Family Cruise On A Submarine

By Jerry D. Haight

It was a dark gray morning when we arrived at the submarine base in Groton after an hour drive from Warrick Rhode Island.  Our car passed through the inspection station where even the underside was scanned and our identities ascertained. Finally, the guard directed us to a parking lot overlooking the submarine nest. Below, we could see numerous long black cylinders, tethered to their piers by thick hawsers preventing the current of the cold waters of the Thames River from dragging them from their moorings and carrying them out to sea. These were the submarines of the Atlantic submarine  fleet. There were “boomers”; submarines that transport intercontinental missiles with their multiple warheads that can rain atomic bombs on a hapless enemy half the world away. There were “fast attack” subs that protects against the “boomers” of our enemies that might do the same to us. Our son, Vince, was assigned to the SSN Miami, one of the latter and Nancy (Vince’s wife) and I were here to spend the day aboard the “boat” as the submariners call their ships.

While the crew of a submarine spend countless days and nights aboard, it is rare for civilians to get an opportunity to experience even a day trip on these super secret vessels.  Our son said this cruise might be possible some six months prior and, of course, we were enthused even at the prospect of such an event. But the idea we might actually view a nuclear reactor never needing refueling, operating safely in close proximity to a crew in an ever pitching, yawing shocking thirty year life was a possibility we could only imagine. Being close to torpedoes and tomahawk cruise missiles nesting in their beds, sophisticated electronic equipment like radar, sonar and other listening devises capable of hearing shrimp chirp or other biologicals (navy slang for sea life) built our excitement to a crescendo. But as we gazed below, a loud whistle pounded the air and echoed up and down the river, bounced on the hills across it and pulsated to our very bones.

It was then we noticed a very conspicuous open spot next to a pier where our submarine should have been and we saw the SSN Miami in the stream attached to a tug and on its way out to sea. Our hopes were dashed; we were crushed and completely unprepared for the events that followed. Seemingly undeterred, Vince led us to a maintenance building where there was a phone. After eight or ten phone calls we went back to the car, drove to a building adjacent to a pier and waited while Vince made a few more calls. Then, a seaman drove up to the building with life jackets for all of us. Shortly, another car arrived with a form for us to sign holding the Navy harmless during what was about to take place. Then came a high speed boat from up river with red lights flashing and siren wailing. It turned on its blades as it made its way to the pier reversed it’s propellers and abruptly stopped at a vertical ladder leading to the water’s edge.

Two lines were immediately thrown and quickly tied to the pier and we were invited to descend the ladder and join the crew in the boat. We heard the coxswain speak into the mike on his radio, “we’ve got them sir”. It was then the boat abruptly turned leaving a hole in the water, quickly jumped to planeing speed and entered the current of the Thames. Twenty minutes later we saw the SSN Miami, still tethered to the tug at the mouth of the river. Unbelievably, It was waiting for us.  A rope ladder was slung over the side of the tug for our embarkation and we were escorted to the bridge and out the lookout bridge where a narrow plank joined the tug to the deck of the submarine. The plank was about a foot wide and a rope handrail was all there was to keep us from falling into the sea as we boarded the sub. Once on the deck, the tug removed the apparatus, disengaged from the submarine and departed upstream.

Over the loud speaker of the sub came the shrill whistle of the boatswain’s pipe as we were duly and properly piped aboard with a great deal of pomp.  I would later find out that Vince had to get permission from the Commander of the submarine base to even ask permission of the Captain of the Miami to wait for us. Vince served many years on the Boomer when the now commander was it’s captain. Then, he had to get permission from the shipyard commander to ask for transportation and legal authorization to the sub. The shipyard commander was on leave but Vince had helped his adjutant move his household when he was promoted and they became good friends. The adjutant happened to have a JAG lieutenant in his office to quickly type the necessary papers. Then Vince had to call the dispatcher for the river patrol boat whose son was on the same little league team as Ben, Vince’s son. The captain of the tug worked as dock officer on the floating dry dock where, Vince was assigned while one of his boats was undergoing repairs. Then, the captain of the patrol boat called ahead and was told by the captain of the SSN Miami, “if you can get him here, we’ll wait”.

All the arrangements were made in about twenty minutes. Later, while standing at the periscope on the bridge of the Miami, I overheard the captain as he said: “Chief, I don’t know how you managed to get yourself, wife and dad on board, I would not have had the gall to have even attempted it.”  It was then I heard Senior Chief Vince Haight respond, “Sir, that is why they made me a chief”.