Northern NY MEN MUM ON
UNDERWATER SPY DUTY
Despite Tell-All Submarine Espionage Book
by John Golden - Times Staff Writer
Jerry M. Brown, Sandy Pond, holds his dolphin award which signifies his submarine qulaification. He served aboard the, `USS Parche' . The book `Blind Man's Bluff' reveals secrets (which crewmembers like Brown won't discuss) and recounts adventures, tragedies, accidents and near-misses on the spy sub.
More than 30 years have passed since John J. Bennett graduated from Watertown High School and joined the Navy for the submariner's life. In silent ocean depths, he served his nation in the Cold War as a sonar operator on nuclear-powered spy subs.
"I thought it was enjoyable," Mr. Bennett said from his home in Gautier, Miss., where he'd recently returned from a family reunion in Watertown. His parents, Leo R. and Bessie W. Bennett, still live at 615 Mundy St. "If I were to do it all over again, I'd do submarining again," he said with a Mississippi drawl.
The Cold War, if not all of its vigilant spying operations and institutional paranoia, ended with the demise of the Soviet superpower. In the past year, accounts of the era's dangerous and highly secretive deep-sea missions have surfaced in a best-selling book. "Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage," co-written by New York journalists Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, tells true stories that submariners such as John Bennett and U.S. government and military officials have long kept to themselves.
Mr. Bennett's naval service ended in 1976. Now 49, he works as a planning and scheduling manager at the same shipyard in Pascagoula where the submarines on which he served were built.
As a sonar operator, Mr. Bennett would have had the vital duty of detecting the presence of other vessels, potentially deadly rivals, cruising ocean depths. He served on two subs whose harrowing espionage voyages, carried out with nuclear weapons aboard, are described in "Blind Man's Bluff".
His first vessel, the USS Tautog, in 1970 collided with a stalking Soviet sub in the north Pacific, an incident dramatically recounted in the book. Returning to Pearl Harbor, the damaged Tautog was hidden away for repairs while its crew was made to sign formal secrecy oaths, according to the authors. For two decades, U.S. officials and Tautog crew members believed the Soviet patrol sub had sunk with some 90 sailors aboard.
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, however, the commander of that Soviet sub, Black Lila, has surfaced for interviews, including one for "Blind Man's Bluff." There he tells how the seemingly doomed sub made it back to port, despite a hole in its outer hull "so big that a trolley bus with antennas up could drive into it." Commander Boris Bagdasaryan no longer feels bound to secrecy. But when asked about his submariner experiences, John Bennett was resolutely mum.
"I couldn't tell you," he said after a silent pause. "I think all that's still classified."
Mr. Bennett is one in a fraternity of U.S. submariners who feel bound - by honor, fear of legal prosecution and protective concern for active submariners - to a code of silence. The code binds those sailors who trained and qualified to "wear the dolphins," the insignia of the U.S. Navy's Submarine Service, said Jerry M. Brown, a 47-year-old naval veteran from Sandy Pond. "It's like an oath of pride," said Mr. Brown, who with Mr. Bennett was on the crew of the USS Parche when that spy sub was commissioned in 1974. When becoming a submarine sailor, "We agreed that whatever we did would remain on the sub," he said. That loyal silence was breached, however, by sources for "Blind Man's Bluff." In vivid detail and with abundant anecdotes, the book recounts adventures and misadventures, tragedies, accidents, near- misses, daring successes and heroic exploits and occasions of comic relief as America sought to know what its Soviet military rival was planning and doing.
That intelligence came from electronic taps attached to the Soviets' communication cables laid in coastal waters of the Barents Sea and Sea of Okhotsk. On some such missions, American subs traveled across the Arctic Circle and beneath the polar ice cap to avoid detection by close-tracking Soviet subs. "The special fleet of submarines equipped to tap cables made it possible to listen as Soviet naval headquarters detailed day-to-day frustrations, critiqued missions, and reacted to fears of an American nuclear strike," the authors write. "At a point in time when both superpowers could start nuclear war with a push of a button, this was a rare and crucial look at who the adversary really was."
"We - the crew - are the only ones who can't talk about it," said Mr. Brown, whose naval career ended in 1979. "Most of us feel that we still could be prosecuted.
"Evidently there are some officers who are willing to talk about it or there wouldn't be so much in that book."
Mr. Brown owns a copy of "Blind Man's Bluff," but his academic load as a graduate student in social work at Syracuse University has kept him from reading it. The book, he said, has been a topic of talk at the Internet sites he and other former submariners frequent. Their virtual community includes fraternities such as the Cyberspace Association of U.S. Submariners and at least one sorority, the Submariner Wives' Club. At World Wide Web sites such as deepdomain.com and subnet.com, former submariners reunite and seek news of old shipmates via e-mail. Yet in cyberspace, too, the code of silence is observed, Mr. Brown said. "We don't talk about what we did. It's assumed it's all monitored by the federal government, any of our groups."
Mr. Brown said crew members of the Parche started their own Web page since the revealing book was published. By focusing on the sub's missions from its Pacific port in the late '70s and early '80s, Mr. Brown said, the book has aroused "a little bit of jealousy" between early crew members and those whose later missions are described. "That kind of left guys out," he said.
Mr. Bennett and Mr. Brown are not the north country's only connections to the Parche (pronounced PAR-she and named after a small butterfly fish common in the Caribbean). At the ship's commissioning in Pascagoula in 1974, the sailors from Jefferson County were joined by Rep. Robert C. McEwen, the late Republican from Ogdensburg, and retired Vice Adm. Lawson P. "Red" Ramage, the late naval combat hero. The son of a paper mill superintendent, Lawson Ramage spent his boyhood in Lewis County, where he graduated from Beaver Falls High School.
Mr. McEwen, the eight-term representative of the 31st congressional district who died at 77 in 1997, was main speaker at the commissioning ceremony. In a speech typical of the time, he cited the numerical superiority of the attack submarine fleet of "our chief adversary, the Soviet Union," and said the United States must strive to keep "its technological and organizational superiority."
The congressman's invited guest, Vice Admiral Ramage, commanded the first Parche, a diesel- powered sub in the Pacific fleet in World War II. After more than a quarter-century of oft-decorated service, it was scrapped in 1970, the same year in which the keel was laid for the sub's nuclear-powered namesake at Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula. Admiral Ramage, who died at 81 in 1990, was one of the Navy's most decorated officers. As a wartime submarine commander, he sank seven Japanese ships. The first living submariner to receive the Medal of Honor, he was so honored for one of his wartime exploits aboard the old Parche.
On July 31, 1944, the Parche penetrated the screen of a heavily escorted Japanese convoy in waters off Taiwan and sank four enemy ships and seriously damaged another with torpedo fire. During the 46-minute engagement, the 35- year-old commander defied heavy enemy shellfire and remained on the sub bridge after sending his men below.
Five years ago, the Navy named a new guided-missile destroyer after the war hero from Lewis County. His widow, Barbara A. Ramage, Bethesda, Md., christened the USS Ramage in a ceremony at the Ingalls shipyard attended by more than a dozen former crew members of the first USS Parche. Its Cold War namesake was the last-built in a group of Sturgeon- class subs "considered the best the Navy ever put to sea for any espionage operation," according to the authors of "Blind Man's Bluff." Still active from its home base in Bangor, Wash., the 25-year-old Parche has won at least seven Presidential Unit Citations, "by far the most of any ship in Navy history."
In June, Jerry Brown attended a reunion in Charleston, S.C., that drew 14 members of the original crew of the Parche. "There is a bond with the crew of this submarine that is like no other crew," he said.
A quarter-century ago, many in the sub's original 119-member crew performed quality assurance tasks during its construction. "A lot of us helped build it," said Mr. Brown, who dropped out of South Jefferson High School in 1970, joined the Navy that year and served as an internal communications technician aboard the Parche. "We were all young. We knew we had a hot boat and we knew it was something special."
To those not accustomed to it, the submariner's submerged life might seem not so hot and all too confining. On the Parche, John Bennett and Jerry Brown endured those conditions at a six-month stretch while the new sub was put through spying exercises in the Mediterranean Sea.
"It's like being in a small camper trailer with no windows and no doors, and the thing goes up and down and side to side," Mr. Brown said. "It was tight."
Practical jokes help pass the monotonous time underseas and ease the stress of being far from home in close, dangerous quarters, Mr. Brown said, noting a popular pastime also described in "Blind Man's Bluff." Often targeted at ship's officers, the jokes were carried out "daylight to dark, 24 hours a day," he said.
"It's a young man's sport," Jerry Brown said of the submariner's life and work. John Bennett agreed.
"I probably would have stayed on if I hadn't gotten married," Mr. Bennett said. "It wasn't a good life for a married man."
During his two years on the Parche, his wife, Mary "figured I was home 90 days," Mr. Bennett said. "We got married at 7 o'clock on a Thursday night, and I had to go to sea at 4 the next morning."
The submarine they left behind for the solid ground of marriage and family still goes to sea. Mr. Brown said he understood that the Parche in its post-Cold War life is used for "oceanographic engineering."
Not likely, according to the authors of "Blind Man's Bluff." "Details of exactly where Parche is going now have been tightly held, even more so than any of her cold war efforts, but those (service) awards never would have been given had Parche not continued to pioneer new and dangerous missions," they write.
"Parche is still out there, as are other attack submarines bent on spying. The program that began with the first chill of the cold war continues." And submariners such as Bennett and Brown keep their silence. "I'll tell you why," said Jerry Brown. "It's because we still have brothers out there" on deep-sea missions. "That's it in a nutshell."