Con positions were combined) was more complex and the oncoming officer was getting a briefing concerning the various contacts that we were tracking. As the change of watch briefing was completed the oncoming OD wanted to do a visual check (periscope) to reinforce his mental picture of just what we had going on up above. So, shortly after accepting the Deck/Con we began an ascent to periscope depth for a look around.

As the OD orders us to climb from 250 feet to 120 feet sonar notices that 'Master 125' is once again a factor and advises the Con that the tanker's course is closing on our track. The OD acknowledges this information and a few minutes later the OD orders us to periscope depth (58 feet). Sonar again notifies the Con that 'Master 125' is close and converging. As we proceed to the assigned depth the tanker runs right over the top of us. The big screw of 'Master 125' augers across our sail and destroys, or renders useless, all of our masts. No periscopes, radio antennae, no ECM, no radar, no snorkel, no nada! Zip Zilch!

WE HIDE OUT FOR A COUPLE DAYS

Our escape from the shipping channel takes us north where we try to become very small in a very big ocean. During the next 48 hours we'll hear Rooski war ships searching for us with their sonar's pinging as they methodically scour the area. We must just sit still for a while and try to disappear. If we headed for open water around Norway that is probably where them Rooski's would be looking for us. Although we can't appraise the extent of our damages until we can surface, we know we are dragging a broken periscope that makes a loud racket. We need to chill for a little while!

TIME TO MAKE OUR BREAK

We move as stealthily as possible and as we approach the SOSUS hydrophones off Norway's northern area we make the prescribed shaft RPM's to allow the folks back home to identify us using the fingerprint system. Hopefully they'll know we are outbound before our scheduled return date. The periscope banging against the sail should have added a little intrigue as they were noticing some changes to our signature sounds.

We round Norway's land mass and reach open north Atlantic waters. Finally, as sea conditions permit, we are able to surface at night to take our first look at the damages. The top of the sail looks like someone took one of those old can-openers to it, jagged metal, and the #2 periscope is bend over to the port side of the sail at about a 110-120 degree angle. We use the cutting torch to clean up as much as possible and then once again submerge for a few days. We had no radios; except for s small UHF with limited range, so there was no communications. We'd need to wait for a while before we could contact anyone. Eventually we do establish communications on the UHF and after considering a hasty trip to Faslane, Scotland for repairs, we are ordered back to Norfolk.

A plan is developed that utilizes black rubber deck pads to drape over the sail to obscure our damage and we proceed back home on the surface. We camouflaged the crumpled sail pretty darn well and it would be doubtful that any observer would notice the damages from a distance. We are given a very slow speed of advancement (SOA) for our transit back to Norfolk but this allowed us the opportunity to rig the safety lines on sail planes and get some fresh air.

One mid-morning (about half way home) it is gray and a thin fog is obscuring our vision as we putt along at 10-12 knots. Suddenly, through the fog a strange shape begins to materialize… There are several large yachts that are part of some TransAtlantic race from England to Bermuda. It was such a surreal circumstance to emerge from our adventures off Murmansk to find ourselves in the midst of a sailboat race. If we could have only told the crewmembers of those sailboats what we had just been through! Hmmmm.

ARRIVAL AT D&S PIERS

As we arrive along side the tender, Orion (AS-18), they quickly cover the entire sail with an enclosure (tarps) and the crew of Orion rebuilt the entire crumpled superstructure and replaced all the broken masts/periscopes. As they (Orion) were completing the job they placed a small plaque (about 3" X 5", up in the clamshell area where all might notice) that read 'Custom Built by Orion'. I hope this story, and that plaque lived on with the boat and every crew member which rode her, knew what had happened and appreciates it!

CLOSING THIS TALE

There was a Navy Board of Inquiry that was convened to review all the facts concerning this mishap, as there are for all similar occurrences. Unfortunately, when these things occur officer's careers can be damaged. I'm sure that that occurred due to this unfortunate situation. I was just a boot sailor, 3-points lower than whale shit, but I remember and treasure all my experiences with the ships' company on Skipjack and I regarded everyone as pretty damn special people.

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