For reasons unknown to me, I recently got an invitation to attend a Friday conference at the Kings Bay Naval Base at St. Marys, Ga. Three local journalists were there, and I was the only outside interloper. I had never heard about the gathering, to be on the nuclear deterrence of our country. The invitation had another caveat: invitees were offered a two-hour tour of an Ohio Class submarine.
The sub tour grabbed me. Years ago, our family visited the USS Alabama battleship at Mobile. A World War II submarine moored was open for tours. (I continually bumped my head when going through the compartments.) Our family of five entered at one end of the sub, but only four came out the other end. Our middle child, then about 8, had disappeared. Somehow, “we were lost from her” for about 15 minutes. For the four of us, it was a straight-line walk through, but not for her.
Today’s nuclear-driven subs are enormous, some 578 feet long, 43 feet wide, four floors in depth, with a crew of 15 officers and 150 men. Half the submarines are home-based at St. Marys, covering the Atlantic Ocean, and the Pacific fleet is based at Bangor, Wash.
The submarines form one element of the triad of nuclear deterrence. The other elements are two Air Force operations, the manned nuclear ICBMs (missiles) scattered in silos across the country, and atomic bombs that can be dropped from aircraft. But no nuclear weapon has been delivered since 1945. However, as one speaker explained, these nuclear components “are in use every day to provide stability. If that’s not the use of nuclear weapons, I don’t know what is.”
After the meeting, about 45 of the attendees were put on one bus to go to the USS West Virginia, just back last week from 30 months being retrofitted with the latest gear at Norfolk, Va. (Another group toured the USS Alaska.) To get on submarine deck, we walked across a metal gangplank, and entered an open round hatch for us to climb down three vertical ladders into the sub. That alone took about 25 minutes.
We were briefed by the sub commander in the small mess hall, the largest space on the sub, then divided into groups of six or seven for a seaman to lead us through the sub. It was up and down the ladders several times to see the ship. No, we never submerged nor went to sea. But we got to see all but the nuclear engine compartment, including walking between the silos where the weapons are launched. (There were no weapons on board at the time.)
The main impression: these guys are serious. They are highly-trained Naval men, who go underwater for 77 days at a time, then back on land for 35 days for even more training. The only reason they have to surface is for food…they normally carry a 90 day supply.
Lots of old-time sub movies show action around the periscope. Modern subs have two, for redundancy, and all components have back-up. Meanwhile, every nook and cranny is crammed with modern gizmos, with virtually every element controlled by computers, monitored and guided by the seamen.
It was a fascinating tour, making me appreciate these underwater warriors even more. And with the sub’s ceilings slightly above six feet tall, I never bumped my head once. Whoever put me on the list for the visit to the sub, a big thanks.