Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas 1965 in the Holy Loch

sub at Philla shipyard #1  USS Tigrone in Phila. Navy Yard


I was transferred from the USS Tigrone (AGSS 419), a relic of World War II,  which was finishing up a shipyard overhaul and conversion in Philadelphia to the USS John Marshall (SSBN 611), a fleet ballistic missile submarine operating out of the Holy Loch in Scotland sometime in October of 1965.

I greeted this event with a great deal of anticipation and excitement because my family on my father’s side came from Scotland. Fleet Ballistic submarines, or FBM’s, have two crews. While one crew is aboard the sub, the other crew is stateside getting some R&R (rest and rehabilitation), advanced training, and preparing for their return to the ship. I reported aboard the Marshall towards the end of the off-ship cycle.

Our patrol cycle that year coincided with being in-port on Christmas Day. The ship’s command had arranged to host the boys from the Dunoon orphanage for Christmas dinner. I was selected to go with some others on a tug to Hunter’s Quay to pick up our guests. I do not remember how many lads joined us that day — I’d guess somewhere around 18 — but I do remember how polite and well-behaved they were. All were between the ages of 6 and 12. Each was dressed the same way with navy blue blazers, white shirt, and navy blue shorts.

Bill in the Holy Loch 651225

Yours truly on Christmas Day, 1965

Once aboard the sub, the boys were divided into groups. A sailor was assigned to each group and they were given a tour of the ship, treated to looking through the periscopes, and given a good time.

Dinner was a real treat for them. I do not recall all that was on the menu that day. In fact, I only recall one item: corn. Corn — we take it for granted. These boys had never eaten it. They knew it by its British name of maize, but they hadn’t ever had any. I remember one boy grabbing the bowl of corn nearest him and dumping the greater part of its contents on his plate. He was hooked, as were the others.

Although orphans, the boys looked and behaved like gentlemen. I felt privileged to associate with them and to see them enjoy their Christmas Day aboard the USS John Marshall in 1965.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

An International Incident

It was a lazy Saturday in the summer of 1965. I was a seaman apprentice torpedoman striker assigned to the vintage World War II submarine, Tigrone (SS 419). We had recently entered the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for overhaul and modification. I had the duty that day and was probably a mess cook — the Navy’s name for KP duty.

The captain had allowed the ship to have long weekends, with liberty going down Friday after lunch. Although the yard worked Fridays, they did not do much on either Saturday or Sunday. If the yard didn’t work and most of the crew was gone for the weekend, those that had the duty didn’t do much either.

On this particular Saturday the sun was shining and there were few clouds in the sky. Somewhere I had found a box of weather balloons, a remnant from the war. Why they were still on the boat, I do not know. Also discovered was a case of green dye for use by survivors in a life raft to color the water about them so that patrolling aircraft would find them easier to spot.

I had recruited a friend and shipmate who was just as unoccupied and bored as I was to scavenge through the piles of stuff we had removed from the sub prior to her going into dry dock. We decided to see if the green dye was still good after all those years and dumped a number of packets into the water. Neither one of us realized how much area an individual packet could cover. We had dumped many. It was not long before the Delaware River was grotesquely green. We also did not realize the stir it would cause when the US Coast Guard saw it. Green-dyed water, to them, was tantamount to firing red flares into the sky: it meant somebody was in distress. Oops. Big oops. They traced the stain back to its origin and the next thing I know I was face-to-face with the Command Duty Officer.

While all that hysteria was unfolding, my friend and I had unfolded one of the weather balloons. We were amazed at how large it was. My memory, faded over the course of forty-five years, tells me it was at least twelve feet tall. “What can we do with this?” we wondered aloud. A number of ideas popped into our heads, some of which were rejected out-of-hand as being too hair-brained or as leading to more trouble.

What we ended up doing was getting a marking pen and writing in large letters across the widest part, “U.S.S. TIGRONE (SS 419).” In smaller letters near the bottom we told the finder what to do with it. I don’t remember exactly what we said, but I know we had the discretion to not say anything vulgar or indecent. It was smart-alecky, though.

We then set out on a search for an unattended and unlocked helium flask. That we found without much trouble and brought that back to the barge on which we were working. We filled the balloon, tied it off with the line so generously supplied by the manufacturer, and released it into the atmosphere. We watched it rise into the sky and slowly head towards the Atlantic coast. It soon disappeared from view and from our memories.

Months passed. In mid-winter I was summoned to the Captain’s stateroom. The Captain did not look happy and I knew I was in trouble. I did not know why I was in trouble, but I was about to find out.

“Do you know anything about a weather balloon?”


“Do you know anything about a weather balloon with ‘U.S.S. Tigrone’ written on it?”

All of a sudden the events of the previous summer came rushing to mind and I paled. “Yes sir,” I said.

“Did you have anything to do with it?” Why was he asking me these questions for which he obviously had the answers? I again replied in the affirmative.

The Captain then began to relate what had happened since I had launched the balloon. The balloon had floated out to sea and bobbed along wherever the winds would take it, finally arriving over Nova Scotia, Canada. There, interrupting the serenity of an elderly Nova Scotian woman, the balloon made its descent into her yard. As you can imagine, our octogenarian recipient did not know what to think. Was it friend or foe? Was it from outer space? Was it a bomb? The poor thing was beside herself.

Somehow, the Canadian government got involved. After all, “U.S.S. Tigrone” was emblazoned on it. So a search was made by our neighbor to the North for the USS Tigrone. That involved engaging our State Department. It involved calling in the Pentagon. All the twits in Washington, D.C. were now concerned about an errant weather balloon bearing the name of an obsolescent submarine. And at the very core of the imbroglio was yours truly. I, at the lowest echelon of naval service, had caused an international incident while at the same time giving credence to the old adage: “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Messing With a Midshipman — The Finale

The best part of a Polaris Patrol, in my opinion, was the day you left the ship and returned to CONUS  — continental United States.

There was much work to be done in the few days allotted between returning to port and our departure for the States. Officers, chief petty officers, and leading petty officers had to prepare their divisions for turning over of duties to the opposite crew. No one had time to laze around. From the lowest to the highest, it was work, work, work until that final day when we would put our dress blues on and have a quick change-of-command ceremony and depart for home.

That day finally came. Our short-timer calendars were filled in. The patrol was over. Reports had been prepared and submitted. Equipment had been inventoried and signed for by the relieving crew. Work requests had been prepared and reviewed and sent the submarine tender. Now all that was necessary was for the on-coming captain to say to our captain , “I relieve you.”

Our crew was dressed to the nines. We were going home. Soon the tug would come along side the tender and we would board for the trip down the lock and across the Clyde to the lovely little city of Gourock where we would board busses that would soon deposit us at the Prestwick Air Force Base for our return flight home.

Our two midshipmen would fly back with us. By this time a camaraderie had developed between them and the crew. But that did not stop the hijinks.  Most of the crew would be required to attend the change of command ceremony. Officers (which would include our midshipmen) and chiefs were in the front rows. Behind them would be us grunts, grouped by division.

For my last assault on midshipman #2 I would need some help. I had to get his hat. That meant he would have to be distracted long enough to leave it unattended so I could do my dirty work. Finding partners-in-crime was not hard. The trick would be to get the hat close enough to the change of command ceremony for him not to notice anything amiss.

Finding my opportunity, I grabbed the middy’s hat and unscrewed his fouled anchor from its backing and turned the anchor upside down. Then I put it back.

Standing proudly at attention in the first row was my target. He was unaware of the alteration, but the change did not pass unnoticed by others, including the captain. You could tell because grins would start to form on the faces of those who had spotted the insignia.

I was sure someone would spill the beans, but not a word was said. No one said anything at the change of command ceremony. No one said anything as we processed through the airport. No one said anything until we formed in ranks once again at the submarine base for our final muster before being dismissed to go our several ways. Only after the crew was dismissed was the midshipman made aware of what I had done.

I do not know what became of this young man.  I wonder if he ever dared brave embarking on another submarine. Perhaps he went on to become a career officer. I hope he did well in whatever course he took. Perhaps he’ll show up at a ship’s reunion where we can reminisce about our time together aboard the USS Robert E. Lee. I’d like that.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Messing With a Midshipman, Part III

Several weeks into our patrol, Midshipman #2 came up to me and says, “The Captain says you are to teach me this stuff,” and with that hands me his syllabus, opened to torpedo-related ordinance.

During the next week I saw this middy a lot. Our friendship began to cement as I learned what he had to go through during his time aboard. I learned that he was an intelligent young man and a fast learner. He asked good questions and listened well.

I rehearsed with him the information he needed to know about the torpedoes we carried, the torpedo tubes, torpedo fire control, the handling gear, and whatever else was on his list.

One of the items he was to be knowledgeable about was the pyrotechnic devices we carried. I took him into the Hanging Gardens and showed him how to load and fire the pyrotechnics we had in the Torpedo Room. This particular gun was manually operated, with the pyrotechnic being pushed out with a hand-operated ram.

Several days later I took him back to the Engine Room to go over the pyrotechnic launcher installed there. The Torpedo Division had several responsibilities in the Engine Room. We “owned” and were responsible for the after escape trunk and its associated equipment, the pyrotechnics locker and its contents, and the signal gun with its associated operating gear.

As long as I had been on the Robert E. Lee the Grove Air Reducer supplying the after signal gun had been inoperable. To pressurize the signal gun we would have to hammer on the bypass valve, which opened with great difficulty and reluctance. The one thing we did not want to do was to overpressurize the system and blow things apart. I explained all this to my friend.

The Captain had already agreed to my demonstrating the workings of the gun to the midshipman so I just needed to inform the nukes standing watch in the Maneuvering Room what I would be doing and get their concurring permission. The Maneuvering Room was where the reactor and turbines were controlled. The Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW), the Reactor Operator, and at least one other man, an electrician (if my memory is correct) were always there. My signal gun was on the other side of the aft bulkhead of their little room.

I reviewed once again with the midshipman the pyrotechnics we carried back there. I reminded him that we used the smokes during daylight hours and the flares at night. We again went over the colors and purpose of each: I told him we carried red flares and red smokes, yellow flares and yellow smokes, green flares and green smokes, black flares and black smokes. He dutifully wrote all this down.

Next, I had him stand next to me as I lined up the air system to fire the signal gun. I pointed out the relief valve on the other side of the compartment, told him it did not work, and had him observe me and the pressure gage as I opened the bypass valve. The bypass valve, always a bear to open, would not give. I hammered it with the heal of my hand. Nothing. I got a wrench and tried to tap it open. Nothing. Finally, despairing of any other solution, I told him to step back and I would hit the valve handle as hard as I could. And that is what I did.




Three times, in rapid succession, the relief valve, located on the Maneuvering Room bulkhead, lifted. Dust, turned into near-microscopic particles was everywhere, clouding the air. I turned around. The Middy was nowhere to be seen. He high-tailed it to who knows where. I looked in the Maneuvering Room, which was suddenly quiet. No one was there. I think they went to change their clothes.

I did not see the midshipman at all the rest of that day. I did not see him the next day. I did not see him until Friday when I passed the wardroom as he was being grilled by the Captain. I happened to be there at just the moment the Captain said, “Black flares? Tell me about them.” It was my turn to disappear.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Messing With a Midshipman, Part II


Note: This blog post will make a little bit more sense if you read Part I ( ) first.

It did not take me long to seize an opportunity to harass middy #2. He had the lowest of three bunks directly next to the 12” square hatch above my head at my watch station. His bunk consisted of what amounted to an aluminum box with a lid. The box was compartmentalized to accommodate his belongings. The lid held his mattress, which was contained in a Naugahyde  cover.

To put my first attack into action, I only needed to wait until we were underway. To act to soon would allow him to counter my activity and make it of no effect. I would just bide my time for the next two weeks.

The day soon came when we cast off our lines and headed down the Firth of Clyde. As we sailed past the Isle of Arran on our starboard side and Ailsa Craig on our port side the crew would secure from the maneuvering watch and rig ship for dive. Life would become pretty much predictable and routine for the next seventy days or so.

After leaving the Clyde the Lee turned west and headed toward Ireland and then northwest and west into the open sea and our patrol area. 

While life was predictable and routine it did not have to be boring. On this patrol I would do my part to make life interesting and exciting.

Middy #2 settled down into his routine, just like the rest of us. For him, this was a training cruise, not a holiday. He had a syllabus to follow and it would keep him plenty busy. I did not yet know it, but I would play a part in his required training. That story will have to wait until the next episode.

The crew, both officer and enlisted, are assigned duty stations for the various situations that normally occur on a submarine prior to leaving port.  Watch stations were manned by persons formally qualified to stand them. If there were enough qualified watchstanders for a particular station three men would rotate on watch, six hours on and twelve hours off. If only two men were qualified it was usually twelve hours on and twelve ours off. Non-qualified personnel were assigned to a watch station as “under instruction” until they could pass the oral on-site examination. Midshipman fell into the later category and were assigned to various positions throughout their time on board.

Underway I stood all of my watches in the Torpedo Room. Every hour there were readings to record: pressures, temperatures, valve positions, switch positions, etc. Occasionally there were other duties to perform: torpedo and torpedo tube maintenance, field day (for the uninitiated, it is anything but), bleeding oxygen into the ship, and helping non-qualified sailors with their qualifications. Most of the time, there was little to do but remain alert and ready for emergencies. That gave me a lot of time to think about things that could get me into trouble.

I soon hatched a plan to get at middy #2: I would steal his tennis shoes, which were the shoe of choice on patrol, and paint one red and the other green. The left would be red, the right would be green. Just like the ship’s running lights. The next time Mr. Midshipman was sleeping in his bunk while I was on watch would be soon enough. I did the deed while he slept, and replaced his shoes by his bunk. I did it all without leaving my watch station, thanks to that little 12” X 12” hatch. The score was 1:0

The next time I saw the midshipman he was wearing his dress black shoes. I enquired of him why he had switched. He said someone had painted his shoes and he wasn’t going to wear them and have the crew make fun of him. The score was now 1:1.

I knew what I had to do. I now had to steal his dress shoes. He, knowing the same thing, was not going to allow that to happen. When he went to bed, his shoes were inside his bunk instead of on the deck next to it. I said nothing, did nothing. I knew that it was just a matter of time until he would forget. About two weeks later he lapsed and his shoes disappeared. The score now was 2:1.

Middy #2 next appeared in dress black shoes. He had two pair. The score: 2:2.

Again, I would have to wait. This time much longer. No way was he going to lose this pair. But time, lack of sleep, overwork, and exhaustion do take their toll and there was another lapse. I stole his second pair of shoes. The score: 3:2.

I didn’t see my friend for several days. When I did he was wearing his port and starboard tennis shoes. I laughed out loud and asked him what was going on with his shoes. He repeated to me the story (which I already knew) and expressed how hard it was for him to have to put them on and wear them publicly. But the hardest thing, he told me, was having to eat in the wardroom with the Captain. I asked what the Captain’s reaction was. He told me the Captain thought it was hilarious. The score: 4:2.

Well, Mr. Midshipman got used to his shoes and after awhile the crew stopped needling him about them. He wore them the rest of the patrol. Returning to port, however, did not end his agony.

As we made preparations to return to port I decided I would retrieve his shoes from their hiding places. The only thing was, I could not remember what I did  with them. I was frantic. Where were they? I still don’t know. All I know is when we pulled alongside the tender, he did not have his dress shoes. I also knew he would need them for the change-of-command ceremony and our return to the States. I suspect someone else found his shoes or, knowing where I had hidden them, got them and sent them to Davey Jones’s locker.

Fortunately, the tender had a small stores (Navy lingo for an official store that sells uniform items) but my middy friend would have to wear his modified tennis shoes over there to buy a replacement for the ones that were lost.

It was not my intention to lose his shoes or to have him lose financially by having to buy another pair. Sometimes we lose control of a situation and it backfires on us. Fortunately, my friend mellowed as the patrol went on and we were both able to have a good laugh at the end — the end of the patrol, not my pranks.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Messing With a Midshipman, Part I

Summer patrols on a “boomer,” or Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine, often meant we would carry midshipmen with us. On one such patrol late in the 1960’s my ship was burdened with carrying two of them. One of them has faded from my memory, but the other stands out as real today as he was then.

I was a second class Torpedoman’s Mate standing topside watch on the USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN 601) operating out of the Holy Loch in Scotland. We were tied up alongside a submarine tender, the identity of which escapes me. In order to board the Lee, one had to first board the submarine tender and then navigate to where we were.

The topside watch’s responsibility was to keep an eye on things on the exterior of the ship as well as to make sure all people boarding the sub had business doing so. Because the submarine was so large, we usually had two topside watches.

On this particular watch I was standing by the brow (what landlubbers would call a gang plank) when two midshipmen crossed over from the tender to us. It is Navy custom to turn and salute the flag as one crosses the edge of the ship and then to turn and salute the watch, requesting permission to come aboard. This the first midshipman did.

The second midshipman did no such thing. He barged aboard, dropped his sea bag, and handed me his orders. I said to him, “You did not render honors to the flag and you did not salute the watch. Don’t you know what you’re supposed to do when boarding a Naval ship?” His response was quick and short: “I don’t have to. My father is the commanding general at — and here he named an Army base in Europe — and he’s senior to you and everybody else on this ship.”

For some reason, I took an immediate dislike to him. Our paths would become intertwined over the next several weeks as we sailed silently under the ocean and in those weeks the antagonism would build along with a certain degree of mutual respect and friendship.

The Ethan Allen class submarines, to which the Robert E. Lee belonged, had large torpedo rooms. At the aft end of the room was a small compartment which made a second level, called the hanging gardens and in which first class petty officers had their berthing. Access to it was a vertical ladder mounted on the bulkhead, or wall. In the floor of the hanging gardens was a 12” X 12” hatch. It was directly next to this hatch that midshipman #2 was to sleep.

I was determined to bring midshipman #2 down a peg or two but in the Navy’s pecking order, midshipman ranked above Warrant Officer (W-1) and are accorded all courtesies given to commissioned officers. That limited what I, an enlisted man, could do. Fortunately for me, midshipmen were not held in high regard by officers or enlisted so I knew I would have some lee-way in harassing our guest. I would just have to bide my time for the right opportunities.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Original Hippie?

Last November I wrote "Earliest Memories," in which I mentioned my first haircut. I came across a pre-haircut picture and thought I'd share it with you. Yep! That's me. Now you know why I needed a haircut. In those days my hair was platinum blond. As I grew older I became a brunet, then shortly before turning grey my hair became black. Now I am back to the platinum blond — or is that white?