Note: I’m doing something a bit different here. I’m publishing it, but also sending to some old Navy friends to get their comments in writing if they choose to do so. I think it would be very interesting to hear about what happened here from different perspectives. Once that is done, I’ll announce it to everyone. But if you are reading this and there are no comments yet, come back. The comments are likely to be better than my story. They are a bunch of smart, and mostly funny guys. Except you Doug. You’re just smart. And you Todd-funny, but not very smart.
Here is the story:
I’ve been legitimately scared for my life 3 times. I mean scared for my life in the sense of “well, that was a pretty fun life, too bad its over” scared. Seriously thought I was about to die. I’ll likely get to all of them eventually as they are all pretty good stories now. Near death experiences usually are I find. Sorta focuses the mind. The first time was on a nuclear submarine in the Pacific Ocean. This is that story, with a bit on how I got there.
When I was 20 years old, I had absolutely no idea what to do with my life. I went to college because that’s what you are supposed to do after high school if you got good (at least pretty good) grades. But lets say I really didn’t excel in college. I was bad at going to class. I was also bad at drinking, gambling, and chasing girls-though I tried much harder at those three things than going to class. Very long story short (I’ll probably tell it one day) I ended up running nuclear power plants for the US Navy. My career in a nutshell went like this: Boot camp, 6 months of electronics school, 6 months of nuclear power training (another story in itself) 6 months of training at a prototype plant in the Idaho desert (fun fact, the first nuclear power plants in the world I think were built in the Idaho desert because, well, they weren’t 100% sure what would happen! So build in the middle of nowhere. Now, the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory is the size of Rhode Island) followed by 2 years as an instructor at the same plant.
Quick side story: The Navy’s nuclear training is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Not because the curriculum is so hard (and it is pretty hard), but because how good the Navy was at getting the best out of you. Each class has around 500 people in it (from the time you are accepted into the program to the time you graduate the drop rate was over 60%) grouped in 13 classes, and I somehow got in the top class. For the first exam cycle (I think we were tested every couple of weeks) I really didn’t try very hard. Rankings came out and I was like 120 or something. My competitive juices kicked in and I tried for the next cycle. Rankings came out again and I had moved to like 22 if memory serves. Proving my point to myself, I coasted again next cycle and dropped back. Immediately after the tests were graded, I was called in and placed on “suggested” study hours. “Why?” I asked, “my grades are good,” at which point they explained to me pretty much exactly what I had done the previous tests. Not tried, tried, then not tried. Informed me that they had been doing this for a long time and knew from my entrance testing and second test cycle what I was capable of and “will keep you on hours until you show it.” So figured there was no reason to fight it and went to work. After prototype training I finished #1 in the class. Braggy, I know, but I’m still pretty proud of it. The competition was as good as it gets. Wish some of my old classmates were reading this so I could say “kicked your asses, bitches!”
So to continue, after two years teaching at the prototype plant (A1W which stands for Aircraft Carrier core 1, Westinghouse-the original USS Enterprise reactor and engine room-fully built in the Idaho desert to test before being built on the Enterprise itself, then turned into a training facility once testing was complete), I got sent to another 6 month advanced electronics school in San Diego (and if you ever get the chance to move to San Diego, take it!!). So at this point I have 5 years in the Navy, and have never been on a ship! So I ask for and get the SSN 695, USS Birmingham out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and spent the last 3 years of my enlistment there, 2 of those with my ship in overhaul, and I lived in a high rise in Waikiki.My career didn’t suck much!
So, in my 8 year military career, I only really spent one year doing what I was trained to do, which was operate a nuclear power plant on a warship. And I gotta say, getting to play with a 100 and some megawatt nuclear power plant is FUN! To say it appealed to my inner geek would be a massive understatement. Oh, the power! If you could have taken the military out of the equation, I’d have stayed forever. And that whole “go to sea for 6 months” thing. And submerging and never coming up thing. I’ll do a whole series later about life on a sub. I totally promise it will be entertaining. It has to be because several of my old shipmates (whom I still count among my best friends, though I’ll never see most of them again) will read it and edit me to death if I get it wrong.
The Navy is pretty anal about it’s Nuclear Power Plants. Like really anal. Take a bunch of anal retentive engineers (and it really helps if they are assholes), put them all together and you have the group who regulated the Navy’s power plants called “Naval Reactors”. The head of Naval Reactors was the father of naval nuclear power, Hyman Rickover (look him up, fascinating guy). He is like the end result of a genetic experiment to create the most anal retentive human ever, the fact he was a total jerk and the king of all assholes was an added bonus. He also happened to be a world class engineer and the guy you wanted in charge of designing the nuclear power plant in your sub. He knew that politically there could never be any reactor incidents in the Navy or they would be shut down, and demanded his his plants be designed with 0 defects as the goal.
Anyway, every couple of years a group from Naval Reactors came to your ship, watched how you operated, ran drills to see how you handled emergencies, and gave you written and oral tests. It was brutal for everyone, but BRUTAL for the Captain and lead engineer. If the boat did bad enough they “took away the keys” (actually, this is literal-there were locks on one of the main switches on the Reactor Plant Control Panel, RPCP, and the control rod breakers. The lead engineer had those keys, and if you failed they took the keys), made you tie up to the dock, study and train until you were ready and they did the whole thing again. It could well be career ending for the senior officers if the ship failed, so they took them pretty seriously. They were called ORSE Boards (Operational and Reactor Safety Exam). We dreaded them. Not just because the exam were the worst week of our lives, but because of the months of training and drills we did as workup.
Another fun fact: The control rod breakers were called SCRAM breakers. SCRAM stands for Safety Control Rod Ax Man. Seriously. In the first core, the control rods were connected to a rope and pulley system. The rods are made of neutron absorbing material so when they are installed the reactor cannot “start”. To start the chain reaction the rods back in the day were slowly pulled out BY FUCKING HAND using the rope. There was a guy, the Safety Control Rod Ax Man, who’s job was to cut the rope with an ax if the reaction got out of control, rapidly shutting down the reaction. I shit you not. Term was coined by Enrico Fermi, that madman. (Some jackhole at the NRC-The Nuclear Regulatory Commission- says this story is baloney, but the NRC is full of professional fun busters, so don’t believe them). Today, we have motors to slowly pull the rods and emergency fail safes to insert the rods rapidly to shut down the reactor when necessary (one of my jobs). Much safer, but way more boring.
So on to the actual story, the part where we all almost die and shit.
My job on the boat was not only to be one of the three ROs (Reactor Operators), but also be the one to take over the reactor in case of emergency. People who know me always find that funny. I’m a little too high strung sometimes to be considered the guy who takes over during an emergency. An officer once said about me, towards another officer who was complaining about how loud I was “don’t listen to what he says, but watch what he does.” I’ve had people say “you know something is wrong when Rick shuts up.” Anyway, during workup we are running drills all the time, so I am getting my off time and sleep interrupted with all the drills since I always have to take over the plant. So I’m starting to operate on not a whole lot of sleep.
My sleep gets interrupted again with me “standing in my rack” an accurate metaphor for the ship on a big up angle toward the surface, a klaxon blaring and the announcement “Steam line rupture”. I jump out of bed into my coveralls and dash aft (aft is the back of the ship). I know that the reactor was already shut down by SRCAMMING it. With a switch, not an ax. I hit the watertight door between the forward and aft compartment at which point I feel water raining down on me. Now, this isn’t normal in a submarine. Rain usually needs clouds, and there typically aren’t any in a submarine, so I was pretty certain that this was not great news. I hold my had out, taste the water, and its REALLY BAD NEWS. Saltwater is supposed to be on the outside of a submarine, not on the inside (the people tank). We really try hard to forbid it from coming in the people tank as drowning in a tube, or being crushed to death by the pressure, isn’t really all that high on anyone’s bucket list. In this case, the water didn’t listen and was invading the hell out of the people tank.
When people say their lives flash in front of their eyes, I would say that isn’t accurate. But you do think a bunch of stuff really quickly. Mostly what I thought, seriously, was how good a life I had up to that point and how much I would miss my family and friends. All the while I am 100% doing my job, which is shut the watertight door with the rain coming down on me and “Flooding” being blasted thru the loudspeakers. Once the door is shut (remember I was a bit tired) the awful realization hits me that I was on the wrong side of the effing door. Why are you on the flooding side, dumbass?!? At this point I realize that the water is coming from the ventilation system, and as I run forward I see it is coming from ALL the vents and I know exactly what is going on. When a submarine is on surface and the reactor is shut down we need to start the diesel generator for power. Now, a diesel requires a lot of air and the inside of a sub doesn’t have much. So to avoid drawing a vacuum on the ship and killing everyone, the sub has a snorkel mast with a big air line for the diesel and a valve that is supposed to shut when necessary to keep the water out. Once we hit periscope depth (see picture below) we open the valve, start the diesel, and also allow air to go to all the vents to ventilate the ship. (If you’ve ever been on a sub for a few days, you will understand the need to ventilate. Can get a bit stinky in there. Other parts of the Navy don’t call them pig boats for nothing). So the fact that water was coming out of the vents meant three things: 1. The flapper valve was stuck open and the boat must have submerged a bit and didn’t close like it was supposed to. 2. All we had to do was a quick blow and we would be right back on surface before much more water could get in, and 3. YAY, we are all going to live!! From the time I had water hit my head until I realized I wasn’t going to die was maybe 30 seconds.
The snorkel mast and the periscope are the things sticking up. When you are at “periscope depth” which was where we wanted to be, the sail is still fully submerged and the only things above the water line are the scope and snorkel if you are running the diesel. #1 rule of a submarine-never ever fully surface when on patrol. Oh, and being in the conning tower (where the guys are) is the best! We are very, very rarely on surface so getting to ride in the tower is a very rare thing. I was up there once watching dolphins jump across the bow while we surface transited between Oahu and Maui once.
Oh, and 4. We have a big freaking mess to clean up. Saltwater in the entire ventilation system (not good). Water in the insulation (not good). Water all over electronics, including the reactor control systems (really not good) and in the battery well (really really not good). If saltwater damages the battery, we are more than a little screwed. Batteries do not particularly care for salt water. It is a touch corrosive and reacts with the sulphuric acid and makes a deadly gas and everyone dies. In fact, one of my friends was the guy who disconnected the battery, likely saving all our lives. So the battery is out of service. The diesel is REALLY out of commission because remember that part about the air intake becoming a water intake? Well, try as they might the engineers could not make water into a compressible fluid. So when water gets into the cylinders, the pistons stop a little abruptly and turns piston shafts into spaghetti. Another friend in the diesel room told me “It just stopped. It was running and in the next instant it wasn’t. I thought ‘that’s weird’ and looked at the diesel and water is flying out of everything!” And it is a big engine in the bottom of a submarine and to repair it you have to take it out piece by piece. Fun stuff. Fortunately, the guys in the engine room were able to restart the reactor in record time and get us power before the batteries tripped off line. My friend Todd has more about that below. If I had been on the other side of the water tight door, it would have been me restarting the plant. That would have been horrifying, but honestly, I lived for that kind of shit. Glad whoever was on watch got the job done, just wish it would have been me!
Between the compromised reactor, no batteries, no diesel, and damaged crap everywhere we limp to Guam for repairs (we actually had to get permission to run the reactor with no backup sources of power). For like 2 months. On Guam. Not much to do on Guam folks. Scuba diving was good fortunately. But there were about three girls on the island that weren’t strippers (and they were popular), crappy military bars, no tourism, and more humidity that you can imagine. For a bunch of 18-30 year olds who have been on a ship for 4 months by then, it wasn’t exactly paradise. Especially since we were supposed to be going to a bunch of exotic SE Asia ports instead. The term for the patrol we were on was called a WestPac (Western Pacific Tour). We called this one WastePac. Good news was our ORSE Board was major delayed. Bad news was we had to fully clean the boat, repair a bunch of shit including a ton of the electronics I was responsible for, take apart and reassemble a diesel engine, and be on an island full of guys. “Where the Boys Are” isn’t all that fun for the boys when dey ain’t no girls. Free ones anyway. I think we were there for two glorious months.
Oh, and we had to do the stupid ORSE Board when we got back to Hawaii. Instead of you know, go to the beach and stuff.
So that’s pretty much that. I will do a quick shout out to my submariner friends, many of whom will read this (I hope). You were the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. I can’t imagine what being cooped up with a bunch of assholes would have been like. Fortunately, I was cooped up with the best people ever. Though as I said above, most of you I will never see again I know that if I needed help, any of you would drop what you were doing and come, as I would for all of you. Most people don’t know they have people they can count on (though many of them do). I know I have people I can count on. Not to be overly dramatic (ok, that’s funny, I’m almost always overly dramatic), but on a submarine you literally count on each and every crew member to do their job correctly and keep you alive, and they count on you to do the same. Makes for some pretty strong bonds. Thanks to all you guys!
Oh, and that picture is my old boat the USS Birmingham SSN 695 on sea trials doing an emergency blow. She is no more, being decommissioned and cut up before her time. She was one hell of a warship.
And to close my personal part of this loop: In the beginning I said how in my 20s I was a little lost. At the end of my navy career I went back to University. Did a little better that time, graduated with Honors with a degree in Electrical Engineering. I still sucked at gambling, except at blackjack where you just play the rules, count cards, and never have to bluff. I just play blackjack when I gamble now. I know my limits. I am very good at drinking now. I learned more about drinking in the Navy than anything else, except maybe swearing. When you go out 5 nights a week as we did in Hawaii, you get pretty good at it. I never got any good at the girl thing. In the end, I was just too geeky to be taken all that seriously. Not that I didn’t have some girlfriends, they were just pretty few and far between. However, I did meet this one girl in a bar in Waikiki on New Years 1987. Married her in May of 1988. For all the times I swung and missed, when I finally did connect I knocked it out of the park. Thanks Navy.
Addition 1, from my friend Todd. He may have more to say, but I wanted to include his song. It’s an old school blues song (in G, watch me for the changes, and try to keep up!), written while we were in Guam:
We were one week out of Hong Kong (du dunh du dunh dhunh)
Looking for some fun and thrills (du dunh du dunh dhunh)
Engineer said ORSE workup
Time to run a few drills
Ran a power to flow cut back
Ran a loss of TG
A Steam line leak put us uptop
Gaddamn that VH-3 (I knew it was wrong, but easier to rhyme)
I got them
Head Valve Blues mama
You know I got them Head Valve Blues
Ain’t no way to win or lose
When the diesel runs you get the head valve blues
Chief (censored to protect the guilty!) was was the DO
Boat took a little dive
Emergency blew at 150
Felt good to be alive
Captain walked into the fan room
Water up to his knee
He started to yellling and cussing and screaming
Gaddamn that VH-3
Another verse I don’t remember