By Jerry D. Haight
On the 70th morning of patrol duty for the SSN 773 Miami, The Master Chief of engineering looked into the engine room to check on the replacement of the breathing tube. A condensation leak from the tube occurred just a few weeks after leaving the Miami’s home port of New London Connecticut. The replacement tube was about eight inches in diameter and about three feet long. He was well pleased with his crew. They had managed the task without supervision. Proudly, they presented the Master Chief with the old section of tubing, tossing it to him with a great deal of jocularity. .Hardly expecting the missile, it slipped out of his hands and rolled across the steel decking of the engine room. In spite of his attempts to capture the now wayward tube, it rolled to the port side of the boat and slipped between the hull and the deck plate into the bilge. They would retrieve the old tube later.
A few days earlier, the Master chief inspected the breathing tube, crawling between a maze of electrical conduit, pipes and insulation. So deep into the machinery, only the pants leg and shoes of the Master Chief protruded. Almost all of the Miami’s crew were in child rearing age and most had children ranging from infants to teens so it came as no surprise when from deep in the bowels of the machinery, came the melodious voice of the Master chief “I love you, you love me, we are a happy family . . . the Barney song. A large crowd gathered for the unilateral recital as the Master Chief extricated himself from his inspection. The beet red faced Master Chief rose to his feet to the chorus of the Barney Song which, of course, everyone knew by heart.
Such is the nature of the close knit family of a submarine crew in the U. N. Navy.
When the Miami leaves for or returns from patrol, the crew most apparent are the men standing at attention on deck. What is not readily apparent is the unseen crew that supports, sustains and maintains the men on board. This crew consists of the wives and families that remain on shore. Almost every man aboard knows the wife and kids of each member of every other man on board. Often, the children of crewmembers attend the same church and schools, and are on the same sports team. Wives often get together to shop, talk and otherwise support one another. If the term extended family has any meaning, it is that relationship of the submariners and their collective families.
On the 74th day of patrol, the captain called for a series of drills that entailed rapid dives followed by hard turns to port or starboard. The crew performed these drills while at battle stations. The Master Chief’s battle station was in the engine room making sure that the engineering crew and equipment operated at peak efficiency. It was during one of these rapid dives that a small golf ball sized light bulb in the engine room burst with a loud pop. The explosion severed the stem from the bulb and the rest of the bulb fell to the deck plate and rolled toward the port hull. Fortunately, the bulb stopped between the deck plate and the hull otherwise it too would have fallen into the bilge.
The face of the Master chief went blank in total unbelief. It took no more than a heartbeat for the Master Chief to jerk the battle phones off of the engineer of the watch. The engineer shouted a few expletives as the force of the Master Chief broke the chord holding the phone to his chest. The snap of the chord left a welt on the engineers neck. In another split second, the Master Chief’s calm but urgent voice called the control deck. “Control this is engineering”. “Control Eye” repeated the watch in the control room. “Engineering suggests we make haste to periscope depth to repair our depth indicator” said the Master Chief. There was a brief pause as the implication of the Master Chief’s words registered. “Blow all tanks” commanded the captain. “Emergency Surface” he barked. His commands came in time.
A later investigation revealed a defective depth indicator. It also revealed that the submarine was very close to crush depth. At crush depth the water pressure against the hull of a submarine exceeds the design and the hull will collapse. As the submarine dives, the water pressure against the hull increases. The hull compresses. The decks of a modern submarine float inside the hull to accommodate this shrinkage, leaving a space between the deck plates and the hull.
Why the light bulb exploded has never been explained. But the fact that it could not pass through the space that the breathing tube passed alerted the Master Chief that the submarine was in imminent danger. For his quick action, the Master chief received a citation but noted it was really nothing special for such is the nature of submariners and their crews.