We had been at sea and underwater for almost two and a half months and we were all getting pretty anxious to get home. Patrolling in the hidden depths of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean deep down where it is dark, cold, and quiet can make a crew pretty edgy after a few months. Of course, this is what we were paid to do and, frankly, it is what we enjoyed doing most of the time but things would get monotonous and long after awhile, for sure. We were very good at what we did. Nevertheless, we were sailors and we always were wanting to get on to the next evolution – this time it was to set the maneuvering watch and tie the boat up in Charleston, SC.
Our goal when on patrol was to stay in our extremely secret underwater patrol areas without any detection by anyone – friend or foe. Being a fleet ballistic missile submarine, our job wasn’t to pursue and dog other sea-going adversaries but, rather, to stay in our patrol areas without anyone knowing that we were there. Our best offense was the element of surprise. Our patrol areas had been selected depending on our missiles’ targets and the flight distance to the targets. The SLBMs we carried required that we be in the right place at the right time in case we would ever receive orders to launch – our purpose was to launch and strike our targets when ordered. We didn’t drive these kinds of boats – we called them ‘boomers’ – for any other reason than to be able to deliver our weapon payloads successfully.
It is all pretty scary stuff, when you think about it. Even today, there are submarine crews on submerged boats out under the oceans carrying their targeted missiles. They are doing this twenty-four hours a day 365 days a year in all of the oceans of the world. It never ends. Of course, it is all done in the name of peace and deterrence and balance – this principle has held for quite a few decades. Let’s hope it continues to hold.
Anyway, we were twenty- and thirty-somethings who did what we did because we liked the adventure and the challenge. We didn’t do much moralizing, frankly. Instead, we did a lot of complaining, standing watch, making sure the boat was safely operated, and always wishing for home.
So, we had been on patrol for several months and we had done our job well and we were heading home. Finally and at last. Only a few more days. We had transited from parts unknown in the Atlantic and Mediterranean and were nearing our home port of Charleston – families, wives, girlfriends, fresh food. It was good to be getting back after a long and successful patrol.
Then and unexpectedly, the 1MC ship-wide announcement system quickly and succinctly blurted out to the crew to “rig ship for ultra-quiet”. Then quiet. The only time that we ever had to go ultra-quiet was when we believed someone was tracking us or when we had detected someone else submerged very near us. We had to do everything possible on-board to make sure that the contact could not detect us and figure out that there was someone else out there with them.
It took only a few minutes using some pretty sophisticated sonar equipment to determine that the contact was, in fact, a Soviet Yankee class submarine – one of the Soviet ballistic missile boats. These boats routinely patrolled up and down the eastern coastline of the U.S. We usually generally knew where they were but, of course, we never knew exactly. In this case, we had accidentally crossed paths with a Yankee.
What to do?
So, we rigged ship for ultra-quiet. Ventilation was shut off almost completely. We slowed to a crawl – minimal turns on the screw. Machines on-board that could be turned off were turned off – things like generators, turbines, pumps. Even ice cream and drink coolers are turned off. Anyone who was not standing watch had to go to their racks and crawl in them and stay there until things were settled. No opening and closing of doors and hatches unless absolutely necessary. There would not be any further public announcements on the ship’s PA systems. No running water. Minimal use of hydraulics – only as necessary to keep control of the ship. No talking unless necessary. The point – reduce or stop anything that would or could make noise that could be heard by the Yankee. And we basically sat submerged underwater – with some way to keep control of the ship – but we waited quietly and patiently. This was truly cat-and-mouse.
Our torpedoes were armed and ready to go. This would have been unthinkable – unloading a torpedo shot on a Yankee. But this is what we trained for and this is what we would have done almost without thinking. Constant target motion analysis was being performed on the Yankee by our computers and personnel just per chance – just in that one chance in a million – the Yankee detected us and went crazy in fright and fear and started taking action against us. One can only imagine what the Soviet crew would have done if suddenly they had become aware of the fact that an American boat was sitting nearby listening to every move that they were making and that an American boat knew exactly their location. It was a tense time.
And the Yankee slowly and with noises and creaks and clanks lumbered by us. Due to them not making any sudden moves or speed changes, it was pretty obvious that they had no idea we were there listening listening listening to every turn and move they were making as they were proceeding on their course. After several hours – from the time we initially heard them until they faded into the distance going past – we sat quietly, surreptitiously, stealthily. We were never heard or detected.
And, of course, once there was an all-clear, there was a lot of work that had to be done to notify our own people about the presence of the Yankee and we had to make sure that the Yankee didn’t turn around and stumble back upon us and several other things that we needed to take care of to clear this encounter.
In the end, we did make it back to Charleston a few days later – all safe and sound. Another patrol under our belts and completed successfully. We generally knew where our Yankee friend was headed – he was continuing his patrol up and down the coast but seemed to have never known about his close encounter with us.