Dallas: 22 November 1963  ||  Blenny  ||  Writings  ||  Getting Underway  by R.C. King
Thames River Time  ||  The Smokeboat Navy  by Dex Armstrong
Secrets We Keep and Lines We Have Crossed
by Sid Harrison ETCM(SS) USN(Ret)
Copyright 1997
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 to break.

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.

 The following 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 the evening.

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 of 1963.

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.

8 November 1998 - An After-thought.
I would like to paraphrase something that I just heard this morning on CBS/SUNDAY MORNING. The topic was Vietnam veteran artists and their works. The piece closed with the following poem - the author's name was not given.

"We went to Vietnam and we came back.
That's all there is
except for the details.'

My paraphrase:
"We were submariners and we came back.
That's all there is
except for the details."