|Where are you going? Out!
When will you be back? Later!
Those years of being vague and changing
the subject, of disappearing in the middle of the night only to show up
months later, sometimes parked in an isolated area with tarps draped over
the sail and superstructure. To this day in the fourth decade after
these events, I am still reluctant to talk. A career associated with
an organization that has the handle "The Silent Service" is no small thing.
In the "haze gray and underway Navy"
departures and arrivals are done with great fanfare and make the six o'clock
news. We who have driven the black boats into secret, and often illegal,
places have never known that level of scrutiny - nor did we want it.
A few last minute hugs and tears, the holding of confused kids. Then
single up, cast off, slide away from a pier or tender and rig ship for
dive. That was our fanfare. Still today when I think I'm telling
too much - something that may be very old news to the world but is still
fresh in my mind - I almost expect a black Ford with US Government plates
to pull in the driveway the next day. Keeping secrets is a hard habit
Ten years after the following event,
I filled out a form giving dates and boat. Six months later the XO unceremoniously
handed me the Navy Expeditionary Medal.
Worth a point or two on a promotion
profile - I think.
|There are lines we cross in our lives.
Some are clearly defined and we know when they are crossed. Some lines
mark off national claims to territorial waters and they define hemispheres.
Other lines we are aware of only in retrospect: such as moving from naivete
to healthy skepticism; from adolescence to manhood; from innocence to worldliness.
Many rituals of society provide very
clear lines - and for good purpose. For example, when we marry, the
line is clear: to one side of a few words in time and space we are single
- the next instant we are married. Military people know one important
line well: on one side civilian - the other side, military. Historically
ships have held elaborate rituals to celebrate the crossing of certain
circular measurement lines on the earth.
is about lines crossed by one submarine and her crew in 1963. Some
were measurable on a map - others marked by events such as that precise
time in Dallas. That date - November 22, 1963 - neither created nor
was it the cause of what was to follow. Rather, it served as a line,
a marker placed between two eras. A portent of things to come.
I will leave it to the reader to ponder
the lines we were to cross that year of 1963 as we left behind Race Rock
and a golden New England fall. We the crew of the USS BLENNY SS-324.
We looked not much beyond a good liberty call in England, pick up the intel
spooks; make a routine operation and a smooth return home.
|Over the Barents Trough we ran, sliding
past Iceland; past the Rockall Rise then a straight line for New London.
Like thieves slipping out of a dark building, we ran looking over our shoulder
to see what followed in the shadows. We were going away from this
place. Going home.
Our World war II vintage submarine had
not fared well during that stormy December crossing of the North Atlantic.
The strain had begun to take a toll on old equipment after week upon week
of sucking vacuums with a head valve held shut by green water as we restarted
those engines over and over. We had lost the snorkel diffuser plate
weeks earlier in our Op area and our presence there became harder to conceal.
Cold sweat from the hull ran into electrical connections as we chased ground
after ground and two of the four diesel engines were out of commission.
With one of the remaining two unable to run at full power the Engineer
kept revising his fuel consumption graphs as our true speed-of-advance
was further reduced by a relentlessly stormy sea pushing against us.
Now those Op area conditions no longer mattered. We faced every sailor's
greatest challenge, the angry winter sea. One that seemed to sense
our inadequate propulsion and vulnerability. After long days of our
wallowing through the troughs the sea finally succeeded in driving the
Officer of the Deck and lookouts into the barrel. Safely away from those
mountains of green water and the threat of broken bones or worse.
Day after day we watched those graphs
pessimistically repeating their predictions. Finally, facing the
fact that low on fuel and with increasing certainty we could never hold
out for the remainder of the down East run to New London --- we reluctantly
turned for Argentia, Newfoundland.
With major sections of her superstructure
torn away leaving the pressure hull exposed our old boat had bucked sea
and wind for thousands of miles. Now she lay quietly "starboard side
to" alongside a black wooden pier in Argentia. Going topside, the
first thing we noticed was the dark. Not just dark in the usual sense
of no sun, but the very surroundings seemed set in varying shades of dark
- even the snow looked gray. But for us, as we popped up to grab
another five gallon can of milk, a case of vegetables or ice cream - all
lowered down the after battery hatch with whoops of "look at that!" or
"gahdamn! - fresh milk!" and other unoriginal but enthusiastic expletives
- this was Miami Beach, Rio and Cannes all rolled into one. It may
not have been recruiting poster liberty, but we took it.
We had not showered in weeks and tonight
was no exception. Shower stalls as usual full of garbage were ignored
as we made do with our normal two quart sink bath. Finally, having
dried off with clean rags from the Forward Engine Room our bodies half
clean, our stomachs tight and growling from too much fresh milk, tossed
salad and ice cream, we pulled on our uniforms. Wearing our
moldy smelling blues that had been wadded into damp lockers
for three months we climbed topside ready for the evening. After months
of continuous roll and pitch of the boat our senses gradually adjusted
to stationary surroundings. Regaining our shore legs we walked off the
dark pier to a waiting bus.
We left that cold, windy dock for an
area that if it was a town instead of a military base would be called "downtown".
There we found the Enlisted Club. It was the social center of activity
for the marrieds and their families and it was a warm place. It didn't
move, and under its low ceilings we felt safe and welcome. It was
a good early Saturday night crowd with one omission - no single available
girls. But judging from our appearance it was just as well as the
twenty or so of us crowded around a cluster of tables and settled in for
Much later in the evening, and only
vaguely aware of the dancing and laughter of those around us, in our smelly
blues, wild hair and beards, we sat huddled around those tables.
Time passed and the number of couples dwindled. The night wore on
as we sat in our sweat and our diesel stink. We sat and drank together.
We sang and lied and laughed and drank. We had been together inside
that small submarine for three months and now we were aliens in a strange
land. We were hairy sailors from an expendable diesel submarine who
had carried out the peace-time mission no one ever spoke of off the boats
- the northern-run.
We had been isolated from a nation that
would never know, nor later with the distance of time, after the cold war
much care. Alone in our submarine and far from a familiar world we
had been pounded by winter seas, haunted by the specter of Soviet depth
charges and plagued with equipment problems. Removed from one President's
assassination and another's swearing in we had relied only upon our skills,
our luck and shared efforts. Now even here among the laughter and
gaiety of strangers in this northern land, we still remained oddly separate
from those around us.
Around midnight Sparky, one of our rider
intel spooks who had been quietly sipping his beer, cleared his throat
and began reciting Kipling. The place was empty now except for a
few of the married hangers-on, two bartenders and us. The slot machines
occasionally whirred, the glasses clinked and a few couples kept on dancing.
Quietly we sat with our bleary eyes fixed on Sparky, as he in his best
imitation British accent, flawlessly gave us line after line of "Gunga
Din", "The Hanging of Danny Deever" and "The Sinking of the Mary
Glouchester". Except for Big Dog and Warshot who were asleep in the
corner, we listened intently as each drew into his own thoughts.
|The following morning illuminated by
a pale northern sun laying just above the horizon, as sea birds called
and circled above us, we backed away from the pier. Our submarine
now loaded with fuel, its two remaining engines pounded and echoed between
rocky shores; their exhaust clouds floating slowly across the icy water
and around the line handlers shivering on the battered superstructure.
Then, with our boat in the stream, topside rigged for dive and the last
man down, we turned and made for the open sea.
Later with the maneuvering watch secured
and all gear stowed, the skipper, red faced and shaky from his night ashore,
went to his quarters. Meanwhile underway watches were adjusted to
allow time for healing as hangovers were silently nursed in the crew's
mess. We breathed the familiar stale diesel laden air and stared
into our coffee and the long, cold winter seas rolled our black boat easily
as we turned south. South for New London and into the waning hours
We had left one time in America.
A time now lost forever and had crossed into a strange new world.
Unaware of what that future held nor how that turmoil and fire to come
in our country would touch each of our lives in different ways. Ways
we young submariners were yet to learn. The old would give way to
the new as it always does and the twilight of the old warrior diesel boats
would slowly fade, replaced by fast boats far more powerful and more deadly
then we could imagine.
The old steel veterans of battles fought
long ago in lonely oceans from what many now call "the good war" was typified
by the BLENNY. Most of our proud boats from that time would end their
lives under foreign flags, or cut for scrap. Our old warrior boat,
with its proud history, now lies off the Maryland shore lost to view except
in the memories of those who first took her into harm's way and those of
us who came after. Lost save for the memories of a few submariners
from that middle time of the twentieth century.
Except for a few museum displays, the
old boats are now gone along with the young men who drove them. Now
with aging memories - we who live the civilian life - we who remember the
dreams of youth and all its promise - we who have crossed those lines -
we linger now on porches in America. We stand under star-spread night
skies and look beyond the vague horizon's line. Slowly finishing
our warm beer and quietly shutting the door we go in. While in dark
secret seas younger brothers still drive the hard black boats.