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Submariner recounts puzzling mid-ocean dive

Jan 1, 2003

We were a long way from the New London, Conn., submarine base that we'd left a few days earlier. A good guess put Grouper, the diesel electric sub aboard which I was serving, about halfway between the Carolinas and our destination of Hamilton, Bermuda.

We'd been on the surface since shortly before midnight and had been charging the batteries since then. It was morning, and having already tucked our binoculars under our coats in preparation for the dive, which was only minutes away, the other lookout and I rested easy. From high up above the bridge where we were stationed, the view of the horizon fore and aft and the view of the sky above in all directions indicated we were all alone. Waiting for the signal to dive, we chatted with the Officer of the Deck (OD) when we knew he was free to talk. We engaged in the usual chitchat between ourselves and the OD, who was the third man on the bridge. Like us, he was part of the four-to-eight watch.

Radar was quiet, and sonar had nothing to report. There was the usual last minute pre-dive communications between the navigator, who was down in the conning tower, and the OD. Aside from that, we didn't see or hear anything out of the ordinary. The majority of us were looking forward to pulling into Bermuda again and to playing beer ball games which we would have at Horseshoe Bay. As with past trips south, training dives, such as we were about to engage in again, had long since become close to routine; but first, last and always, we were a U.S. Naval warship, and the skipper wanted us kept in shape and ready for action.

"Clear the bridge! Clear the bridge," the OD yelled, as he spun to get out of our way! He took one last look around then followed us below. Someone in control had sounded the diving alarm at about the same time, and, before it had finished its series of warning alarms, we had already passed through the conning tower, and were dropping down into the control room.

Then, as now, once in control, the lookouts assumed the duties of planesmen. On a rotating basis, one took the stern planesthe large aft planes which control the attitude of the boat when it is running submerged. The other man takes control of the bow planes. Typical of the World War II fleet boat design, which the mighty Grouper was, the bow planes are located well forward, just aft of the bow and above the waterline. When submerged, the bow planes are used for the most part to control depth. The actual hand controls for these planing surfaces are twin, 30-inch or so diameter, stainless steel, helm-like wheels located on the port side of the control room, just outboard of the ladder leading to the conning tower.

On hearing the diving alarm, the chief of the watch, standing just to the right of the controls for the bow planes at the ballast control panel, would reach over and push the control button to rig out the bow planes. This allowed the bow planesman (myself, in this particular instance), after landing in control, to simply slip onto the bench seat beside the stern planesman. The planesman would then take hold of the bow plane control wheel, give it a quick twist up and down to be sure the hydraulic system was operating, before centering the planes and standing by for orders from the diving control officer, who stood immediately behind both planesmen.

"Take her to periscope depth" or, just as often, "Control, make your depth six-zero feet," were the orders we were expecting to hear from the conning officer; and such orders shortly came down to us. His command was directed to the officer of the dive; and, word-for-word, the diving officer repeated this same order to the bow planesman; and, word-for-word, this would be repeated right back to the diving control officer so that there was no doubt whatsoever to him or to anyone else in the control room that the bow planesman had not only heard the order but had also understood it. This multiple repeating or the relaying of oral instructions was and remains a naval command system which is instantly recognized as one that is simple, efficient, and very effectiveit leaves no doubt.

Relatively experienced at the time as a lookout, a helmsman, and a planesman, I knew how much of a dive angle on the bow planes was needed to pitch the bow down for the forward speed we were making. I knew how to start the descent, and how long to hold that "down angle" on those planes, and about when to level off or return the bow planes to a zero angle, so we would glide neatly into the desired depth (periscope depth in this case).

We were young and cocky then, and it was a matter of pride with those of us who were planesmen to see who could do this with a minimum of control movement. Since we'd spent so much time at sea and had practiced everything so many times while there, we were quite good at itgood enough that we often boasted that, except for the new guys, any of us could do what the diving officer ordered, even standing on our heads. As I said, we were young and cocky, and now that "class was assembled," we were about to learn a lesson; Neptune himself was at the podium.

Well before we approached 60 feet, as indicated by the large shallow-depth gauge just inches from my left wrist, I'd already put some rise on the bow planes to slow the descent, when out of the proverbial blue we heard the conning officer yell, in a rather annoyed tone at that, "Come on people! Get me up! Get me up!" What? What was that guy yelling about, I wondered. He'd ordered 60 feet, and we were almost there.

As with everyone else in the control room, I didn't understand what he was talking about at first, but then I quickly spotted it. The needle on the shallow-depth gauge which the bow planesmen use to judge depth, had jerked; then, with an increasing pace, it began to arc downward. We were going down! What was going on? None of us had much time to contemplate the downward swing of the needle on the gauge. As ordered, I put full rise on the bow planes, and, at the same time, we heard the conning officer tell the helmsman to ring up speed. Something was wrong. Something unusual was going on, and although no one said anything, we all knew it.

For roughly the next two or three minutes, without a sound and in almost total disbelief, we watched the shallow-depth gauge go from about 50 feet to its maximum indication of 165 feet. It could tell us no more, as the needle had run into the stops. Worse yet, the needle on the deep-depth gauge (located right beside the shallow-depth gauge) had already begun to climb. While I concentrated on the bow planes, the diving officer reached over my shoulder and shut the inboard valve for the shallow-depth gauge. The needle on the deep-depth gauge settled at somewhere around 170 feet, and for what seemed like an eternity, it did nothing. It simply hung there for a while. One, two, three minutes went by, then it slowly began to recede, to come back down, indicating that we were on the way back up.

Again, the diving officer reached over my shoulder, this time to open the inboard valve of the shallow-depth gauge. In what was normally a busy and relatively noisy area, one could have heard the proverbial pin drop as we shifted our gaze from the deep-depth gauge back to the shallow-depth gauge. We all saw the needle on the shallow-depth gauge begin to stir from where it was pegged at its maximum depth reading, then it to began to rise, indicating that we were definitely on the way up. We came back up to 60 feet and just sat there. For the longest time no one in control said anything to anyone. By then some had already figured out what had happened. Only when I felt the diving officer's hand on my left shoulder as he quietly told us, "It wasn't your fault. You people did all right," did relief begin to set in.

Only one man saw what had happened that day, and his view couldn't have been all that great. When we were diving, as I was guiding us to the ordered 60 feet, the conning officer had started to raise the number one scope. By the time the bottom of the periscope had risen far enough out of its well in the conning tower so that the conning officer could get a look out of it, the boat was for all intents and purposes already underwater. By the time the man had put his eye to the eyepiece of the periscope, the top-most part of the number one periscope had already been engulfed by a wave, the leading edge of which had in all probability by then already passed over the sail and was probably well aft of the turtle back.

It was an almost clear day just prior to the dive, one with perhaps 10% overcast. Surface visibility was as good as it could get. With our 8 x 50 binoculars, and with our stations up on the sail of the sub, there was little between the horizon and us that our lookouts ever missed during either daylight or night watches. We may have been young, but we were darn good lookoutsand proud of it. If a wave were assembling, if it were rising and coming at us while we were on the surface, I never noticed it; the OD, and the other lookout didn't notice a wave forming either.

Where had it come from? Where was it was bound? What caused it? I don't recall ever having found out. However, based on both depth gauges in control, those routinely used to give indication of our true keel depth, we had a very good idea of the height of the wave: 100 feet, perhaps greater. The depth gauges operated by sensing water pressure. Since we had reached our depth of 60 feet, a pressure reading of 170 feet must have meant more than 100 feet of water passing over us.

Once we were back at ordered depth and sure that the crises had passed, relief began to set in and half-whispered comments were passed around, comments such as: "Do you believe that?" Good thing no one was on the bridge." From off to my right I heard, "Now you know what you get hazardous duty pay for." I recall looking over to the Chief, a man who had close to 30 years in the boats and who was close to retirement. He was well known for his wit and gift of gab, but he wasn't joking then. If Neptune had wanted to teach a few of us some respect for his power, he made a believer out of me that day.

Edward J. Barr is a retired submariner living in Pocono Pines, Pa.