Sid's N T I N S Locker

A Sea Story
by Paul D. Benton   -   ©1997

The U.S. Navy's transition from diesel to steam submarines had been steadily marching along, although not in quick step, for nearly ten years. However, there were two items of which the new nuclear powered submarines never had enough: experienced submarine qualified operating engineers, and electrical shore power. This combination of shortages made awakening the tiger caged within their reactors very interesting for the nukes.

Personnel shortages, in the duty section which had the chore of "lighting off" were filled by qualified operating engineers who had been volunteered to stand watch and assist as necessary until a turbine generator was securely on line. The volunteers were then released, but only to return with all other nukes several hours before the boat's scheduled underway time.

TRITON had finally gotten some time alongside the submarine tender ORION at the D and S piers in Norfolk. She had recently changed home ports from New London to Norfolk, but did not have a stand down to allow the brown baggers to move their families down from New London. Nuclear powered submarines were in great demand, and the needs of the Navy came first. With twin reactors and engine rooms to match, she had such an insatiable thirst for electrical power, even after her reactors were shutdown, that it could only be satisfied by ORION with her extra diesel generators. She would stand down for several days over a weekend and some of the crew would be able to move their families down from Connecticut.

While alongside ORION, TRITON was honored by the Commander Submarines Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Grenfell, having been selected as his Flagship she would fly his flag. Nonetheless, as the stand down neared an end word came from the Admiral himself, that he would ride in TRITON to San Juan. Admiral Grenfell was a submariner's, submariner. He was one of the few remaining active duty Admirals to have served in, commanded, and fought in submarines during WW II. He had also been Commander Submarines Pacific Fleet, and had an abiding personal interest in the welfare of his men. There were many WW II submarine veterans whom Grenfell called by their first names. Any submariner, in either fleet, would have been proud to ride with this venerable undersea warrior.

Among the few brown baggers who managed to move to Norfolk Town during this short period of time was an Electrician's Mate with the moniker "Sparky". Now all Navy electrician's mates at sometime in their careers have been dubbed Sparky. However, in our hero's case the name had stuck from a nasty rumor involving an open fuse box, 450 volts, and a screwdriver in another submarine.

Both Sparky's problem and his redeeming value to submarines was that his positive attitude and strong work ethnic were always running on the half hour rate. In his endeavors Sparky nearly always seemed to totter on the precipice of disaster without ever falling in. Some said that the reason was luck. Others said that it was pluck. But some knew that it was in his upbringing and training in a diesel boat, --- having rode for several years with veterans of many war patrols who routinely pushed themselves and those around them to the limits of their abilities --- whether in fighting the boat or mingling with the natives on Broadway.

Sparky, like many other submariners both young and older, neither knew, nor understood limits during his various adventures on and off the boat when he arrived at the end point by asking himself, "Just how in the hell am I going to get out of this mess?" The next instinctive step always seemed to save the day; at least for himself. Sparky's highest redeeming value to submarineing was that he could be counted upon to hang in and hold on when "...the tough got going.".

It's not that Sparky was ever in serious trouble on the boat. He did his job and then some. It was more that his affairs and adventures on the beach seemed to infringe on his Navy life. Or was that vise versa?.

It was like the time in San Diego when he just couldn't say no to a final good-by in time to make the maneuvering watch, and had to slip the Water Taxi driver a five dollar bill to bypass his regular route and make Nereus the first stop. He scurried aboard the boat just in time to miss Captain's Mast, but only after promising to stay off the beach for a week and slave on board for the COB.

Then there was that time in Manila when a bunch of Airedales insulted the lineage of all submariners. Christ, what a fist fight. He was carried back over the shoulder of his large Kanaka buddy, all bloody and bruised. But the XO let him slide when it was confirmed, by another bloodied and bruised submariner who just happened to wear a war patrol pin, that he was just sticking up for the boat. There were other rumors of Sparky's misadventures on the beach but having settled into marriage this past year all of this foolishness on the beach was now behind him.

Sparky, among others, had been volunteered to help the duty section light off the boat. Nothing seemed to go right. The power draw while lighting off the forward reactor overheated defective connectors on the shore power cables. When this was corrected after several hours work, ORION had diesel generator problems which delayed the start up. Just as Sparky and company got enough power to the boat he had to relieve the electrician on watch. How time flies when working hard. By the time Sparky put a steam generator on line and fixed a few other problems aft time was pushing 2000. Not too late to go home for a farewell. After all he would be gone three weeks and liberty didn't expire until 0600 the next day.

Sparky had hastily rented a small duplex in the Willoubhy section of Ocean View and moved in --- all before the end of the stand down. There, with his young wife and new baby boy, he expected to be quite comfortable. Besides the NAS Acey Ducey club, just inside the Phillips Street gate was only a stones throw away. Passing the Phillips Street gate with the lights of the NAS Acey Ducey within sight, Sparky recalled certain other lapses while on the beach which related to strong drink and close calls. Then he dutifully continued home. Before retiring much later that evening he set the clock radio on his night stand to begin playing at 0500. Since his gear was already on the boat, he could be aboard well before liberty expired.

Sparky slept well. The chirping of birds and just the hint of warm sunlight was very satisfying in his semi conscious state. Why is the sun up? Birds don't chirp at 0500 holy Christ, Sparky had done it again. He shouted to his sleeping bride to get the baby ready while hastily pulling on the wrinkled white uniform which he had worn home last night. The time on the clock radio, which had its volume turned too low to wake anyone, was near the boat's scheduled underway time of 0700.

Racing down Taussig Boulevard in the "suicide lane" Sparky knew that this would be a close call. The old man was a very serious fellow and regularly held Captains Mast in which other transgressors had been severely disciplined. Missing a vessel's movement was serious business. Sparky would have felt the Crow on his arm more secure had the car's transmission linkage not locked up in first gear and notwithstanding the honking of the other motorists he had to go under the hood and pop it free with a long screwdriver. He hadn't time this week to get a base pass for the car or to now stop at the security office for a visitors pass. It was also too far to run from the main gate to the ORION's pier so his best chance was a Taxi.

Perhaps Sparky's fortunes were improving. There was an empty Taxi in front of him as he pulled into the left lane to turn onto Hampton Boulevard. As he stuffed a five dollar bill from his holdout money into the cab drivers hand, he explained the urgency of the situation. She must have understood sailors well because she broke every traffic law in the book and on base to deposit Sparky at the foot of the pier. It was a bit after 0700 but he could see from the speeding cab half way between the D and S main gate and the pier that the boat was still alongside ORION.

He was feeling better about this episode until he noticed the line handlers scurrying about topside on the boat, and a pusher boat approaching from outboard. Sparky's mad dash through ORION to the short outboard gangway and the boat was interrupted only when he stopped to salute and ask ORION's OOD for permission to cross. The short gangway had just been pulled about halfway up and off the deck of TRITON. Sparky could see the COB on deck and shouted to him to have the gangway lowered- Sparky had made it. No dice, Sparky's Crow now felt one chevron lighter. The COB shouted back that he should report to the Squadron for further orders.

This calm, sunny, late Spring morning, two lookouts, the maneuvering watch OOD, a phone talker, their Captain, his Admiral, and the Admiral's Chief of Staff were all crowded, but not uncomfortably so, on TRITON's ample bridge as she made preparations to get underway from alongside ORION. Admiral Grenfell had been a bit tardy in boarding so the Captain was anxious not to miss the slack tide and to clear the Naval Operations Base piers before other ships getting underway jockeyed for positions in the narrow channel. The Admiral's flag at the gaff gave TRITON right of way over most of the Naval ships, but the commercial vessels in this busy harbor only recognized the Inland rules of the Road. It had been the Captain's decision not to lower the gangway for his tardy sailor.

Now, as we know, Sparky was a single minded man who did not easily give up his objective. There was still one last way aboard TRITON as Sparky made his way topside. Since diesel submarines sat rather low in the water, some mooring bollards on older submarine tenders were located in a recess about half way down their sides. These submarine mooring bollards were accessible only by climbing over the side of the ship and down ladder rungs welded onto the hull. Billy looked over the railing at the boat's black topsides. The small pusher boat was making up to a line aft to pull her stern out clear of the tender, meanwhile her after section had drifted away from ORION's side as lines were slacked in preparation for the pull.

Sparky avoided looking directly at the group on the bridge, but concentrated on the section directly below the ladder rungs. The boat's tank tops were unusually high and dry, since she had not recently been ballasted, and did not appear to be that far from the side of the ship. As Sparky took a closer look by climbing down to the bottom ladder rung, he noticed his Chief and several other mates sitting in and standing around the aft engine room hatch. He knew that he couldn't jump to the topside from here. She had breasted too far out but those high and dry tank tops were something else. The Chief looked up when Sparky yelled to him, and as their eyes met they became of one mind. About this time the Old Man and his honored guest spotted Sparky half way down the side of the tender. The Chief jumped onto the tank tops while Sparky's other mates made a human chain to the tank tops to keep their Chief from slipping over the side.

The stage was set: The man-catchers were in place on the tank tops. Men topside still handling lines fell silent and looked upward as they finally sensed what was about to happen. The COB's mouth was moving but Sparky didn't hear his shouts --- he was concentrating on the decision at hand. Ten feet, give or take, straight down to the water, and another five feet or so horizontal distance to the tank tops and his Chief's outstretched hands.

The pusher boat took up the slack in it's line and began to pull on TRITON's stern, Sparky could hear the small craft's straining engines above the shouts from the boat now joined by shouts from the ORION.

Now or never!

Go or no go?

Sparky, now holding on with one hand, flexed his knees for enough power to spring clear of the side. But before he pushed off hard against ORION's firm steel sides Sparky distinctly heard the shout of his Captain above all of the other voices,"Don't jump, don't jump!"

"Puck you Kommanda you no de Chiep odda boat." Sparky recalled the punch line from a joke about a Filipino Mess Steward as he leaped for the tank tops below.

Now I don't know how to describe Sparky's free fall into near oblivion, except to note that with his arms reaching out , the collar of his baggy white jumper flapping in the breeze and neckerchief askew about his neck, he must have resembled a great white flying squirrel.

Sparky landed hard, but safely on the tank tops clutching his Chief's arms. Both submariners scurried up to the deck and down the engine room hatch, quickly followed by the other mates who had lent a hand. Ten minutes later Sparky was where he belonged --- on his Maneuvering Watch station in the forward engine room.

What happened to Sparky? Nothing officially. Although he kept a low profile for a few days, the XO finally caught up with him and chewed on his ass for awhile. The XO said that, since he did not miss movement there would be no Captain's Mast if Sparky agreed to take the duty every night the boat was in Puerto Rico --- and that he was on probation and was to keep out of the Captain's way for the remainder of this cruise. Sparky readily agreed. All's well that ends well.

Later after talking with one of the lookouts who was on the bridge that day, Sparky discovered why there had been no Mast for such a foolish action. Seems that although the Captain was embarrassed by this episode, the Admiral had a good laugh.

The Admiral asked if the man who jumped from the side of ORION rather than miss sailing with his boat and mates was a good man in the boat. When the Captain replied that Sparky was, Grenfell said, "submariners hadn't really changed much since the war".

God bless you Admiral.

Paul Benton is the webmaster for