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   Forces Afloat    

Repeating the same steps
Expecting different results



When a U.S. Navy ship returned from sea in those days, it was not permitted to request food over the radio. Food had to be ordered in person. Supposedly a system was in place to take care of this, but it did not work when we were based in Charleston, S.C. The Naval Supply Center there required five days notice before they would deliver food to a ship. When we returned from sea, we wanted fresh milk and vegetables, and we wanted them within five days. Five minutes was more like when we wanted them. As usual, when confronted with the bureaucracy, sailors found a loophole.

The Naval Supply Center in that part of the world did not carry avocados. Therefore, we were entitled to go to town and buy avocados from local wholesalers. As soon as we tied up to the pier upon returning to port, the cook ran down to the produce mart to buy hundreds of dollars worth of lettuce, tomatoes, etc. Each time, he signed a receipt for avocados. There was apparently no financial impropriety involved, as the wholesale value was the same, as expressed in dollars.

The first month that I was aboard, I was visited by investigators from Norfolk. They pointed out that my menus never showed any avocados, but my billings showed lots of them. In the end, we were not punished, and the Supply Center was ordered to deliver fresh food to ships returning from sea.

The best food in the world, however, is no good if you are seasick. Why, I remember one meal, off Hatteras, I believe it was, when only four of us showed up for dinner . . . .



We were at sea, submerged, operating with NATO, maintaining radio silence, but a couple of times a day we put up an antenna and copied the Atlantic Fleet submarine broadcast. One of the few messages important enough to broadcast was CincLantFleet headquarters (Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet) in Norfolk, telling us to immediately start using a new form for the Monthly Fuel and Steaming Hours Report. The Federal Stock Number for the new form was included in the message. I couldn’t verify the stock number, because is was too new to be in my catalog, but the checksum for the stock number matched, so I ordered six pads of the forms. I received six Pitot tubes, intended for the airspeed indicators of subsonic aircraft. Headquarters had made this mistake.

And yes, you're correct, we did not have a steam plant aboard. Details.



Sometimes I'm a slow learner. When we got a message telling us to immediately order new, improved red "Danger" tags, or else we would flunk our next inspection, I ordered the tags. This time headquarters got the stock number correct. It was the Unit of Issue that they got wrong. These things were issued by the hundred, and not one at a time. Did you know that it takes two pickup trucks to deliver 100,000 of those newfangled red danger tags?



In Copenhagen an Esso fuel barge pulled alongside our boat and we topped off with 100,000 liters of number two diesel fuel. We were not very low on fuel, but we always wanted to sail with full tanks. One of our First Class enginemen was on duty that day, and he carefully supervised the fueling process, after which he signed the receipt. Four months later, we got a notice from Norfolk that we were going to be audited.

In researching the situation, I asked the engineman, "Smith, how much fuel did we take on in Copenhagen?"

"Twenty-five thousand gallons, sir."

"That's what you put on the Monthly Fuel and Steaming Hours Report, but you signed a receipt for 100,000 liters."

"Yes, sir. Four liters to a gallon."

That told me all that I needed to know. I wrote a message for the skipper to send back to Norfolk, explaining that the problem was one of lack of education, not one of grand larceny. No one was trying to steal a few gallons of the Navy's twenty-cent fuel. The response was a grudging acceptance of our corrected Monthly Fuel and Steaming Hours Report, along with a warning that any future such slip-up would result in official punishment.

I did not accuse Engineman Smith of incompetence. I just told him that the official conversion factor was 3.85 liters per gallon, and I asked him to make a note of it somewhere for future use. He asked why I had brought it up. I told him that the shorebirds had noticed a discrepancy between the invoice and the report, and that I was correcting it.

He almost started to cry. I tried to reassure him that he was not in trouble, when he interrupted me to say, "No sir, it's not that. I have been an engineman for seventeen years, and I have been sending in those reports for seventeen years. This is the first time that I ever knew that anyone ashore ever read those reports. I'm happy to know that they caught my mistake."

Apparently the new forms prompted someone ashore to actually read the reports.



When I was in submarine school, I roomed with a supply officer who was based on the submarine tender that supported the Polaris boats in that area. He told the story, probably apocryphal but extremely plausible, of the time the USS George Washington (Blue Crew) was loading out to go on Polaris patrol. The hospital corpsman who was assigned to help the doctor get ready for the deployment conducted an inventory. He found that one piece of surgical equipment was missing. He ordered it, but he just wrote 1 for quantity, instead of writing 00001, as required. He also coded the requisition to indicate that this item was officially required for the Polaris submarine to go on deterrent patrol, at the height of the cold war.

Are you ahead of me on this one? Of course, there was no higher priority in the federal supply system. And the keypunch operator had filled in the "quantity" field with trailing zeros instead of leading zeros, resulting in an order for ten thousand of these instruments.

And the item they supposedly needed in our ultimate defense against the Evil Empire?

Circumcision scissors.


Propeller Count


We didn't talk much about this incident, but it included one of the most elementary mistakes that a person can make, and I still find it difficult to believe that such incompetence exists. It all started one time when we were cruising submerged in water six thousand feet deep. We were quiet, and we decided to descend from a keel depth of 120 feet, where we had been for some length of time, to a keel depth of 200 feet, to check for better acoustic conditions in the water, for our sonar. There was a loud bang, felt throughout the boat, and we started to vibrate in the stern. We were making too much waterborne noise to be of much value as a submarine, so we surfaced and made an unscheduled stop at the U.S. submarine tender in Rota, Spain on the Atlantic coast. The elite nuclear-trained staff of the tender could not be bothered with an old diesel boat like ours, so they insisted that we did not have a problem. We even took some of their experts to sea with us and submerged to show off our symptoms, but they still insisted that we were OK. They sent messages to headquarters to that effect, and we were sent back out to continue the Nato exercises.

We were lousy for the next few weeks. We could never find anyone else on sonar, because we couldn't hear through our own noise. Everyone else could find us, though. The situation was reversed from normal.

After that experience, the admiral in charge of the carrier task force sent us in for further examination. This time we tied up outboard the U.S. submarine tender that was anchored in Holy Loch, Scotland. The nuclear-trained crew of this tender was also insulted at being required to put up with smelly sailors from our unfashionable conventional submarine.

We had learned from our experience with the previous tender, so before we described our problem we sent one of our own sailors over the side, with diving gear, to inspect our bottom. He found that the last ten inches of one blade of our port propeller was bent aft, ninety degrees from normal.

Based on such a clear description of the problem, the tender staff acknowledged that, yes, maybe we did have a problem after all. I checked the reference manuals, and I ordered a port propeller.

When we were in port we always relied on the base or the tender to handle our message traffic, so I got the skipper to sign the message, and I took it to the tender radio room for transmission. The next day I got my courtesy copy of what actually had gone out over the air. I noticed that they had changed the federal stock number of the propeller that I had ordered. When I questioned them about it, they said that I had mistakenly ordered a four-bladed propeller, and it should have been five-bladed, so they had corrected my error for me.

I had seen this propeller with my own eyes, and I knew that it had only four blades. I insisted, but I was not nuclear-trained, so they did not trust me to know how many blades there were on my propeller. The discussions got heated, and soon there were full commanders on both sides of the table, and there was much heat and little light. Finally the tender agreed to send their own diver into the water to count the blades, since he would have more credibility than our diver. He came up and said that the propeller had five blades.

If we were to go to sea with one five-bladed propeller and one of four blades, everyone in the North Atlantic would be able to hear us. We were getting desperate, when I finally realized that we had an ace in the hole. I remembered an incident several months before, when both of our fire control technicians had returned late from liberty one time when we were in the drydock. Rather than subject them to formal punishment, the chief of the boat had instead required them to polish our two huge bronze propellers, using brass polish and small rags. It took them two days. Our skipper made an extraordinary request to speak to the commanding officer of the tender, and he introduced the two FTs, who told their story. They both insisted that the propeller had four blades, and not five. The tender experts were still not convinced, so we talked them into putting us in the floating drydock for a few hours so we could all count the blades.

The propellers had four blades. We got the order changed. We were never forgiven for being correct.



The new form for monthly fuel and steaming hours created an existential quandary for us diesel-boat submariners. Our reports kept bouncing back because we could not make the number of hours in the month add up, The categories to be reported were

The missing category was the raison d'etre for a diesel-electric submarine:

1 Housekeeping steam loads only
2 Cold iron
3 On shore steam
4 For ships with propulsion batteries, this would mean underway on battery power. For other ships, it would simply mean adrift.



Every Navy office, or shop, or storeroom ashore has a motto that is a variation on the following:

The Best Support for Our Forces Afloat

Through it all we kept our own morale up. The elaborate programs and policies that were established ashore to support the morale of the forces afloat did very little for us. It was the fundamental, personal strength of character of our Commanding Officer, of the other officers, and particularly of the sailors on our boat, and on the other ships, that kept us going. We knew that we were doing a good job, even if the nitpickers ashore could sometimes find fault with our diesel-smelling reports.

And we, just like the crews of all the other ships we encountered, were aware of the irony of the lip service paid to the dedicated support of the Forces Afloat.

Those of us at sea referred to ourselves as the "Forces Adrift".

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