The world of Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear subs

Guest Columnist

The US Navy recently celebrated the 4,000th strategic deterrent submarine patrol with dual ceremonies at submarine bases in Kings Bay, GA and Bangor, WA.  The dual-coast celebration of the 4,000th Patrol honors the Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, ship maintainers, shore support services, sub designers, sub builders, and technical organizations that worked together over the past five decades to reach this milestone.

SSBN submarines carry ballistic missiles and are the sea-based leg of the nuclear triad (other legs are the bombers and silos) that provides nuclear deterrence for the United States.  Each deterrent Patrol is approximately 3 months in length so the 4,000 Patrols represent about 12,000 months at sea or the equivalent of 1,000 years of strategic deterrence.

The US Navy has been operating SSBN submarines for strategic deterrence since 1960.  The first ballistic missile submarine was the USS George Washington and she started her first deterrent Patrol on November 15, 1960.  The George Washington was the first of the “41 for Freedom” – the US Navy’s first 41 ballistic missile submarines.  Today the mission is carried out by the 14 Ohio class ballistic missile submarines.

The milestone is a personal one for me as I spent time in the submarine force and completed six Patrols onboard the USS Ulysses S Grant (SSBN-631).  The submarine was stationed in Holy Loch, Scotland and all told I  have spent about a year and a half of my life underwater.  People ask me what it is like to be on a submarine.  The best answer I have was given to me by a midshipman who rode us for the summer.  I asked him how it was going and he responded that being on a submarine was like “being in prison with 150 bad comedians”!  A few weeks later when I asked if it was getting any better, he told me he was getting worried as “the jokes were starting to get funny”!

Each of my Patrols lasted anywhere from 70-80 days out at sea depending on the schedule. We would leave Holy Loch, Scotland and head out to the North Atlantic.  Once we reached the dive point we would submerge and begin the Patrol.  The mission was to remain undetected while in a state of constant communication, ready to carry out our mission.  We summed the mission up with the phrase “Hide with Pride”.  We essentially found a quiet part of the ocean and hid from everyone.  We were extremely good at this.

Days onboard at ballistic missile submarine quickly fall into a routine.  Typically you were in a 1 in 3 watch section which meant standing one six-hour watch and then being off for the next twelve hours.  In that twelve hours you did everything else – training, meals, sleep, and the ever present paperwork.  Then it was back on watch to start the 18 hour cycle all over again.  Several months of 18-hour days with a constantly rotating watch schedule really messes with your circadian rhythm.  Often it would take a week or so when I returned to land to get my body back into the routine of a 24-hour day/night cycle.

Once submerged we were cut off from the world.  We received incoming communications but did not transmit outgoing communications for fear of being detected.  In six Patrols I don’t remember once ever transmitting out.  This was before the days of email so while on Patrol we were allowed a limited number of messages (called “Familygrams”) that our friends/family could send to us while out at sea.  Each familygram was limited to 40 words each and you only had eight for each Patrol.  Getting a Familygram was always a good day!  Guys would save all of their Familygrams to read over and over while waiting for the next one.  The messages were all sent in the clear which meant that all of the submarines out at sea were reading each other’s familygrams.  Occasionally the radiomen would print out an especially good familygram to share with the crew – I remember one familygram from a wife to her husband that demonstrated her impressive command of the English language to convey to her husband in EXACTLY 40 words how much she missed him and what they would do upon his return!

The only entertainment while out at sea were the collection of movies that the submarine carried.  Each time back in port we could get a new shipment of movies which made the first couple of weeks on Patrol interesting as you tried to watch a movie that you had not seen before.  These were quickly exhausted which meant a return to the same old movies that you had seen multiple times.  Cut off as you were from the rest of the world, you developed gaps in your knowledge of current events.  Depending on the timing of the Patrol you could easily miss the majority of a sports season.  And forget about staying current with pop culture…I once spent an entire evening out with friends in a dance club where I failed to recognize a single song.

I am pleased that the Navy recognized the milestone of the 4,000th Patrol.  A lot of people worked extremely hard to make the first one happen and the effort required to continue successfully for over five decades is phenomenal.  Given the continued need for strategic nuclear deterrence means that these Patrols will continue to happen.

Sean O’Connor is an Engineer Graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He is a Nuclear Trained Submarine Officer.

He lives in West Palm Beach, Florida


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2 Responses for “The world of Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear subs”

  1. Melvin E. Holliday says:

    I visited several other websites that didn’t tell the whole story about 4,000 patrols so I wrote my own narrative of patrols only mine were in port and getting ready to patrol. I know a few of my shipmates that might enjoy what I have to say and few will be offended so here is my take:
    Why am I not surprised that the Polaris A1, A2, A3 have all been erased from history for the Poisidon or whatever class missile is now present on the Ohio class. The 41 boats which were G Washington class, Thomas Jefferson Class and several more up to the Ben Franklin and beyond that I can’t even remember anymore. The Ohio class submarine is the Baby’s of the SSBN fleet and those of us that served on the G Washington and beyond are the Papa’s, Mama’s and Aunt’s and Uncles. I hate to see that our service has been negated by those brave sailors now carrying the torch and making those awful, long, boring Patrols. I wouldn’t trade my memories for anything although I and my ship mates have apparently now been forgotten. My stories are no longer significant as one of the old boomers because we have been outdated by the new fleet of sailors that don’t have a clue about what our pre, post and patrols were all about. We made the FBM fleet what it is today but have now just became another forgotten memory. . Thanks to the loser author that wrote this article. May I suggest that the next time he wants to write an article about Boomers that he get some help from some of us old salts that lived and breathed history. We should not be forgotten for our efforts because they were just as nobel as those that are serving on the new class of Submarines. I wouldn’t trade my memories or experience with any of them but I certainly would like to make one last patrol in the caviar fleet after serving 15 years in the horse cock fleet just to see how the digital navy lives.

    Ask some of these nuclear sailors if they remember Holy Loch Scotland or Dunoon and Greenoch. The Argyle Hotel or the Crown not to miss the Enlistmen’s club or the Chief’s club next door. Ask them if they remember Jimmy the Bar Tender or Rose and Sadie the channel swimmer or Tattoo Terry and all the famous names and places that started what they are now living. I first saw Scotland, Christmas of 1962 and I remember all those things. Those are all things of days gone by and will never return or even be realized in the minds of the sailors that missed one of the best times in the lives of the Nuclear FBM force. Just like drinking your dolphins and getting them pinned on or sleeping on the floor or a bench at the end of the pier because you missed the last liberty boat to the Hunley. I doubt that they even remember or understand the all hands working parties that sometimes lasted two days to take on stores for a patrol. I understand they now load the boats with a crane and lower the stores into the boat through a special hatch or is that just a story to make us old salts jealous. I remember standing those terrible topside watches in the cold and the rain that encouraged you to get your butt qualified as soon as possible so you could qualify below decks and stand watches where it was warm and dry and there was that free hot cup of coffee to keep you snug until your watch was over. How about loading movies! That was a back breaking job as was taking on garbage weights. I’ll bet those wussies today load their movies onto a flash drive and watch them on a tv screen like I do in my present home. I’m surprised they still have family grams with all their cell phones and photos. Yes, the navy has changed and the Submarines are no exception. The Obama navy is one I’m glad I don’t have to serve in because of the rules and regulations.. Today’s navy would be court martialed and booted out of the service if they did some of the things that we did on a regular basis. We used to drink all night and work all day and we did what we were told as we worked as a team. We worked hard, we lived hard and we were rewarded with the best duty you could find in this mans navy for there was no other job or service that could match what we had. I shudder to think of what is replacing us with the Gays and Women in subs distracting us and making those serving honorably wonder why they joined in the first place. Chew on this for awhile Boomers because your daddy’s are watching you and if you can’t get the job done just ask for help for we will always be looking down on you with eyes of envy for that one last patrol that we all go on sooner or later. We wouldn’t trade places with you for anything because our memories are something special that you will never experience but we also have a little envy of you. While you bitch about having to leave your wife or family we would gladly make one last patrol just to see how easy you guys now have it. By the way, I read all those emails as an RM and some of them were pretty juicy and straight to the point. My patrol total was 11 and now I would to make just one more before going on my last patrol alone.

    Melvin E. Holliday RM1 SS USN Ret.

  2. George Dolgos says:

    Enjoyed the article. I also went on six patrols and a refuel at Newport News Shipyard.

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