We had been on patrol for about one month above the Arctic Circle when one of our Navigation Electronic Technicians (Nav ET) became ill. Years before, Ballistic Missile Submarines carried a full-fledged MD, plus a corpsman. Over the years of keeping records of crew member illness while on patrol, MDs were deemed unnecessary. Specially trained corpsmen were the only medical help onboard while on patrol for two and one-half months.
It didn’t matter. In all the years I made patrols, this Nav Electronics Technician (ET) was the only person ever to become sick. Well, we did have a man die, but we put him in the freezer. While submerged, we made our air and water. Moreover, as part of the ship’s ventilation system, machines called scrubbers and burners continuously cleaned the air. At the end of each patrol, we would surface and open the hatch. Fresh air stinks. Very few ever got sick on patrol, but we all got a sore throat or a slight head cold after being exposed to fresh air again.
The Nav ET had appendicitis, and we were nowhere close to a NATO military base to offload him. Our area had been crawling with Soviet warships. The Doc (Corpsman) hooked up an IV and loaded him up with antibiotics and something to put him out and slow his systems down.
A message was written and put into the radio computer explaining the situation and asking for guidance. After a thorough search with sonar of the area, we slowly came to periscope depth (PD). The computer transmitted the message in a microsecond, and down we went. When a msg is transmitted, there are no dots and dashes. A low-powered encrypted signal is emitted, which sounds like you spit out a watermelon seed. An overhead satellite picks it up and sends it on its way. Standard operating procedure dictates this is something a ballistic missile submarine never does while on patrol unless it is an emergency.
It wasn’t long before we received a reply. We do not have to stick an antenna out of the water to receive msg traffic. The radio waves will penetrate water down to a certain depth. Due to the number of Soviet operations in our area, we were directed to come off patrol; in other words, our alert status changed. Our orders were, go to a specified depth (deep), and a corridor would be cleared for us to make flank speed for Bermuda. Bermuda? We were nowhere close to Bermuda, but those were our instructions. We were to surface at a specific place and time, and a helicopter would be waiting on us.
We did a thirty-degree down angle, slowly increasing speed, hit the ordered depth, and cranked on the turns. We had a tube in the ocean just for us.
Any non-US sub would have to get out of the way. Underwater, our class sub was blind at any speed over eight knots. We passed eight knots in a hurry. We were poking holes in the ocean at high speed.
Over fifty years ago, our government secretly placed very sensitive long sonar arrays in various deep-water areas worldwide. This classified program was called SOSUS. You can search the internet for details about SOSUS. If you were a submarine or surface ship in the Atlantic and certain parts of the Pacific, we knew where you were and what you were. It was a top-secret program until John Walker spilled the beans to the Soviets. So, they knew, but it did not stop the system from performing its purpose. It was a great help for us to know in advance where their ships and submarines were.
On the same note, you did not want to receive a message that SOSUS had picked you up. There is no doubt in my mind, as soon as we cranked on the turns, SOSUS had us. Of course, they received the same message as we and were watching to make sure there was not going to be a close encounter with another country’s submarine. Not only Russian, but UK and France were out there.
We had a Top Secret plotting contact board onboard the sub, which showed our position and exactly where all the bad guys were. Only a few people on board know where we were in the world. Where we went on patrol was not general knowledge to most of the crew. They performed their jobs every day on patrol like it was a walk in the park. I believe the wives knew more about what and where we were than most of the crew. Navy wives are strange critters.
Our transit to Bermuda was long but fast. When we surfaced, the helo was ready to take our sick crew member to Bermuda’s naval hospital. He was taken topside in a stokes stretcher, hooked to the helo cable, hauled up, and departed. We submerged and stayed at periscope depth. It wasn’t long, and we received a message stating surgery was successful, and a full recovery was expected.
Instead of immediately returning to patrol depth and continuing on our merry way, the powers-that-be in Norfolk gave us to the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aviation squadron stationed in Bermuda to use as a real target for them to get some practice for twenty-four hours. What that meant, we go to a specific area, specified by the ASW Commander, are given a no-deeper-than depth restriction order. They try to find us using all their equipment. I don’t know how long we had been putting around in this box when I came on watch in Sonar. They had the ocean full of sonobuoys echo ranging up a storm.
The buoys are dropped from the P-3 aircraft, after hitting the water, a small transducer on a cable drops down to a certain depth and starts pinging away. Each buoy is monitored by equipment onboard the aircraft. We had a piece of equipment in sonar that told us exactly where the buoy was relative to us. We could turn and go away from it as long as we stay in our box. It just so happened that at the max depth we were allowed to operate, was just above a layer or thermocline.
If we were allowed to drop below the thermocline, they would have never found us. We could have held a square dance on board and never been detected. As I sat at my equipment, however, I noticed something below the thermocline headed our way but slowly drew to the right. Thinking it may be a large school of biologics (fish), I pointed it out to the OOD and asked him to put the bow right on the layer. Our main sonar is located in and around the bow. By placing a small down angle on the boat, we can keep our engineering noise above the layer but listen with our sonar below the layer.
The diving officer gradually changed to a down angle and eased the bow into the layer, and there it was loud and clear. A Soviet diesel boat on the battery, trying its best to get out of Dodge. Not realizing we were there, he thought all the sonar buoys pinging up a storm were meant for him. It was a prize of all prizes for us because diesel boats are tough to detect. I remembered, two weeks before, a Soviet Type III Foxtrot was headed for the Med but disappeared. He sneaked over to Bermuda to do a little photo/electronic spying.
I informed the OOD what we had, locked all our sonar gear on him, and the boat quietly manned battle stations torpedo. The Captain immediately came in Sonar and asked if I was sure. I said “Yes, Sir,” and let him listen. I pointed out several discreet frequencies we were picking up, that are only found on that class boat. The fire control party plotted all the data. The fire control computer figured out a solution. In a matter of a few minutes, we had this guy dead to rights. He had no clue we were there.
The CO came back to Sonar and told us we would go to periscope depth to pass the info to the aviation squadron. We would slowly move out of the area to make sure we were not detected. We gradually came to PD. All information was passed in code, and shortly after, everything flying and dropping sonar buoys changed direction. Their buoys were reset to go lower below the layer. Those guys had a ball. With our help, they had a real-live bad guy to harass. We gave them his course, speed, depth, and all they had to do was keep the buoys dropping in front of him. I am sure they were happy campers.
We slowly disengaged from that operation and headed back to parts unknown. The next day, way off in the distance, we could hear the Foxtrot running his diesels, charging batteries. I bet he had P-3s all over him taking pictures. Later, we received a message from the ASW Command, giving us an atta-boy for all the help.
Of course, we got no acknowledgment or award for doing what we did. Our Nav ET made a full recovery and met us back in Charleston when we flew back from Scotland. He was sorry he missed the encounter. By the time we returned, the sea stories were getting outlandish, most of them are anyway.
After the collapse of the USSR, if you had the money, you could buy a Foxtrot. Just about every one constructed has been scrapped or is sitting somewhere rusting. The Soviets had many of their submarines decommissioned. They have had a hard problem getting a new class of subs to last longer than four to five years. My first FBM was commissioned in 1964 and decommissioned in 1994.
Our subs are made to last.