Forces Adrift

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This story first appeared in Whole Earth Review, #78, Winter 1993.
Copyright is held by the author.

E-mail   [email protected] for more info about this document.

I first read Chuck Charlton's stories of submarine life on the WELL,
where his memoirs were the first bit of available-only-online
literature I had encountered. Their tone was distinctive and utterly
engaging, at once wide-eyed and level-headed, very sly and entirely
American -- Br'er Fox gets a conscience and goes to sea. Some day they
will all be in a book and the nation will be a better place; until
then, here's a taste. --Jon Carroll, editor

F O R C E S   A D R I F T

[email protected]
We first saw the handwriting on the wall when our skipper received a
message that included the phrase "ODAX to act as camel for" a
nuclear-powered submarine. USS Odax (SS- 484) was the name of our
boat, as we referred to it, our Diesel-powered submarine with an
honored history of service that extended back to 1944. Our boat had
established a significant first early in its career, when it became
the first GUPPY. Guppy was an acronym for Greater Underwater
Propulsion Power. The "Y" never stood for anything. Such was the state
of the art in acronyms in the late 1940s, I guess.

In any case, the Guppy conversion was an experiment in streamlining
the older fleet submarines and in modifying the battery installations,
for greater underwater power and speed. This experimental conversion
of our boat worked so well that all of the hundreds of such boats that
were still in service during the 1960s had received the Guppy
conversion within a few years.

But now it was 1970, twenty years or more after our boat had
represented the state of the art in delivering death and destruction
from beneath the sea. This was a new era. The quiet skill and
competence of our officers and crew no longer mattered much. Our
honored history of always being in good repair, of always being ready
to go to sea to fulfill our own commitments or to fill in for the less
reliable sister ships in the squadron, was just quaint, and not
valuable. Our boat was now old-fashioned, out of style, and it was OK
to treat us with such contempt as to ask us to act as a camel.

A camel is a narrow, sturdy raft that is placed between a ship and a
pier to minimize damage to the ship's hull from rubbing against the
pier. Camels are especially important to submarines, since the shape
of a submarine hull leaves it quite vulnerable to damage by sharp
features on the pilings that support the pier. Without a camel, a
submarine can slide up under the top deck of the pier and rub against
all manner of underwater hazards on the pilings. So here we were, a
ship of the line, with honored assignments still in our future and
commendations to be received that were as yet unimagined. And yet
headquarters was equating our once-glorious name and capabilities with
those of a camel, an inert lump of wood.

That was the way it was between us and our counterparts ashore. It was
ironic. All of my training as a line officer and as a submariner was
focused on keeping our boat fit and trim, smooth-running, reliable,
efficient and effective. Our biggest obstacle in accomplishing our
assignment was the "shore establishment" of our own Navy.

Every Navy office, or shop, or storeroom ashore has a mot-to that is a
variation on the following:

              The Best Support  for Our Forces Afloat

Such a slogan appears over the front door to the supply center at the
Navy base. Another version appears on the letterhead of the payroll
office at the Navy base. The electrical repair shop at the ship-repair
facility ashore typically has a version of the slogan painted in huge
letters on one wall of the building. It is an article of faith that
the huge bureaucracy of the shore Navy exists to support those who are
out at sea.

Messages, letters, instructions, and directives from headquarters
echoed the sentiment. "Forces Afloat," as we were supposed to be proud
to be known, received the most effusive of praise and promises of
support from the Squadron Commanders, from the Flotilla Commanders,
from the Force Commanders, from the Fleet Commanders, and from the
Chief of Naval Operations. These men (never women) who wore Admirals'
broad gold stripes honestly believed that the function of the "shore
establishment" was to support the fleet at sea. But it had been far
too long since those flag officers had tried to function as a member
of a fleet element at sea. And probably none of them, except for the
submariners among them, had ever enjoyed (suffered?) the experience of
operating independently at sea, with no other U.S. Navy ships nearby
to turn to for emergency help.

The middle management ashore is not so supportive as all this
sloganeering would indicate, however. There are various institutional
reasons for this, and it likely will never change. The Navy has always
been able to do its job in spite of this bureaucracy. The attitudes of
the bean-counters ashore toward the line workers at sea has
consistently been one of jealousy and contempt.

It was dangerous to be around our skipper for the next few days after
the "camel" incident. The very next time that we got to port he went
to see the Commodore, and many Admirals and their staffs became
involved in smoothing over the hurt feelings that had spread from the
Odax to the hundreds of other conventional submarines still in both
fleets. And this particular incident was finally forgotten by most
people. But the basic problem would only get worse as "progress"

There were hundreds of such slights, intentional or otherwise, over
the next few years. And one time in particular the contempt that the
headquarters staff felt toward us smelly Diesel submarines became
expensive and dangerous, as well as profoundly stupid.

We didn't talk much about this particular incident, because it was so
similar to so many other such insults. But this sequence of events
included one of the most elementary mistakes that a person can make,
and it kept compounding itself. I still find it difficult to believe
that such incompetence exists.

It all started one day off Portugal, during a NATO exercise with ships
of various Navies. We were cruising submerged in water six thousand
feet deep. We were making a point of being particularly quiet, and we
decided to descend from a keel depth of 120 feet, where we had been
slowly cruising for some time, to a keel depth of 200 feet. We wanted
to check for better acoustic conditions in the water. That way we
could better know how to hide from the active sonar of our pursuers,
and we could better use our passive sonar for planning our evasion of
the opposing forces.

As we were descending those eighty feet, a loud bang was felt
throughout the boat. We started to vibrate alarmingly in the stern. We
investigated, and found that we could stop most of the vibration and
noise if we brought our port propeller shaft to a standstill.

We needed both propellers to achieve the performance that was required
by the exercise, but we could not use our port propeller because of
the noise and vibration. We were making too much waterborne noise to
be of much value as a submarine, so we surfaced and made an
unscheduled stop at the US submarine tender in Rota, across the harbor
from Cadiz.

The elite nuclear-trained staff of the submarine tender could not be
bothered with a smelly old Diesel boat like ours. So they avoided
helping us solve our problem by insisting that it did not exist.

(They can't be criticized for objecting to the smell. Only our cooks
were entitled to a regular shower when we were at sea. The rest of us,
even us officers, were limited to an occasional "bird bath" or
"hooker's bath." There was not enough fresh water for anything more.)

We argued and pleaded with these professionals, with no success. We
even took some of their "experts" to sea with us and submerged to show
off our symptoms, but they still insisted that we were OK. At their
insistence we put our boat through some peculiar and pointless
maneuvers that would have been safe on a nuclear-powered submarine but
that were outrageous on our conventional boat. Their response was to
send messages to headquarters certifying our seaworthiness, and we
were sent back out to continue the NATO exercises.

Of course, we were lousy at our assignment for the next few weeks. We
could never find anyone else on sonar, because we couldn't hear
through the noise of our own vibrations. All of the surface ships
could find us, though. The situation was reversed from normal.

The admiral in charge of the carrier task force sent us in for further
examination. This time we tied up outboard the US submarine tender
anchored in Holy Loch, Scotland. We had learned from our experience
with the previous tender, so before we described our problem we sent
one of our own sailors over the side with scuba gear, to inspect our
bottom. He found that one blade of our port propeller was bent -- ten
full inches of the blade were bent aft, ninety degrees from normal.
This was a spectacularly rare circumstance. We were surprised that our
port propeller and shaft had not simply torn themselves from our hull
and disappeared, with such an imbalance of mass and of force.

Now that we could provide a clear description of the problem, the
tender staff acknowledged that, yes, maybe we did have a problem after
all. I checked the reference manuals, and I ordered a port propeller.
That was the point at which the situation changed from antagonistic to
simply stupid. It was a stupidity born of arrogance.

As with many other ships of all types, when our submarine was in port
we always relied on the Navy base or on the submarine tender to handle
our message traffic, so that we could perform necessary maintenance on
our radio and teletype equipment. So after I got the skipper to sign
the message ordering the port propeller, I immediately took the
message form to the tender radio room for transmission. The next day I
received my courtesy copy of the message that had actually gone out
over the air. I noticed that the tender staff had changed the federal
stock number of the propeller that I had ordered. When I questioned
them about it, they said that I had mistakenly ordered a four-bladed
propeller, and it should have been five-bladed, so they had
"corrected" my error for me.

I had seen this propeller weeks before with my own eyes, and I knew
that it had only four blades. I insisted that a four-bladed propeller
was needed. But I was a member of forces afloat, not a member of the
headquarters club, so they did not trust me to know how many blades
there were on my propeller. The discussion got heated, and soon there
were full commanders on both sides of the table, yelling and insulting
each other. The discussion was generating much heat and little light.
Since our starboard propeller had four blades, putting a five-bladed
propeller on the port side would have given us a loud, distinctive
sound that would have been noticeable in any sonar shack on any ship
in any navy, friend or foe.

Finally the captain of the tender grudgingly agreed to send one of
their own divers into the water to count the blades, since he would
have more credibility than our diver. This "expert" came up and said
that our propeller had five blades, and that indeed one of them was
quite badly bent.


We were getting desperate, when I realized that we had an ace in the
hole. I remembered an incident several months before, when we were in
drydock. Both of our fire control technicians had returned late from
liberty one night. Rather than subject them to formal punishment, the
chief of the boat had instead required them go into the drydock, under
our stern, and to polish our two huge bronze propellers, using brass
polish and small rags. It took them two extra-long work days to
complete this silly project. Surely these two highly trained tech-
nicians could be considered knowl- edgeable about the number of blades
on each propeller, and competent to count them.

Our skipper made an extraordinary request to speak to the commanding
officer of the tender; he introduced the two sailors, who told their
story. They both insisted that each of our propellers had four blades,
and not five. But even with this testimony, the experts on the tender
were still not willing to be convinced. So we talked them into putting
us in the floating drydock there in the middle of the loch for a few
hours so we could all count the blades.

The propellers had four blades. We got the order changed. But most
significantly, we were never forgiven for being correct. It was just
another day at work for the Forces Adrift.