The Torpedo Retriever
The Torpedo Retriever
One incidental feature of our occasional trips to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was the peculiar tax situation there. Fidel Castro wouldn't tax the activities at the base, because to do so would give a form of approval to our presence there. And the U.S. never taxed its own military activities at overseas bases. So the little incidentals of life were dirt cheap.
In 1971 we were paying fifteen cents a bottle, over the bar at Gitmo, for Heineken. Other prices were commensurate. The package store was handy and cheap, cheap, cheap. We had a barge tied up to the pier, across from the submarine berth, on which each of us had a locker in which to keep our spirits. Even the lowliest Seaman Deuce could afford to buy a round for the house without exhausting his paycheck.
Of course, we all wanted to take as much of the cheap liquor as possible back home after our six weeks at Gitmo. But it was illegal to have any alcohol aboard a ship of the U.S. Navy, as it has been for a century now. So . . .
We all bought the most expensive whiskeys and liqueurs that we could, because space was at a premium aboard the old submarine. We wanted to invest as much as possible per gallon. And we hid the stuff in the torpedo tubes.
On rare occasion, a Navy ship returning from a foreign port was subjected to a full, rigorous customs inspection. The customs agents were knowledgeable, skilled, and thorough. They studied the ship's blueprints thoroughly before they visited, and they caught a lot of people. They never visited us, though.
A torpedo retriever is a handy little boat, wooden, fifty feet or so long, with a planing hull and a peculiar stern configuration which made it handy to snap a line to the nose of a torpedo and haul the torpedo aboard the retriever. We didn't actually shoot torpedoes all that often. Sometimes we retrieved them ourselves. Sometimes we got the base to send the retriever out for them. But the retriever did not get much business, and was idle most of the time.
Sometimes, for navigation practice, the exec took a junior officer out in the retriever to locate anchorages, unusual markers, emergency escape channels, and other details. It was a lot cheaper to use the retriever for this purpose than to take the submarine and its crew out. Frequently this navigation practice resulted in fresh seafood dinners for the families of the officers involved. Usually it was fish dinners, but during longusta season it was common to grab some of those popular local shellfish off the bottom while conducting "navigation practice".
One time one of our sister boats returned from Gitmo, and the families and girlfriends of the crew members were all waiting at the pier to greet them for the first time in six weeks. The married men, except for those in the duty section, hurried home to be with their wives. Usually when a ship returns home most of the single men dash over to town just to see women for the first time. But this time the single men seemed quite distracted. One of the single officers went to the squadron office and demanded the torpedo retriever for immediate use. The people at the squadron, clueless as usual, asked why.
Of course, a customs boat had pulled alongside as the submarine entered the main ship channel to Key West. A full customs inspection was scheduled. The crew regretfully opened the muzzle doors to the stern tubes, and as gently as possible, they fired hundreds of bottles of fine spirits out to sea. The bottles had been carefully packed and weighted in case of a situation just like this one. The navigator cryptically noted the precise location on his chart.
A surprisingly large number of sailors went out for immediate navigation practice. The majority of the bottles were found intact. McHale would have been proud.