Notes from the Southwest Corner:
SAN DIEGO – With August madcap doings in the Southwest corner, I postponed my trip back home and missed a unique reunion in Newport, R.I.
Several sailors from my first ship, the USS Hawkins (DD 873) held an ad hoc reunion in Newport, RI. I was honored they asked me to join as they had been enlisted and I had been a junior officer. Allen Ernst, my leading sonar technician when I was Anti-Submarine (ASW) Officer, had found me in the intergalactic space of the internet about a year ago. I suspect he instigated including me.
Regardless, Allen, Robin Lewis, and Norm O’Neal took the lead, and R.J. Beihl, Bill Durbrow, Bill Carey, Bruce Coulture, and Rik Tuinstra completed the group.
They sent pictures and reports. Then last week, Allen forwarded me an email train from a discussion they had had at the reunion. The email detailed an incident I will never forget, including a seven page breakdown of the Navy investigation.
After completing a major overhaul in February, 1969, the Hawkins sailed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for “refresher training,” two-months of intense exercises to get the ship’s company back up to speed before operations.
ASW exercises with a real submarine were included. The USS Chopper (SS-342) was assigned to Guantanamo for these exercises.
The ASW exercises were actually a respite for me. Other duties required grueling 18-hour days. The ASW part was exciting and fun, and my first with a real sub.
Hawkins stood out of the channel February 11 and conducted engineering drills in the morning. General Quarters 1A (for ASW operations) was set immediately after the morning drills. I moved from the bridge to the small ASW/Sonar space in the after section of Combat Information Center (CIC). There was no time for lunch.
Quicker than expected, we gained sonar contact and began to track the Chopper.
Just finding a submarine with sonar remains magic to me. The sonar transmits sound beams, and if the beams hit the submarine, the returning echo alerts the sonar crew to the contact.
By maintaining contact, a good sonar team can track the sub, deducing course and speed and producing a solution to fire an anti-submarine weapon, such as a torpedo with some probability of actually hitting the submarine.
This did not occur often. We spent more time talking to the whales on “Gertrude,” our underwater telephone designed to communicate with other Navy ships and submarines, than actually locating submarines.
But this particular afternoon, we had good luck, establishing solid contact. We could actually see the submarine blip turning in circles on our fire control system.
Then the blip became progressively weaker and disappeared. We were stumped as to the cause, wondering what kind of maneuver the Chopper could have employed.
Within two minutes, the bridge reported the Chopper had shot almost completely out of the water, 100 yards off of our starboard beam, crashing back into the sea. It disappeared again briefly before bobbing to the surface.
The Chopper had lost its generator and electrical DC power. The sub’s down angle had increased to 15 degrees, then to 45 degrees and beyond. She had plummeted to over 1,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, dangerously close to her “crush depth.”
The emergency actions of the sub’s personnel finally took effect. The Chopper ceased its descent and began to rise. The crew couldn’t control the reverse ascent, and the sub was almost vertical in the water when it cleared the surface. She re-submerged to about 250 feet before finally bobbing to the surface.
Amazingly, she returned to port under her own power. The ensuing investigation determined she had suffered structural damage, and the Chopper was decommissioned a year later.
More amazing, no one received any critical injuries. This is even more startling in that the report reveals steel deck plates were not secured and were crashing about during the violent descent and ascent along with anything not tied down. The officers and crew carried out emergency procedures 90 degrees off the normal plane. It would be like doing house work in an emergency mode standing on the wall instead of the floor with furniture flying around.
The Chopper was just one of many impactful incidents during my Hawkins tour with those sailors. It was quite an introduction to anti-submarine warfare for this young officer.
I am still amazed.