The Jump Start
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The Jump Start

We had just finished the most glamorous exercise available to a conventional submarine in peacetime. We had challenged the best ASW (anti-submarine warfare) forces in the world, outnumbered 28 to 1 most of the time, and 28 to 2 the rest of the time, not counting all the helicopters, fixed-wing carrier-based aircraft, and land-based aircraft arrayed against us. We more than held our own. We knew that most of our success was a result of water conditions that confused the sonar systems on the surface ships and the aircraft. But we were still quite proud of our performance against all of the NATO fleets. Our success simply resulted from the seamanship and tactics of our skipper, our exec, our navigator, and our engineer. The rest of us were just doing our jobs.

When we got home, after an all too brief stand-down, we were assigned the dullest exercise possible. We were act as a mechanical rabbit while a surface ship calibrated its sonar. The Navy had just decided to purchase this new class of sonar, as a result of a design competition. It was a very good sonar. In fact, it was so good that it required entirely new tactics. The first step in developing new tactics was to carry out hundreds of calibration runs against a real submarine. We were the submarine for the exercise.

We were outfitted with hydrophones scattered around the outside of our hull, and with recording equipment installed near our sonar shack. We went to sea, and we met up with the U.S.S. Sims, a new DE, or Destroyer Escort. We started ten miles from the Sims, and we approached, submerged at periscope depth, keeping the Sims at a constant, predetermined angle off our bow. We broke off at 600 yards from the Sims, we opened back out to ten miles, and we approached again, this time maintaining a slightly different angle to the Sims.

Over and over we repeated this maneuver, for weeks. All our skill at tactics was useless in this exercise.

The Sims was one of a new class of DEs that were just coming into the fleet in significant numbers. This class of ship was the first one designed from the keel up using guidelines, criteria, and processes that had been instituted when Robert McNamara was Secretary of Defense.

McNamara had been president of Ford Motor Company during some of its most successful years. Kennedy had appointed him to Defense, and Johnson retained him for several years. McNamara brought a lot of business ways to the Pentagon, and many of the changes were for the better. Some were not. The Sims and her sisters were designed to a performance specification, and they were not like other ships. Extensive cost/benefit analyses went into the design. A lot of tradition was discarded in the design of the Sims.

To start out exercise together, the Odax sailed from Key West and the Sims sailed from Mayport, near Jacksonville, Florida. We met up northeast of the Bahamas, and the Sims launched a whaleboat to send us our first detailed exercise plan. Inside the package was a note from the skipper of the Sims to the skipper of the Odax. Our skipper shared it with the rest of us officers. The note said, "SIMS has not yet received the ShipAlt for installation of a standby diesel generator. In the unlikely event that we lose steam, we will require power from your 440 Volt external connection"

We all read this over and over. It made no sense. On the other hand, this was the military, and things don't have to make sense in order to be true. After a while, the whole picture began to sink in. We were expected to give the Sims a jump-start if her engines died. We were astonished.

An analogy: Suppose all highway vehicles owned by the federal government carried no batteries. They would be started in the morning using cables in the motorpool garage. If the engine died, another federal vehicle would need to pull up with its engine running, and jumper cables connected to re-start the dead engine. The Sims was in a similar position. Her skipper had been nervous as she sailed alone to the rendezvous, and he was more relaxed now that we were nearby to render assistance.

The key assumption of the design specification was that no ship of this class would ever need to operate at sea alone. Another ship would always be available to provide a source of 440 Volt A.C. power to run the pumps and controls of the boiler plant for a few minutes, while the crew of the dead ship re-started her boiler. This was ludicrous. It seems that the problem had become obvious very soon after the first such ship entered the fleet, and a conversion was developed to install a small diesel generator on these ships to provide enough power for such emergencies. This was the ShipAlt to which the skipper of the Sims had referred.

The legendary Mr. Murphy influences all military operations. The most likely cause of a steamship losing steam pressure is if the screws come out of the water. The engine governors shut the main steam valve, and the boiler controls might over-react and shut down the fuel flow to the flame. This only happens when the weather is very rough. It is almost impossible for a ship to approach another ship that is dead in the water when the weather is rough. And you don't send over a electric power cable, which will short out in the salt spray, and which my shock or kill someone in the process. You send over a tow line.

Alas, we had to disillusion the skipper of the Sims. We did not have any 440 Volt AC power to share. We had plenty of 250 Volt DC power, and just the tiniest amount of 120 Volt AC, but there was no way we could help re-start the Sims. We could tow her, but not start her. Her skipper sent an urgent message back to Mayport, arranging for her diesel to be installed the following month. Meanwhile, we operated together for three weeks without incident, and the Sims returned safely to port.

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