1981-1982. Navy Memories II: USS Hammerhead SSN-663

I drove from rotten Groton training command south and reported to the Hammerhead in early February, 1981. The boat evoked an image of awesomeness, long and black, sleek, moored at D&S piers at Norfolk Naval Station. In less than a month (or perhaps it was my newness) we would begin in earnest our workup for an extended deployment.

USS Hammerhead SSN-663, underway as always.

It was billed as a 9-month deployment that would include a port visit in Perth, Australia and a circumnavigation of the globe. Guys extended and re-enlisted for just the Perth part because of all these rumors about sailor fun down under. Some hung around for the circumnavigation part, crossing the Equator, rounding the Cape of Good Hope AND Cape Horn, or with any luck, navigating the Straits of Magellan, stuff that old salts live and breathe for.

We got underway in April. The water was still cold. It was very stormy and I got seasick for the first time. I ended up “hugging Ralph” a couple of times (that’s submarine talk for the only relief there is for seasickness, though it’s still no relief!). We hit the dive point by supper time – then it was smooth sailing.

Let me make a small confession here: I had never been underway for an Atlantic crossing and I was frankly terrified. A lot about submarine operations I only understood academically, increasing my fears. At that point I really didn’t get how all the systems worked together to ensure survival of the boat and crew. And I had no idea just how unforgiving the sea environment could be, nor how vicious some of my shipmates could become while shaking off the various addictions they were able to maintain while ashore. One lives and learns. Quickly. Within a couple of weeks the newness of it all wore off and I was able to settle into a routine – standing watch, keeping up my assigned preventive maintenance (PMS), doing whatever divisional work, drills, field-days, and working on submarine quals.

Getting qualified in submarines is every non-qual’s dream. Getting qualified includes drawing all the systems, bow to stern, understanding operations, ship control, sonar, navigation, weapons systems and having a grasp of propulsion and power systems and being able to sketch them out from memory. A lot of good things happen once you get qualified and wear the dolphins: you can watch movies after the evening meal without being hazed; you get an assigned rack instead of sleeping open bay in the torpedo handling room. After getting the dolphins you are a made man, so to speak. Being in engineering got me an assigned rack, but I fell behind in my quals as the work load picked and I lost my rack to a newly qualified guy. I did my time bunking open bay in the torpedo room.

Meanwhile, I developed serious skills standing watch at the control stations, the inboard station controlling the rudder and fairwater planes, the outboard station controlling the stern planes aft. First hand knowledge of the hydraulics system and power plant gave me a big leg up. Archimedes principle in full effect (still in my memory: pressure applied to an enclosed fluid at rest is transmitted evenly and undiminished to all points of the system and to the walls of the container). I even got appointed battle stations helmsman (battle stations is the position you occupy when the real shit is about to go down and we had more than our share of them), a tremendous honor. I think I made a lasting impression on the commanding officer one night on a slow midwatch when I broke out into an impromptu recitation, from memory, of Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar. He was hiding out in the rear and I didn’t know he was there or I probably would have been more reserved. (As an aside, from that point on, the captain, Commander Edison Lee Watkins, referred to me as “Maxwellington” for my poetic exploits on a warship). Nevertheless, with progress on getting my quals done falling behind, I joined the ranks of the “delinquent,” also called “dinks.” I envied somewhat the non-rated guys who had limited division work requirements and could dedicate their off watch time exclusively to completing ship-wide qualifications.

Dolphin Ceremony on the Hammerhead mess decks, 1982

Eventually, in the ultimate disgrace, as time wore on, all the non-rates either completed their quals or completed their 90 days of mandatory mess cooking. At that point, even non-qual engineers had to fill the gaps, leaving their divisions to work full time cleaning the mess decks, serving meals, and busing tables, every six hours around the clock. I was the first from engineering and the first petty officer so designated, though many followed in my wake. I took it all in stride and did what was required. I must have made an impression because the Chief of the Boat, himself a mess management specialist, made me an offer to change my rate from engineering to supply. I was totally invested in engineering though. It was part and parcel of my long range plan. He explained that although being a cook in the junior ranks, as you advance you get into contracting and with contracting there were lots of shore billets that could turn into well-paying and lucrative defense contracting positions. I stuck to my guns, but in retrospect, I probably should have been more circumspect. (Didn’t mean to rhyme, I swear it!). Later when I joined State my first assignment overseas would be as general services officer and lead contracting officer. Imagine I could have had a head start in contracting!

My time on the mess decks came and went and I rejoined A division in engineering. We were scheduled for a maintenance upkeep period in Mombassa, Kenya to tide us over until a full maintenance period in Perth, but something happened and there was no submarine tender coverage in Mombassa. Cold War shit. It would have been my first visit to the African continent, not counting periscope operations off the coast of Angola when we first crossed the Atlantic. More Cold War shit. Plus our operational tempo had picked up with reports of a certain adversary’s submarines operating in the area. More Cold War shit. So we remained on station. At one point, after spending several weeks at periscope depth at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden, and just when we thought we’d get some relief, we were repositioned for several weeks of the same reconnaissance duty at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman. Google these places. OH, but submarines didn’t operate in the Indian Ocean, according to SALT and START. That’s why we called it the Western Pacific. Fast attack. Long and black and never get back. With the change in schedule we were not able to pick up supplies from the tender that was no longer in Mombassa and at some point we began running out of food. Except there was plenty of breaded veal in frozen stores and plenty of canned vegetables underneath long sections of plywood stored in crew berthing. So that is what we ate, breakfast, lunch, supper and midrats (for the uninitiated, midrats is a meal served on Navy ships at 11pm, right before the midwatch).

The schedule shift set a bunch of changes in motion. We missed the tender in Perth, so that meant that leg of the trip would be cancelled. But there was a destroyer tender harbored in Diego Garcia and that would have to do. And since we wouldn’t be getting the full maintenance upkeep scheduled for Perth, we would be returning the way we came instead of the originally planned circumnavigation. That change disappointed a lot of guys who had re-upped for the adventure and bragging rights, but at least we got some “down time” in Diego Garcia.

There was no “pier” for us to tie up to in Diego Garcia, so we had to anchor out, which meant engineering plant watchstanders had to keep on standing watches and that was a bit of a drag. But there was nothing to “do’ ashore, so most of us stayed on the ship. We did a bit of fishing and caught beautiful red snappers which the cooks prepared for meals. So there was that. I went ashore one time and found a rather poorly staffed Navy Exchange. I remember buying a John Lennon/Yoko Ono cassette that was popular at the time – Double Fantasy. We were able to load up on fresh stores, eggs, milk, vegetables, frozen meats, and mix for the soft serve ice cream machine.

One other weird thing is worth mentioning. You could go onboard the tender to the comms shack and the duty radio guy could patch you through to a ham operator in or near your hometown and he could put you in a phone call with your family. There was a name for this procedure, MARS (Military Auxiliary Radio System) calls. Anyway, I “called” my aunt and my sister from Diego Garcia. My aunt teased me for many years afterwards about having to say “over” after each burst of thought.

Finally, for folks who were expecting some sexual release in Perth, Diego Garcia was not so demographically endowed, the only women being those on the tender crew. That’s life!

As a slight nod to crew morale, on the way back we got a port visit in Rio de Janeiro. It was in Rio that I figured out I could dress down and blend in with the locals. My skin color was a definite advantage! I had some fun, but not too much! I will never forget a place we stumbled upon off the beaten path called the Florida Bar. The lovely ladies there spoke no English but knew the lyrics to every top 40’s song. I wrote a poem about one of them who made a special impression. A few guys got sick from drinks laced with hallucinating drugs.

From Rio we headed home. It was a reasonably short transit. We were lucky, though. The diesel broke while we were anchored out in Rio, and we soon discovered we did not have nor could we manufacture the repair parts. The diesel was the primary backup to the reactor and we probably shouldn’t have gotten underway without it being operational. We casrepped (a casualty report drafted for broken and/or in-operable engineering equipment) the diesel pulling into Norfolk and Squadron was never the wiser.

a meme from a shipmate

We limped into homeport. As was my practice, I took duty the first night back to allow guys in the division with kids to go home. I didn’t have kids or a wife at the time. Heck, I didn’t even have a girlfriend!

One would think that perhaps we’d pause and catch our breath. No. That’s why they say of fast attacks, “Long and black and never comes back.” Our captain, folks said, hated home port, and we somehow got volunteered for every special project that came down the pike. And we got port stops out of it: GITMO, Port Everglades, Charleston, Groton. Nothing very exotic.

After completing my quals I did metrology training and took on a second subspecialty in addition to auxiliary machinery, gauge calibration, which included thermometers, pressure gauges, pressure switches, and depth gauges. Doing gauge cal got me somewhat integrated with the nukes back aft, the weapons gays, and even the sonar guys, all of whom lived and died by the accuracy of measuring devises like pressure gauges and thermometers. I owned the only piece of equipment to measure and calibrate their accuracy. One fascinating preventive maintenance task I had to accomplish was testing the deep depth alarm, which meant going to designated depth and checking the mechanism. So we went there. And the alarm setting worked. And it was deep. So deep the walls creaked. So deep that if I told you, I’d have to kill you. Just joking!

Here’s an unrelated story. I was underway on the Hammerhead, working on my quals in the torpedo room and talking to an older guy about a particular weapons system that I needed to understand.Out of the clear blue he said, “Maxwell, you are the religious type, I can tell. But there is no G-d down here at 750 feet, just a long black tube chocked full of machinery of war, just the captain and the crew. There IS no G-d down here to hear and answer your prayers.”I figured he was going through something, so I let it go. Plus, I needed his signature on my qual card.

Later, i found a quiet place in one of the auxiliary spaces to continue reading Ardistan and Djinnistan, one of a bag full of books I took to sea. In it the author cited a specific Psalm that I found very applicable to my earlier encounter. Here is it:

“Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou are there: if I make my bed in hell. behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, AND DWELL IN THE UTTERMOST PARTS OF THE SEA; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hold shall hold me.” –Psalms 139: 7-10

I continued as battle stations helmsman. We practiced and rehearsed for under hull surveillance after getting a special fixture on our periscope that allowed the scope to look straight up. The rehearsal involved going underneath ships (and sometimes, surfaced submarines!) and taking photographs of the bottom of the surveilled ship. There is a lot of interesting stuff underneath a ship. Special fixtures. Operational equipment. It required maintaining a +/- six inch depth band between the bottom of the ship and the top of the periscope. Six inches because we needed to mask the sound of our ship within the operating sound of the ship being surveilled and any distance greater than six inches would have made us detectable by the ship’s sonar. We would make passes up and down the length of the surveilled ship all the while taking photographs of the hull and its fixtures. Then Jamie, my quals buddy, would develop the film and hold a briefing in the wardroom of what had been discovered. I watched him lay out the complete geography of a ships’ underhull.

It was very stressful operating the fairwater planes for such detailed depth control but I mastered the ability to feel the ship changing depth before the depth gauges registered it and applying the correct up or down angle of the planes to correct for the depth excursion. During those intense evolutions I could actually feel beads of sweat forming on my forehead and dropping from my armpits! There was a sort of enhanced sensory awareness that was not induced by drugs, just the stress of the moment. I will only tell you here about the rehearsals, but you may imagine what use that capability may have been to intelligence gathering during the Cold War. Later we got a fixture attached to the periscope that gave us the ability to do a 360 degree panoramic rotation at night. It was called “dark eyes.” You can only imagine what we did with that, especially at periscope depth in unfriendly deepwater shipyard ports (where maybe submarines were being built, maybe not).

At the one year mark onboard, I heard talk that the Navy was looking for experienced engineering guys to staff the new Trident-class submarines. I spoke to my COB (chief of the boat) who was also the command career counselor. He told me about a “deal” involving reenlistment, advanced training, automatic promotion, a reenlistment bonus, and immediate assignment to one of the new Trident boats. The reenlistment was for six years, but if you had at least two years in already, they would drop the remaining years and sign you up for six more. I had three years left, plus the Trident boats each had two crews, so your time was rotated and deployments never exceeded 72 days. I had a plan that involved taking courses during the off-crew and going for a commissioning program within three years when I cam up for shore duty. I thought about it for about a week (what was there really to think about?) and signed up. I got immediate orders to the Michigan, still in the shipyard, promotion to E5, and a fat check for the annual installment of one sixth of my $16,000 bonus. I bought a used, low mileage diesel Volkswagen Rabbit and packed it full for the trip to Electric Boat Shipyard in New London, CT.


Some poems from the Hammerhead period

Hammerhead – First Dive

as we descend
into the depths
I think about
the things left loose:

the promises
I should have kept;
the yesterdays:
they all reduce

to a fleeting moment
of awe and dread;
I offer no reason,
I make no excuse–

The nightmare ends,
I lay in bed.
The journey is over:
it was all in my head.

March 1981

Hammerhead – Second Dive

begin in the affirmative
I am, this is, we are

erase all doubt
but allow for error

make no excuses
and assign no blame
remember yesterday
while you yearn for tomorrow
begin in the affirmative.

April 1981

Endurance 81 (poem written for the 1981 cruise book)

We left home port.
With tears and sobs we parted
From our loved ones.
A journey hard and arduous
We knew we had ahead;
Trials and calamities would befall us
But we knew we would endure.

Sleepless nights and restless days,
Drills to test us (they just pestered us);
Never getting too much praise,
But who complained?
We knew we would endure.

Liberty port –
The run almost complete;
New places, new faces,
A chance to wet our feet…
Good times helped us to endure.

What joy! What happiness!
Wives, children, loved ones,
All waiting on the pier to receive us!
Months and months of work and sweat
Bear fruit, what a reward!
We accomplished our mission,
Achieved our goals,
But most of all,
We endured.

Norfolk, Summer 1981

To Luciana

Your voice is a blooming flower
beckoning the bumblebee
to alight and pollinate–

your charm is sweet like honey
and warm like fresh milk
in a wooden bucket—

your style is simple and easy
yet your demands are complex
and difficult to fathom –

but the satisfaction you give is so complete,
so absolute, so gratifying that
heaven itself turns green with envy-

Your love is as the sunlight
and the rain, free to all though
each wants it for himself alone–

you were created for all the world to know,
and sufficient it is for me
to share your love with all.

Rio de Janeiro
October 1981

Letters to Amantha

USS Hammerhead (SSN-663)
October 7, 1981

Dear Amantha:

I’m writing you in pencil
‘cause I’m not sure what
I want to say to you
And I want to allow for
erasures should the need arise…

a margin for error –
we do make mistakes,
and sometimes, oftimes,
overplay our hands…

except that our actions are
not written with pencil
on notebook paper
but with permanent ink
on a perfect, everlasting medium…

“forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.”

I’m questioning myself:
what are my demands?
what can I supply?
do I have any right
to desire your company
as much as I do?
the way that I do?
I spoke with our friend
tonight. She alone knows
the degree to which
I care for you…
to the exclusion of all others.

none of the conventional
are valid with respect to
this relationship. I know
better than to try to feed you
any bullshit; as Shelley
wrote: “one word is too often
profaned for me to profane it.”
(He was talking about love.)

I digress…
mere words fall short,
far short of their intended meaning.

Torpedo Room
USS Hammerhead SSN-663
October 12, 1981

Dear Amantha:

I’ve had time to contemplate,
to think things through…
I’ve busted through the fallacies,
the hypocritical rationalizations,
the bullshit justifications that underlie
the reasons why, we say,
things are as they are…

I’ve built for myself,
step by step,
a new world view,
tested it for structural strength
for internal stability,
and for resistance to extreme
changes in temperature…

I’ve tested it at deep depths
and at high altitudes…
I’ve put it in a vacuum
and I’ve pressurized it until
it has become hard as diamond,
clear as crystal, and pure as
water in a mountain stream…

life in a monastery –
ideology reaches perfection –
works arrive at completion –
material wants lose their significance,
their urgency, their nearness to the heart…

Torpedo Room
USS Hammerhead SSN-663
October 22, 1981

Dear Amantha:

Thinking about you…
out of stationery,
writing on loose-leaf,
college rule…

considering the possibility
this heaven-made union
may never exist on earth…

Nothing but our future together
is at stake here…
one more union will not
change the course of human events,
and one less union is
one less division…

we can be happy without each other,
we can be satisfied alone…
we can reach fulfillment unaccompanied…
we can…we are…we will…

we will into existence what
most pleases us (again he is talking
about love, what a bore…)
we give rise to circumstances
which produce a moment…
we build around ourselves the environment
most conducive to reaching the ends we seek…
we determine our destiny
‘cause God, inside us, is always with us.

Talked to Lynne

talked to Lynne again today
talked about my Georgy girl
and how my head is in a twirl
over that lady, who’s driving me crazy
and haunting me night and day

talked to Lynne again last night
told her how my soul was hurt
how my mind has gone beserk
over this woman, more ghost than a woman,
who’s haunting me night and day

talked to Lynne again this morning
talked to her ‘cross land and sea
‘cause I need her sympathy
she knows my heart, she knows the part
that haunts me night and day

talked to Lynne tonight, tomorrow
share with her my joy, my sorrow,
told her my love has found another;
such is life, so ends the strife
that’s been haunting me night and day


Fragments from a letter to LW

the more I think about you,
the fonder of you I grow, albeit
in an abstract kind of way.

I treasure and cherish
the memories I hold of you
and of the time we spent
in each other’s presence,

however fleeting,
and I hope, with all my heart,
that the future holds in store
some measure of time, again,
that we can share.

November 1981

I love my love (to J)

I love my love
’tis true I do
with all my heart, my soul.

I care for her
and long for her,
and shall when I’ve grown old.

‘Tis true, ’tis true I must confess,
She loves me not, no more, no less.

It grieves me so
but I should know:
that apparitions disappear;
that summer passes every year;
that tears are often insincere;
that all the reasons are not clear
why people love, why lovers fear;
thus, I shall fill my cup with cheer
and search ’til I have found the best.

November 1981

1 thought on “1981-1982. Navy Memories II: USS Hammerhead SSN-663

  1. Pingback: Navy Memories III: USS Michigan SSBN-727(B) | might be time for a change here

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