Written by Bobby Ray Barbee on Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at http://donmac.org/PrideRunsDeep/Quals.htm
From Sub Base, Groton, Connecticut we would take two Navy buses to NAS, Quonset Point, Rhode Island; boarded 2 chartered planes for flight to Prestwick, Scotland. In Scotland, we boarded two double-decker “London” buses for an hour’s ride to the boat landing in Gourock. There we loaded a large liberty boat for a 45-minute ride across the Firth of Clyde to the submarine tender anchored out in the Holy Loch. We stayed in tender’s relief-crew berthing during a three-day turnover period and during this time we went over the boat’s records and discussed equipment problems with our counterparts on the other crew. After the turnover period, a change of command ceremony was held and the other crew left for the States. We then moved from the tender to the boat.
Underwent an approximate 25 days of upkeep on the boat on port and starboard duty days. Overnight liberty was usually around Holy Loch (Dunoon, Grenock, Gourock). On weekends, we’d try to get to Glascow, Edinburgh or even London. After the upkeep period, we had a one-day “Fast Cruise” alongside the tender to check out the equipment after repairs. Then we went on two days of sea trials before leaving on patrol. On sea trials, we took the boat to test depth and performed “angles and dangles,” i.e., put the boat through 30 degrees up and 30 degrees down angles to ensure everything was secure in place.
Once the patrol started, all hands shifted to “poopie suits.” These were blue coveralls used because of their low lint content (which helped to prevent spontaneous combustion fires in the laundry dryers, a problem which a few boats had prior to poopie suits being required), and they dried faster than dungarees. The laundry was kept going 24 hours a day.
On patrol, the boat’s mission, as it cruised along in Patrol Quiet conditions at a speed of 6 knots, was to man Battle Stations Missile (Condition 1SQ) within 5 minutes of receiving a verified message from higher authority, then launch all 16 missiles, one after the other, one minute apart (later boats could fire 4 per minute). Weapons Systems Readiness Tests (WSRTs), initiated by higher authority or the CO, were held unannounced at any time of the day or night. The boat received its communications via a floating wire antenna that was trailed behind the boat and floated just below the surface. In addition to Battle Stations Missile drills, we nukes constantly had emergency reactor shutdown, steam leak, flooding, radioactive water spill or leak drills, as well as other reactor- or steam plant-related casualty drills. And, we had to attend lectures on the plant every day except Sunday. Watch standing consisted of 6 hours on and 12 hours off.
We were given two patrols to qualify (or re-qualify) on the boat, while at the same time qualifying on our various watch stations (the number depended on which division you were in). It took several patrols to finish up on all your watch station quals. Even after we got qualified on everything, Admiral Rickover required his nukes to periodically requalify on all their watch stations. Admiral Rickover did not want his nuke Chiefs to qualify as Chief of the Watch or Diving Officer in Control because he felt it took away from their focus on the nuclear plant. Many Chiefs did it on their own, though. He also didn’t allow his nuke Chiefs (even if one of them was the senior enlisted man on board) to be the Chief of the Boat (or COB) for the same reason.
Entertainment on patrol consisted of half-way parties (where guys would put on skits or play instruments to entertain the crew), casino nights, raffles to raise funds for the Welfare and Recreations Committee; pinochle, hearts, domino and cribbage tournaments, and WSRT “anchor pools”. We also had movies every night that only qualified men (or those up on their quals) could attend. We had stationary bikes and weights in the Missile Compartment and guys could jog around the Upper Level Missile Compartment for exercise. For a sauna-like experience the forward guys could come back to the Engine Room and sit outboard a turbine. Occasionally, the officers, Chiefs, and each Department took a turn at cooking and serving a special meal, like “surf and turf,” for example, to give the cooks and mess cooks a break.) A favorite pastime (as it was on Diesel boats) was to try to “get to” anyone you knew who could be bothered by something.
Being on a nuke boat underwater is like being on a spaceship. You’re always in a completely hostile environment. We made our own water and from that we made oxygen. Because of the long core life of the reactor (13 years without refueling, at the time), we weren’t concerned with steam plant efficiency, so we didn’t worry about being on water hours. Our 8000 gallon per day steam distilling plant ran most of the time. Patrol length was (and still is) limited by the amount of food the boat can carry and the crew’s psychological endurance. To help psychologically, crews received “Family Grams.” These were three, 20-word radio messages per patrol that could be sent by your loved ones back home. Guys really got upset if they didn’t get a Family Gram when they were expecting one.
Living conditions on an FBM weren’t bad. Each man had his own bunk (no “hot-bunking” as they did on Fast Attacks) with a pan locker under the bunk and a curtain for privacy. Also, each bunk had its own air-conditioning outlet. The heads were large, with four showers, about six sinks and mirrors, and four or five commodes. FBMs also had crew’s lounge areas, the size depending on the class of boat. These areas were used for playing cards, telling sea stories, or for holding qualification boards.
We had field day once a week and constantly performed preventive maintenance on the equipment. With Admiral Rickover, there was no such thing as “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” COs were required to spend at least one hour a day conducting materiel inspection on some part of the engineering plant. Admiral Rickover didn’t want his COs to be like the COs on surface craft who knew very little about the engineering spaces (his ways for Engineering Departments later spread to the surface Navy). Once a year, the nukes had an Operational Reactors Safeguards Exam (ORSE) by Admiral Rickover’s boys from Washington. This was usually held at the end of a patrol and if the nukes failed this exam, the entire crew had to stay aboard until they passed. The other crew could not take over the boat.
FBMs at first had a regular Medical Doctor aboard during patrols. Two Hospital Corpsmen, who also performed the twice-daily atmospheric surveys to ensure that the oxygen was high enough and gases such as hydrogen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and Freon were low, aided him.
Upon completion of patrol, the boat returned to its advanced base and reversed the process with the crews swapping places. It was like getting transferred every three months. Pack your seabag and take off.
After returning to the States, the crew was given a 30-day R&R period. If you didn’t want to take leave you only had to come in to the off-crew office once a week during this time to let the command know you were still alive (sometimes you could just call in). There was no duty except for an occasional turn by junior Petty Officers at answering the phone in the office or making mail runs.
Once the R&R period was over we attended equipment operation- and maintenance-related schools at the Sub Base. We were also required to periodically attend damage control refresher training. And, during the six-month interim before the next ORSE, the nukes were given oral boards by a CO, an XO, an Engineer, and a Main Propulsion Assistant from an off-crew of another boat.
During the three months in the States we still got sub pay and Pro-Pay, but we lost sea pay. The married guys made up for that by getting Commuted Rations (ComRats – which was tax-free) and the single guys who lived in the barracks usually saved money by eating in the base chow hall. In the early 1970s, an FBM CO figured out that when a crew was in the States it was away from its “tax home,” i.e., the boat itself. He argued, successfully, that a percentage of the money a crewmember spent on food, lodging, clothing, and transportation should be tax deductible. This became known as the “FBM tax break” and its probably still in force. Once again, the crewmembers on Fast Attacks did not have such a tax break.
Two weeks before a crew was due to go back to the boat another R&R period was granted. Just prior to this time (for a while) everyone self-addressed envelopes to be used by the other crew for mailing paychecks to wherever a person wanted them to go. A few years later (after single guys complained that they didn’t have wives to take care of their bills), the policy was instituted to give everyone three months advanced pay (including sub pay and Pro-Pay) so that bills could be paid three months in advance. Or, we could take the money and blow it all in Scotland.
In summary, duty on a FBM was (and probably still is) the best sea duty in the Navy. For an excellent visual insight into what it’s like to be on a nuclear submarine, watch the series NOVA’s episode entitled “Submarine!” and the series “Sharks of Steel” that show up on cable or PBS.