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Cold War Warriors

The Silent Service during the Cold War - Part 5

Captain William Hicks, USN Ret.

Read Part 4

My first nuclear submarine command

Very shortly after commissioning and the completion of weapons and electronic testing and calibration in the Caribbean, USS Philadelphia (SSN 690) was assigned to an exercise in the Mediterranean Sea to demonstrate the superior tactical capabilities of this new class of submarine. The success of our demonstrations would have a potential impact on funding for future submarines of the class. Although we had not completed our tactical training, we were off to demonstrate our ship.

One memorable part of the exercise was to be submerged inside the Strait of Gibraltar, one of the most traveled sea-lanes in the world. We had a new sonar system and were not fully familiar with how to interpret all the displays. The traffic patterns within which we had to come to periscope depth were very challenging and even more so when we were not sure how to interpret some of the sonar displays. For the exercise demonstration, we were to detect aggressor submarines entering the Med.

As chance would have it, the Soviets were deploying a submarine to the Med at the same time and suddenly, it was no longer an exercise. We had cueing that indicated the sub transit was in progress and we were to detect and report its progress. One of the new capabilities on Philadelphia was the ability to transmit the tactical data picture that we had to other units. Although not proficient, we understood how the equipment worked. So, when we did detect a contact we thought was the Soviet sub, we made a tactical data transmission to the ASW center in Rota Spain who forwarded our data to ASW aircraft in the area. It was the first time I had ever seen that capability demonstrated on a submarine. They picked up the responsibility for the contact and we returned to the exercise. When I look back on the events and consider how new we all were to the capabilities of the ship and how little tactical training and experience we had, I remain amazed that we pulled it off.

Equally amazing was operating the ship to and from periscope depth within that area of high traffic density. It was similar to my experience on the Dace in the straights of Sicily several years before although most of the crew did not even have that experience to help build their confidence that we were safely coming to periscope depth.

After the exercise we returned to our homeport of New London. In addition to the ongoing challenges for the XO in new construction, I had completed my qualification for command by the Submarine Force Commander. Thus I was eligible to be assigned as Commanding Officer on another submarine. When we returned to New London, I received orders as Commanding Officer of USS William H. Bates, SSN 680.

I was transferred from Philadelphia in November 1977 after more than three years in what is supposed to be a two-year tour. In this case the extended tour was due to the many delays in construction completion. One of the questions raised during my command qualification interviews was whether I had enough experience to be assigned as commanding officer of an operational nuclear attack submarine. After all, my time on Sunfish and Philadelphia was all in the shipyard as was part of my time on Dace. My first tour on Sargo was only 13 months. My answer to the question was that I had more shipboard experience than many of my contemporaries and if in their judgment I lacked adequate experience at sea, I requested that I be immediately transferred to an operational ship. The question was dropped and I continued to serve as the XO of Philadelphia.

At the time, I never gave serious thought to whether I had adequate experience to be successful in command. In fact, that was the story of my career in that I found each new assignment a challenge for which my previous experience had not fully prepared me. That was one of the most satisfying aspects of my navy career; every assignment was a challenging experience which pushed the envelope of what I knew and my past experience. No boring assignments. In retrospect, it would have been nice to have more operational experience, but I had adequate training and the backing of a trained crew and I was confident we would do fine. In fact it did work out fine, but I am sure there were missed opportunities due to my lack of experience with some of the operational situations in which we found ourselves. However, that is another story. For now, command here I come.

First command - USS William H. Bates, SSN 680

USS William H. Bates, SSN 680

USS William H. Bates, SSN 680 was a member of the USS Sturgeon, SSN 637 Class. The last eight submarines of the 637 Class had an 8-foot hull extension and were known as the "637 long hulls". The extra length allowed space for extra bunks, a separate space for the Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) equipment and an extension of the Torpedo Room.

Bates and Sunfish were both similar, being of the same basic design with exception of the extended hull. Bates was initially to be named USS Redfish until representative Bates of Massachusetts died. He had been a great friend of nuclear power and nuclear submarines so Admiral Rickover arranged for the name change.

Bates was built at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi and commissioned on 5 May 1973. Bates had the most advanced sonar, fire control, and other electronics. Bates carried the latest anti-ship and anti-submarine torpedoes as well as the submarine launched cruise missiles. Bates was also certified to carry nuclear weapons. Bates had the S5W reactor and propulsion plant which had become the standard for all nuclear submarines after the Skate class. All submarines except four from the SSN 585 class, commissioned in 1959 through the SSN 687 class, commissioned in 1975 including 41 SSBN strategic missile submarines had the S5W nuclear propulsion plants. (The S in S5W was for ‘Submarine’, the 5 was because it was a fifth generation reactor, and the W was for its manufacture - Westinghouse - hence S5W.)

During that 16-year period a lot of progress was made in sound quieting the propulsion plant and improving the reliability of the systems, but the basic reactor and propulsion plant designs were the same. Thus, because of my knowledge of Sunfish and Dace, I had a good knowledge of the reactor and propulsion plant on Bates and also, some of the electronic systems although there were significant differences.

Prospective Commanding Officer Training

But, not so fast. Before I could become the commanding officer of a nuclear submarine, I had to attend two- three-month prospective commanding officer (PCO) courses. One, was conducted by Naval Reactors to verify my detailed understanding of the nuclear, reactor plant and the other by COMSUBPAC (Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet) for a refresher on tactics and administrative matters. The first was held in Washington D.C. starting in January and the second in Pearl Harbor in the spring.

The courses were different not only in their climactic conditions, but also in the nature of the educational challenge and learning experience. The course at Naval Reactors was very technical, very detailed, and demanding. Every course element had a challenging examination. It was really up to the students to prove they were competent to be commanding officers of a submarine with a nuclear reactor. The course for each student was tailored to the specific reactor plant in the ship to which they had orders. Not only was the course technically challenging, the "what if" situational questions challenged the student to make decisions when there were no pat, by-the-book answers. The purpose was to prepare the commanding officer to make the technically correct and safe decisions when at sea with no time or ability to discuss the situation with experts off the ship. Ship safety was paramount and reactor safety ran a close second.

As with all naval reactors training, every day was recognized to have 24 hours and each week 7 days and the students were expected to use as many of them as necessary to be successful. Failure was possible, but most who enrolled completed the course, some with a couple weeks of remediation study. During the three months, we only met with Admiral Rickover once near the end of the course. In fact, it was the day after the end of the class dinner at which we had a really good time.

I for one was not feeling in top form when we were told that we would meet with the Admiral. He had some strong advice and admonition for us and then asked for questions. One of my more forward classmates asked the Admiral that since our entire career had been in his program how did he explain his admonition that we were not very good? Had his program failed to properly prepare us for the rigors of his program? We held our collective breaths for some outburst but to our amazement, the Admiral paused for a minute and then calmly explained that our deficiencies were the results of inadequate genes and that he had done the best he could with the inadequate material provided by our parents. No more questions and we were done for the day!! I passed and proceeded to the type commander’s PCO training.

COMSUBPAC Prospective Commanding Officer Training

The COMSUBPAC Prospective Commanding Officer (PCO) course was held in San Diego and Pearl Harbor with a period at sea. The basic assumption was that the students were qualified to be commanding officers and the focus of the training was to hone the tactical and ship-handling skills and to review administrative expectations and rules of engagement. Many hours were spent in the attack trainers where our attack skills, both with a periscope and with sonar-only, could be practiced and improved. Classroom instruction focused on force policies and operational subjects such as weapons capability and management, intelligence sources and uses, and personnel management.

One week was spent at sea on an attack submarine practicing in a controlled environment many of the activities that we would be expected to confront as commanding officers. These exercises were conducted in close proximity with other submarines and surface ships so there was some risk of unfortunate interactions occurring. During this period- the PCO students were expected to perform the role of the commanding officer which proved challenging for the students, the crew, and most of all the actual commanding officer who was ultimately responsible for the ship. All went well, we completed the at-sea phase without incident and left the ship for a week-end in Lahaina, Maui.

Life of a Navy Wife

While I was in PCO school, my wife Mary and the two boys were still in New London. The winter of 1977-78 had one of the largest snowstorms in memory that my wife had to suffer through. She also had the task of selling our house. During it all, both boys had chicken pox. She managed like the true partner and trooper that she is. This experience was another demonstration of the competence of the one I married and the important role she played in making it possible for me to have a successful career.

Once I got back to New London from Hawaii, it was time to pack up and move to San Diego where Bates was to be based. Bates was originally in New London, but in the spring of 1978 she changed homeport to San Diego. Thus, when I reported - both the ship and crew… and their new captain were all new to the San Diego area. The Navy did its usual, efficient job of getting our things moved to San Diego.

During a leave period, Mary and I had taken a week to house hunt in San Diego and we bought a house so we had an address to which our household goods could be shipped. Our next challenge was getting us to San Diego. We had two cars, two boys, and lots of suitcases. The solution was to tow one car with the other and head west. We stopped for a couple days at my home in Pennsylvania after a day on the road. Leaving the farm, we headed for Wisconsin to visit with Mary’s parents, which was a two- day trip.

By the time we got to Wisconsin, it was clear that our two-year-old son was not a happy traveler and when he was not happy none of the rest of us was happy either. So after weighing the options, we decided that I would proceed to drive the rest of the way alone and Mary and the boys would fly. We all arrived in San Diego, our household goods arrived, and we moved into our new house and prepared for the change of command, which occurred in August 1978. 2181 Words

Deployment to Western Pacific

When I reported to Bates, I was told we were to deploy to the Western Pacific for six months in September. No crewmember, except me years ago in USS Sargo, had ever operated in the Pacific, so it was going to be a challenge for all of us. The crew did have a significant amount of operational experience including special operations in the Atlantic, so there was a core competency in the types of operations we would be expected to accomplish. Our challenge was to get ready to deploy.

The ship had a number of material challenges including a contaminated hydraulic system as well as operational challenges in learning the COMSUBPAC processes and protocols for operations. Prior to deploying, a ship must be certified as operational ready to deploy by the parent squadron. That includes attack teacher sessions as well as an at-sea operational period during which many capabilities such as weapons employment, surveillance techniques, sonar search and attack or track, minefield avoidance and others are demonstrated. The skills and teamwork of the Bates crew came through and we were certified to deploy on schedule.

Our first task was a two-month special operation to monitor the Soviet submarine force in an area in which none of the crew was familiar but where I had been on Sargo on our last deployment. During the preparations for deployment on special operations it became apparent that the attitude towards the Soviets had mellowed since my last deployment on Sargo. During the preparations on Sargo, I, as weapons officer- was required to spend a day of training with the explosives demolition organization to learn to handle explosives and how to set and fuse the scuttling charges that we carried aboard during the special operations. In addition the whole Sargo Crew was required to attend one-day Prisoner of War indoctrination in a mockup of a North Korean POW camp focusing primarily on the experiences of the POWs in Korea. During the preparations for Bates to deploy, neither POW resistance nor scuttling charges were ever mentioned.

The operation was busy, but little of great significance was noted. Routine operations were observed. Some high interest testing was aborted by the Soviets due to a technical problem and some lesser interest operations were observed and recorded. All in all, a successful but not spectacular special operation. Following the operation we proceeded to Guam for a maintenance period. We arrived about Thanksgiving having been at sea and submerged for sixty-five days. Our upkeep in Guam was successful in that all necessary repairs were completed and the crew got a break as much as is possible on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

For most of us, Guam was just a four-letter word and we were happy to head for Subic Bay in the Philippines to spend Christmas. Following Christmas in Subic Bay, we were scheduled to make a short transit to Hong Kong for our first real liberty stop. Several wives including Mary were coming to meet us in Hong Kong. With the wives in the air and Bates underway to Hong Kong, we were looking over for a wonderful reunion and memorable, New Year’s celebration when a message was received to return to Subic Bay. We were to load out and await further tasking. What a bummer! But, not out of character for a submarine deployment. Although this was particularly disappointing since the wives were already in the air when the change was received. When we got to Subic Bay, it was explained that due to the impending fall of the Shah of Iran, it was desired to get a carrier and submarine escort into the Indian Ocean.

The submarine could not transit the Malacca Strait submerged so we had to take the long route south through the Lombak Strait into the Indian Ocean to meet the carrier as it entered the Indian Ocean. The transit from Subic Bay to Lombak was another challenge since we had to remain submerged as we transited the inland seas of the Philippines including the Sulu Sea, the Celebes Sea and the Makassar Strait to get to the Lombok Strait. It was a route used by submarines in WW II, when transiting from Australia to the Japanese waters. It had been little used by submarines since. Much of the transit was in shallow water close to land.

During the transit we entered the Southern Hemisphere with a full crew of Pollywogs who required initiation into the realm of Neptunus Rex by his Royal Court. The only problem was finding shellbacks in the crew to perform the initiation. We did find enough for the initiation to proceed. Lombak Strait is an opening between two Indonesian islands that separate the Pacific Ocean from the Indian Ocean. There is a significant water transfer between the two oceans that create a strong current in the strait. We transited at 400 feet and experienced significant turbulence and some difficulty remaining on course and on depth. Just one more unexpected period of excitement.

Once we entered the Indian Ocean, we turned north and west to parallel the coast of Java and proceed to the west end of the Malacca Strait. The ocean was hot and there was almost no traffic. The only electronic signals we intercepted were from the BOAC flights to Australia. We normally stayed below 400 feet since the water was cooler. Near the surface, the ocean was so hot that it increased the temperature inside the submarine beyond what the air conditioning could handle. As we proceeded towards the west entrance of the Malacca Strait we were warned that a Soviet cruiser was monitoring traffic going through the strait. As predicted- he was there. For a point of reference to a more current event, we were in the vicinity of Banda Aceh, which was destroyed by a Tsunami in January 2005. We observed the Soviet cruiser for a couple of days and determined he was simply on station watching.

We cleared his area and ran some drills. On a nuclear submarine when operations permit…. you run drills. We knew there was an Operational Reactor Safeguards Examination scheduled during our return transit to San Diego, so we took every opportunity to improve our ability to respond to casualties and hone our skills at reactor and ship operations.

After about six weeks, we were instructed to return to the vicinity of Lombak where we would hand off the boring, Indian Ocean patrol to another submarine and return to Subic Bay for a rest and maintenance period.

Read part 6

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