Nixon’s Used Submarine Lot
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Nixon’s Used Submarine Lot

It was pretty quirky, this business of selling off the old submarines. As the budget cutbacks were hitting home at the end of the war in Vietnam, the obsolete boats were being unloaded hither and yon. (I almost said right and left, but we were selling only to right-wing governments.)

The Turks bought some boats. After one ceremony in which the Stars and Stripes was hauled down and the Turkish flag was hoisted, I went to the reception that the Turkish Consul threw in our officers' club. To make conversation, I asked what the new name of the boat meant. The reply was "Killer of Infidels." I decided not to mention that I, myself, according to his definition, was an infidel.

A bunch of Brazilian sailors and officers arrived at the Naval Air Station on Boca Chica Island, adjacent to Key West, to look over our old boat. We took them down to the waterfront to show off the old tub. We fired up the engines and took them out for a test drive (on the surface only). They seemed quite excited. We realized that the officers were pretty sharp, but the crew was completely ignorant about submarines.

We had bigshots from Washington and Brasilia show up for the ceremony in which USS Odax (SS-484) became S. Rio de Janeiro (S-13). As soon as the decommissioning/commissioning ended, the Brazilians brought some wine aboard for the purpose of toasting the deal. Quite a civilized touch, that was.

Three-quarters of the American crew left after that, to go on to other ships, or to get out of the Navy and go home. Eighteen of us remained to show the Brazilians where all the valves, knobs, switches, and secrets were hidden. There was a lot of good will all around, but we had to struggle without a language in common most of the time. Each day we went to sea for a few hours and played around on the surface. We would "rig the ship for dive", but I never took the padlocks off certain levers, so the boat could not actually submerge.

After a few weeks, the American Commodore called me into his office and asked, "When will they be able to submerge the ship?"

Even though I was only 24 years old, I was in charge of the American contingent remaining with the boat. I told the Commodore, "It will take months." That was not what he wanted to hear. I also told him that the enlisted crew members had never seen a submarine before. He was appalled. He had assumed, as any good American officer would, that the enlisted men were the technical experts on the boat and its hardware. Most of this crew were illiterate. We discussed the situation for a while, and he decided that we needed to take drastic measures to ensure the safety of the Brazilian crew.

It was quickly arranged that the entire Brazilian crew would attend the U.S. Navy Submarine School in New London, Connecticut. The boat traveled up the Atlantic coast from Key West to New London, and we safely tied up to a finger pier.

The trip was strange, in that we had no communication with the rest of the world. The only equipment that the U.S. had removed from the boat was the cryptographic gear. Unfortunately, the Navy had essentially eliminated its ability to communicate in plain text, so we were out of touch with the world for a few days there.

After I had moved on, I looked for news of S. Rio de Janeiro. After a few months, I quit expecting to see the story of their sinking on the front page of the morning paper. Years later I met someone who had been in New London when they were there, and he said that it took six months of training before they were told that they could safely dive the boat.

The Brazilians had not wanted to buy an old, obsolete boat. They had offered to pay for three brand new diesel submarines, built to the latest plans, which would have been sister ships to our Barbel, Blueback, and Bonefish. Our Navy would have been delighted to do it, but the State Department nixed the deal, saying that it would upset the balance of power in the area. Immediately after the deal was closed for our old boats, the Brazilians ordered three new Oberon class submarines from Britain.

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