Setting out on a nuclear submarine patrol is just about the closest thing there is to interstellar travel. Life is monotonous, there is nothing to look at, work is demanding and both sleep and space are in short supply. Navy ships can execute Steel Beach events and even the rare 'Beer Day' to give overworked crews a break, but subs are a different story... Usually.
This story, told by a veteran submariner who will remain anonymous, is of a US nuclear fast attack submarine that rippled off all of its Tomahawk cruise missiles in anger, then was the benefactor of one of the most spectacular beer runs of all time. The result of which was a rare, if not unprecedented occasion for an American nuclear submarine crew:
Unfortunately, submarines do not get Beer Day. They are not allowed to store it on-board like surface ships and getting a stores load at sea is both rare and difficult. Yet my submarine miraculously managed it during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
We were returning from a month or two at sea. We read the tea leaves in the message traffic and knew that something was going to happen in the Gulf soon. Sure enough, a few days before we got back to Groton we got word that we were being surge deployed to the Gulf. We got a weekend to say goodbye to friends and family and then sped across the Atlantic.
The coordination for so many submarines and surface ships to go to the same place at the same time is amazing. Two submarines rarely share the same water space, and if they do they're forbidden from sharing the same depth range. Add in skimmers all over the place and getting to periscope depth to check in a few times a day was a big pain in the ass.
After farting around the Mediterranean for a few weeks we got orders to proceed through the Suez Canal and take station in the Gulf. Submarines are helpless on the surface, let alone constrained in the Suez. Standing Officer of the deck on the sail Bridge as we went through the Suez was terrifying. We had a destroyer in front of us for protection, but what good was that to save us from some dude with an RPG popping up over a sand dune? That was the only time I ever had to wear a flack jacket.
Once we got through 'The Ditch' we took station in our tiny box in the sea. We spent the whole time at periscope depth dodging surface ships, shipping traffic, and fishing boats. We waited for mission tasking and for Shock 'n Awe to begin just like the rest of the world. We practiced battle stations and missile launch drills twice a day. We were lucky if we got four hours of sleep.
Finally Shock 'n Awe came. It was not as drilled. Instead of a quick and decisive death blow we ended up chasing Saddam and his cronies. One Tomahawk here, an air strike there, and no tasking for my boat. Then the money shot finally came. We could hear the tasking come over the wire for other ships but none for us. Every time a tasking order came the Skipper ran to Control and was 'blue balled.'
When we finally got our tasking orders it was a doozy. Every other sub had gotten fairly small salvos (small numbers of missile launches). They ordered us too shoot it all. Load all four torpedo tubes with TLAMs (BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles) and launch all 12 vertical tubes. No submarine had ever shot a full TLAM load before. The first 15 went perfect and then number 16 was a dud. So close to a full salvo!
With the vertical tubes empty they shifted us to the back of the line and we loaded the torpedo tubes again and waited for more tasking.
Due to our surge deployment we didn't have a chance to fully reload our stores. As we floated there in the Gulf we started running out of food. Eventually it was rice, beef knuckle (an actual part of a cow not in the hoof) and powdered eggs. I ate waffles every day for weeks. We also started running out of cigarettes. People were smoking half at a time and digging old butts out just for two stale drags.
Salvation came in the form of a Senior Chief who busted his knee. It started to swell badly and the Doc had to drain it. A submarine doc is basically a nurse who can also perform emergency surgery, stitches, and yank teeth. The Senior Chief needed a doctor.
Our mid watch boys had become good friends on the chat messenger with the mid watch crew on a nearby destroyer. We told them of our plight. No food! No cigarettes! Their CO was sympathetic but there was nothing he could do... Until he found out we needed a doctor.
The next day we surfaced and the destroyer sent a small boat over. With a doctor. And food. And cigarettes! And hard ice cream!!! And .... Hey what's that pallet?! BEER!!!
That destroyer and my submarine will remain nameless, but those guys will always be heroes to everyone on my boat. Unfortunately we were still on station. Beer was not in the cards just yet.
We completed our tasking and were ordered through Suez. There was a line of submarines ahead of us so we got told to stay and wait our turn. We stayed surfaced and did steel beach for three days. On the first night the crew finally got their two beers. The Skipper hoarded some extra and ended up getting wasted. Crew members were selling them at ridiculous profit. A Guy sold a single can of rot gut nasty beer for $20!
We finally got our water space to travel home. Other than a four hour stores load at the submarine tender in Greece it was full speed ahead all the way back to Connecticut.
Thanks so much to 'The Former Submariner' for sharing this fantastic story with us and to all those in the Silent Service that get stuck in these steel tubes for weeks and weeks at a time.
Photos via wikicommons/USN
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com