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Sea Stories: Drugs and Neutrons Don't Mix


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Sea Stories:  Drugs and Neutrons Don’t Mix

In 1979, I was honored to be one of the first four Third Class Midshipmen allowed to make our 3rd Class Mid Cruise onboard a Ballistic Missile Submarine.  In case you don’t know, NROTC Midshipmen usually make three training cruises in the summers between their university years.  The first of these cruises is made onboard a fleet unit, learning what an enlisted man’s life is like.  You live in enlisted berthing spaces, perform junior enlisted duties and stand appropriate junior enlisted watches.  You therefore learn what life is like “before the mast” and this experience should make you a better officer and leader in time.  In my case, I was extremely interested in submarines, and had pestered my class instructor to inquire if I might not make my cruise aboard a boat, a Benjamin Franklin-class missile sub .  A Nuke submariner, he somehow made it happen, and I was thrilled.  I boarded an airplane for my very first flights, and traveled to Rota, Spain where I reported aboard my boat.  Shortly after I arrived, we were underway for a 64-day ballistic missile deterrent patrol.  I quickly qualified at a few watch stations, and ultimately stood over 400 hours of watches at the helm and planes, literally driving the most potent weapon of war ever devised.

The late 1970’s were not a good time to be in the US Navy in many ways.  The decline and malaise of the Carter Presidency years was still very evident.  Drug use and racial tensions were prevalent, and neither was good for discipline or morale.  I was too busy marveling at the incredible precision and mechanical complexity of the submarine which was for the time being my home to think much about this.  I slept in a bunk just outboard of an intercontinental  ballistic missile, just about close enough to reach out and touch the launch tube.   “Boomers” stay submerged and undetected when on patrol.  “Slow, quiet and unknown” are the watchwords of daily life.  I loved being aboard her.  It was an interesting and eventful patrol in more than one way.  I learned a lot.  But one series of events was particularly instructive.

One day about halfway through the patrol, the Chief of the Boat (COB, who is the senior enlisted man aboard) was walking through the narrow passageway by the closed and locked door of the Corpsman’s shack- the medical office of the boat, located on the middle level of the missile compartment. He smelled the unmistakable odor of burning marijuana.  (Note:  the air inside a submarine is recycled for days upon end.  Smoke is readily apparent.  It takes a special kind of dumbass to think that blazing up a joint is going to go unnoticed.)  The COB followed his nose to the door, pounded on it and ultimately told whoever was inside that he was calling for a fireaxe and that the door was going to come open soon, one way or another.  Sheepishly, the boat’s corpsman (an HM1 E-6) opened the door, feigned having just awakened from a nap, and asked what all the fuss was about.  The COB wasn’t buying it.  One rapid, glowingly positive urinalysis test later, it was clear that the HM1 had been smoking dope, and finding the ashes and spliff pretty much made it impossible to deny.  Maximum pressure was then applied to the man concerning where he had obtained the drugs.  He talked.  Lockers were searched, based upon this probable cause, and other drugs were found.  Pressure was applied.  They talked.  More searches were made.  And ultimately, 12 men were found to be in possession of narcotics, all of whom tested positive for recent use.  This is over ten percent of the enlisted crew complement. 

Drug use was an instant disqualifier for possession of a security clearance in the USN, and by nature of their design, mission and operations, submarines are inherently highly classified.  None of these men could, therefore, perform classified duties.  They would be kicked out of the submarine service as soon as they could be gotten off the boat.  Each knew that he had no future in the US Navy, at least not in submarines or classified ratings.  And one of the men, an E-6 engineer, was one of three qualified nuclear reactor plant operators on the watch bill.  He was instantly unable to even go aft of a certain door in the boat, to go anywhere near the reactor machinery.   And the other two qualified reactor plant watchstanders immediately went on “port and starboard” watch – four hours on, four hours off, repeat…..for weeks.  This is exhausting, and frankly, given the critical nature of that watch station, unsafe.  Who wants a sleep-deprived, groggy man operating a nuclear reactor?  No one anywhere near it, for sure.

The Captain (an incredible officer, who was both extremely knowledgeable and proficient, and an outstanding, inspiring leader) had a big problem.  He could NOT pull his boat off of his ordered mission of ballistic missile deterrent patrol – this was a matter of utmost import to US national security.  He could not call for permission to organize a mid-ocean rendezvous with a surface craft or helicopter, surface the boat, and offload the offenders and potentially take onboard new replacements.  Surfacing meant certain detection, and likely compromise of the patrol.  So, he had to keep the men aboard until the patrol ended. 

Things went from bad to worse.  Severe tensions arose between crew members.  Some were angry at the dopers, especially the reactor plant operator, for having endangered their lives by getting high on patrol.  Who wants a drugged man operating a nuclear reactor?  No one anywhere near it, for sure!  Mistakes and casualties can occur at any time on a boat, and proper, timely response is critical to mutual survival.  Submarine crews must be on their best game at all times.  The dopers were spreading the word to each other that they knew who had talked, and that revenge would be taken.  Lives were threatened.  And a couple of other crewmen who had not yet been ratted out and detected sent word to the ones who had been that if anyone talked about them, they would pay the penalty.  This crew was literally tearing itself apart.

A deep funk of demoralization took over the boat, and watchstanding standards slipped markedly.  Sailors were pretty much just “going through the motions” and coasting until the patrol ended.  This is absolutely not what you want on this kind of boat, on patrol.  And the Captain and COB needed to fix it, fast.  The Captain gave a stern all-hands address to the crew, reading them the riot act and reminding them of Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) provisions that specified severe penalties for communicating threats, actual violence, or other infractions.  He assured all that there would be zero tolerance for any further behavior of this sort, and application of the maximum penalties if it occurred. 

This tamped down the fires but didn’t erase the general malaise.  So, one more step was taken.

It was late one watch (submarines divorce themselves from celestial cycles when underwater.  There is no midnight or noon, and only GMT observed.  Day is night and night is day.)  All was quiet.  The COB quietly grabbed several off-watch sailors and bade them to come with him, each carrying several heavy steel weights which are used to make sure that ejected garbage from the boat doesn’t float to the surface, to provide clues of presence and detection.  The combined weight of men and steel was a few thousand pounds, and he walked them all the way to the torpedo room at the bow of the boat, upsetting her trim and making her very bow heavy, very quickly.  The Captain, meanwhile, ordered the torpedo room to empty a torpedo tube, flood it, and fire a “water slug”, or blank torpedo shot, into the sea, without reporting any of this to the control room.  This results in a loud banging noise, a palpable jolt felt all through the boat, and a sudden whooshing of compressed air moving back through the boat rapidly.  And then they hit the collision alarm, and reported “FLOODING IN THE TORPEDO ROOM!”   The combined effect of all of this was to give the very detailed simulated feeling of having collided with something forward, with a breach in the hull and the sea flooding in.  And the boat was at patrol depth, far below the surface of the sea. 

You have never seen or heard the likes of the pandemonium that resulted.  Orders flew.  Depth and angle were sharply changed.  Reports were made.  Doors were slammed and dogged. Eyes were huge.   Men were rushing to their assigned duty stations, many jolted awake from sleep.  Some were audibly praying, and a couple were openly weeping.  I was sitting at the helm, driving the boat, and I remember very clearly that this was the first time in my eighteen-year life span that I had ever faced death.  I had a quick flash of great fear, and then, strangely, a calm resignation.  I thought “you wanted to be here, doing this.  There are worse ways to die than serving your country.”  And I felt no more fear after that.  I will never forget the sensation.

The boat was quickly brought under control.  The drill was announced as having been just that, a drill.  All was secured.  And the COB and CO walked through each compartment from fore to aft, reminding every man that the sea never sleeps, and that they needed to be fully focused on their duties.  They made their point.  No man aboard likely ever forgot it again.

A few weeks later, the boat surfaced and transited into port in Holy Loch, Scotland.  The boat was met by a pilot vessel and a harbor pilot. The hatch was opened, and normally, the first thing that happens is a bag of mail for the crew comes down the hatch, followed by the pilot.  Not this day.  The hatch opened, and twelve former submarine sailors were frogmarched up the ladder, and onto the pilot boat for transfer ashore, never to see the inside of a submarine again.  Then down came the mailbag and the pilot, in that order.

The Captain made his point.  And I proudly wore the SSBN Deterrent Patrol insignia for the remainder of my career, directly below my Surface Warfare insignia.


Edited by Gunboat1
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A different class boat, but very representative of the time.  This is the ship control station and ballast control panel.  Helm, planes and lots of pump and valve controls.

Edited by Gunboat1
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