VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (NNS) — The former commanding officer of the Tench-class diesel submarine USS Grenadier (SS 525) recounted the experience of his crew 50 years ago; the events of May 28, 1959 impacted submarine warfare, especially during the Cold War era.
Capt. Ted Davis, a native of Gloversville, N.Y., who now makes his home in Virginia Beach, Va., was commanding officer of Grenadier that day and can still recall the events as if they happened only five years ago.
After 18 hours of tracking a contact through the icy waters of the Northern Atlantic Ocean, the captain and crew of the Grenadier would force the surfacing of a Russian Zulu-class missile-firing submarine. It marked the first time visual and photographic proof of the presence of Soviet submarines in the Atlantic was able to be captured.
Grenadier left it’s homeport of Key West, Fla., in April 1959, along with USS Amberjack (SS 522), USS Atule (SS 403) and USS Grampus (SS 523), to conduct special antisubmarine exercises in the Northern Atlantic Ocean. Their mission was to patrol the “GIUK gap,” a chokepoint from Greenland to Iceland to the United Kingdom.
However, their unofficial goal was much different.
During Grenadier’s overhaul in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Davis learned of a proclamation from Adm. Jerauld Wright, then commander-in-chief of the Atlantic Fleet. The proclamation was more of a challenge in the form of an award to the first naval unit in the fleet that could prove the presence of a “non U.S. or known friendly” submarine. The first to do so would be presented an award that was certainly a sign of the times – “one case of Jack Daniels Old No. 7 black label Tennessee sour mash whiskey.”
When word came down that Grenadier and three other submarines would conduct operations in the Northern Atlantic after her homeport shift from New London, Conn., to Key West, Davis informed his crew of the added incentive for the deployment.
“I put out at quarters, ‘Hey guys, there’s a case of Jack Daniels involved,'” said Davis, who was 36-years old at the time. “It was a challenge, but I knew the odds of us running into a Russian submarine were about one in a million.”
Grenadier was on station for several days when Davis received word from his messenger that a contact was nearby.
“The messenger came in and told me that sonar had a Soviet submarine,” said Davis. “The first thought that came to my mind was that the crew was so good that if they said it was a Soviet submarine, it was a Soviet submarine.”
Davis, however, wasn’t about to take it for granted. He asked his crew how they were so sure the contact was Russian.
“They said they’d been listening to submarines for a long time, and they knew this guy didn’t fit any other pattern we had,” said Davis. “No American submarines, no British submarines – this was it.”
Then the contact disappeared only moments after Davis had been convinced by his sonar operators the contact was Soviet.
The sonar crew estimated the course of the contact, believing the submarine was heading home to a port in the Soviet Union. Its range was about 20,000 yards and speed about five knots.
Davis, a 1947 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, instructed his crew to set up two plotting teams, one in control and one in the wardroom, to plan to intercept the contact.
At the time, Grenadier’s battery was strong, having charged all night, but later in the day the air inside Grenadier became a little fouled. Technology that would provide submarines the ability to clean the air inside the submarine had yet to be invented, so submarines would have to surface to vent the sub and take in clean air. Additionally, smoking cigarettes aboard the boat was common and not restricted to the engine room.
“A strong battery was more important than anything else,” said Davis, allowing his crew to plot a course to intercept the Soviet sub at a speed of approximately eight knots.
“The waiting went on into the early afternoon, when all of a sudden, sonar hollers, ‘Contact! Close aboard! Port bow!'” said Davis.
“To this day, I couldn’t tell you if that guy knew where we were, but we could hear him.”
The Soviet sub immediately “came roaring down at us,” said Davis. It reminded him of a recent incident during which a Soviet submarine fired a torpedo deep under a U.S. submarine. The torpedo was intentionally fired deep, but the action achieved the intended effect – the U.S. boat was forced to take evasive action, while the Soviet sub was able to sneak off in the confusion and noise from the torpedo, effectively breaking the contact.
Davis believed the actions by the Soviet sub commander this day might have the same intentions, including forcing the Grenadier to identify it’s presence by going to full speed to evade the oncoming Russian sub. He also felt the Soviet commander might try to clip Grenadier’s screws, stern planes or rudder, leaving the boat helpless to continue the pursuit but not in a life-or-death situation.
Grenadier didn’t back down, however, maintaining position and most importantly stealth.
Davis instructed two of his officers who were manning passive and active sonars to basically maneuver the ship using the sonars’ info.
But there was one specific instruction – always turn into the contact to avoid presenting the stern to the other submarine. Davis didn’t want to present his rudder or screw to the other ship because doing so would leave him vulnerable to a “bump” from the Soviet sub that could damage Grenadier’s screw or rudder. Damage to either would force Grenadier to abandon the pursuit, letting the Soviet sub slip away.
“He came within 400 and 800 yards of us, which is awfully close” said Davis. “When I thought that it was about time to turn, I heard, ‘Left full rudder! All ahead flank!’ The officers in conn were on top of the problem. As he went down our port side, we just curved right in behind him.
“He thought he heard something behind him, but he wasn’t sure, so he turned around and did it again,” said Davis. “Then we did the same thing and fell right in behind him again. Then he took a course for home.”
The Soviet sub was deep at a speed of five knots; Grenadier trailed 2,000 yards astern.
Davis decided to surface. Not only was the air fouled, but it was getting hard to light a cigarette, demonstrating the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the boat.
While surfaced, he sent a message to Commander Submarine Force Atlantic Fleet: “Have contact on Soviet submarine, can track indefinitely.” Davis also requested support from a P-2V anti-submarine patrol aircraft from Patrol Squadron 5 (VP-5) at Naval Air Station Keflavik, Iceland.
According to a report Davis wrote later, he decided to then remain surfaced as long as possible, creating a greater advantage for himself over the Soviet submarine. Topside watches were organized, and Executive Officer Lt. Cmdr. Ed Welsh took over as plot coordinator.
“We were ready to hold contact for as long as it took to exhaust the adversary,” wrote Davis in his report.
Shortly after the P-2V was vectored in, sonar reported the Soviet sub coming up, probably to take a look.
One of Davis’ junior officers, Lt. Dave McClary, wanted to be a pilot when he first entered the Navy, but poor eyesight prevented further pilot training. He took this opportunity to vector the P-2V over the Soviet sub and was manning the con when the sub’s periscope broke the surface. He then expertly directed the P-2V right over the Russian, performing the task to perfection.
Flares dropped from the P-2V landed in the water right beside Ivan’s periscope. Davis still laughs when he thinks about it.
“I swear, that periscope came up, and the flare went ‘boomp’ right beside it,” said Davis. “I said to myself, ‘I’d like to see the look on his face, whoever was looking up through that periscope.”
Several more flares were dropped over the next few hours. Davis knew without a doubt the Russian sub was aware of the plane and most likely was now fully aware they were being tracked by a submarine as well.
“I thought that was good because if he had any ideas about trying to sink us we’ve got a witness in the air,” said Davis.
After several hours of tracking the Soviet sub from the surface, sonar lost contact. Davis immediately brought Grenadier to all stop.
“I passed the word that if you’re smoking, dump your ashes in your hand…don’t let your ashes hit the deck,” said Davis. “That’s how quiet I wanted the boat to be.”
Davis’ sonar officer suggested they go active on sonar, but Davis felt the other sub was deep and hovering, and going active would only help him verify Grenadier’s position in one last attempt to escape.
“We were both dead in the water, so we were just going to let him sit,” said Davis.
At the same time, the P-2V was running out of fuel and was replaced by another P-2V out of Keflavik.
“The second guy was dropping sonar buoys all over the place,” said Davis. “I needed that like a hole in the head.”
By this time, it was almost midnight on May 28. And Davis knew the time was near.
“I thought, this guy was out of air; he’s out of battery, he’s running out of everything, and he’s going to surface at the darkest part of night,” said Davis.
Davis had his sound-powered phone talker pass the word through the ship that the CO expected the submarine to surface a little after midnight. The XO laughed, saying, “There you go again!”
“I thought, what the hell, we have to do something to keep (the crew) laughing,” said Davis. “But sure enough, at 15 minutes past the hour, sonar hollers, ‘He’s surfacing! He’s surfacing!’ So we vectored the airplane over the top of their deck.”
The P-2V shined a light on the Soviet submarine and took dozens of photographs. Some of the photos showed Russian crewmembers trying to cover the sail area with canvas to hide two missile tubes.
“It turned out that we found the first real evidence of a missile-firing Soviet submarine, something our intelligence community was trying hard to get the dope on,” said Davis. “Here we had all the information they needed. We not only satisfied Jerauld Wright … but this was a real break for the intelligence community as well.”
The Russian sub stayed on the surface for more than 24 hours, and Grenadier’s crew recorded as much information as possible. Once Grenadier had gathered enough information, they were ordered back to their station to continue their participation in the exercise.
Once the exercise was over and Grenadier returned to Key West, an awards ceremony was held, during which Wright presented a case of Jack Daniels Old No. 7 black label Tennessee sour mash whiskey to the crew.
The crew of Grenadier would have to accept that as their reward for a job well done because no unit award was presented to the boat for surfacing the Soviet Zulu, but Davis believes the crew was just as happy with the success and the Jack Daniels.
“That whiskey was gone at the next crew party,” said Davis, who still has a Jack Daniels bottle from the original case. Empty, of course.
Along with the case of whiskey, Wright presented a proclamation to Davis and the crew. The proclamation stated that the presence of unidentified submarines had been reported in the sea lanes off the coast of the U.S., and those submarines were uncooperative in declaring their identity and intent. But “…through actions of USS Grenadier (SS-525) tangible evidence these surreptitious operations are being conducted has been produced.”
Davis gives credit for the success of this mission to his crew, many of whom were extremely well qualified.
“They were truly a magnificent team,” said Davis.
Although the significance of the incident can never be fully credited to Grenadier’s success, many changes in both navies followed soon after. The Navy commissioned America’s first fleet ballistic missile submarine USS George Washington (SSBN 598) in December 1959, and the Russians soon scrapped their Zulu class of ballistic missile submarines.
Davis is very proud of the accomplishment, and he fondly remembers “29 May ’59” any time someone asks him about it.
“We were in the right place at the right time with a great crew,” said Davis.
He also remembers how some senior officers tried to put the surfacing in a different light.
“The briefing for (the chief of naval operations) with all his staff was amusing in that the surface force admirals were trying to say that it wasn’t a submarine that did it because Grenadier was on the surface when the Soviet surfaced,” he said. “I just smiled and concluded my remarks emphasizing that it was submariners that did the job, not the submarine itself. In short, it was submariners who got the Jerauld Wright Award, which gave the sub force a great boost.”