How does a man who is not a Navy SEAL manage to tag along with a SEAL team for a week of submarine operations? Mostly dumb luck, is my sterling response. I was a combat diver assigned to a Green Beret A-Team when my boss caught me in his crosshairs with an invitation from West Coast SEAL Team Five to join them for a week of submarine underway operations.
At that point my Green Beret team had only ever done extensive dry dock-side trunk operations—that is, we practiced submarine escape trunk operations but only on boats moored in port. None of us had ever been truly underway at sea. This, as I look back on my career, was the opportunity of a lifetime, and when opportunity knocked I always opened the door. “Never turn anything down but your shirt collar” was a personal policy of mine.
I reported to the SEAL team at NAB Coronado, California. I was there a day early and elected to hang out with them for a full day of their typical shore duty, to include their morning physical training session. I would have to invent a new language to describe how brutal that workout was, for I can’t find words in English to suit it. (Although the German words unglaublich schrecklichkeit fit nicely.)
The ground calisthenics were a real punishment, but the run in the sand of Coronado’s beaches was a great thrill in spite of the constant, ear-splitting sonic booms rendered by the speed of the pace. Much to my personal pride, I managed to remain firmly in the center of the pack—by no means up front where the gazelles lock horns.
After breakfast, lockers filled with Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine guns and SIG Sauer P-226 semi-auto pistols were brought out for cleaning. They had all been exposed to seawater and sand the night before. I was horrified that the weapons had been left for so many hours exposed to salt water, but I was in Rome, so I shut my big fat Roman pie hole and began cleaning.
Heckler and Koch MP-5 9 x 19mm submachine gun (Wikipedia Commons)
“Dude, you like, totally don’t have to do this, dude,” one of the SEALs offered in a dude sandwich.
“Dude, I’m like, totally fine with it, dude,” I returned as I broke down a gat. The salty brethren of ST-5 seemed to take a liking to me for helping with weapons cleaning, a detested task in special operations once you have done it 5,000 times.
They even chatted with me. Granted, most of it I didn’t understand, though I did nod often with enthusiasm, throwing in my own occasional “dude.” We cleaned and duded the rest of the afternoon, the scurvy bilge rats “cleaning” on average two to three weapons for every one I cleaned. I was wearing my non-Roman on my sleeve.
We chugged for a day and a night to get to our rendezvous with our boat, the venerable Sturgeon-class Fast-Attack USS Hawkbill (SSN-666). The number 666 was ominous enough, coupled with the fact that the night before we left I had watched “Das Boot,” a movie about the perils of a Nazi U-Boat during WWII. Yep, I could kick myself in the balls with the best of them.
Onboard the Hawkbill we schlepped metric tons of gear to the torpedo room where we slept and operated for the next week. It was crowded…my God, it was so crowded. It was so crowded in there you had to step outside of the torpedo room just to say, “It’s crowded in there!” And nudity—I have never seen such nudity in my life. The two pasty-faced torpedo room hands from the boat didn’t help, either, sharing their torpedo room humor as I passed by:
“Wow, Chucky…these SEAL fellows got some nice asses,” one of them began with a wry grin.
“I’m not a SEAL; I’m an Army Green Beret!” I protested, “But…thanks…man….”
USS Sturgeon-class Fast-Attack Hawkbill (USN-666) (Wikipedia Commons)
The climb up to the escape trunk was nuts. We had to stepladder our way up three levels of bunk beds with sailors sleeping in them to get to the escape hatch. There are only enough bunks for roughly half of the crew on a submarine, so half of the crew works while the other half sleeps, a practice called hot-bunking. We pipe-hitters slept on torpedoes under the pining gaze of the pasty-faced torpedo hands.
The trunk was crowded…my God, it was so crowded. At least I thought ahead enough to say, “It’s crowded” before I got in there. Thankfully, everyone was fully-clothed, which was of personal comfort to me. I mean, I appreciate a nice physique as much as the next person, just not from less than two millimeters away.
Looking up into the escape trunk from the lower hatch (Getty Images)
The trunk was flooded with seawater to just below the level of our noses. One by one we took deep breaths, submerged to pass through the escape hatch, and ascended to the sea surface. At the surface was a small inflatable boat tethered to the submarine. We floated in the water, clinging to the inflatable. I reveled in the glory of the view of the massive boat some 50 feet below us. It was majestic and imposing; I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off of it.
Suddenly an object came into view. One of the divers’ weight belts had come loose and it sank toward the boat. It was a wide nylon strap with a quick-release buckle and lead weights attached. “Bummer,” I thought for the man; it would be difficult for him to sink back to the escape hatch.
I shook my head at the glaring fact that the diver’s dive knife and emergency smoke/flare was attached to the belt. That was a safety violation, as nothing is allowed to be attached to the weight belt: It is the first piece of gear that is to be jettisoned in the event of an emergency. Now the diver had lost his most important emergency equipment to boot—his dive knife and signaling device.
The author’s photo of his own USN dive tool and Mark 13 signal smoke/flare
The ensemble struck the hull of the boat. Oh, the captain of the ship was not happy about that and might scrub our dive operations for the day. Ship captains already hated this sort of lock-in/lock-out maneuver because a procedural error could, no shit, sink a boat. The belt scraped along as it slowly slipped down the curved contour of the sub until it fell away to Davy Jone’s Locker.
I knew the poor brother would get a double helping of grief because he had committed a grand blunder and because he had done it in front of an Army puke. I took it with a grain because, even though the team was driven by seasoned leadership, it was jammed with fresh recruits from the most recent graduation of the Navy SEAL’s BUD/S class—junior operators. That element would manifest itself again in mere moments.
All the men were taken back down to the escape trunk one at a time by a safety diver with a twin breathing hose (regulator) attached to SCUBA tanks. He could breathe from one and his passenger could breathe from the other. Our procedure called for each man entering the trunk to hold a regulator outside of the trunk for the next diver to transition to before he crowded into the trunk.
The safety diver passed me the regulator, which I clenched in my teeth. I saw that a hook had come undone on my life vest and struggled to redo it. Without giving a signal to submerge, the safety diver dove down toward the trunk. As both my hands were busy hooking my vest, I was dragged to the trunk by the regulator clasped in my teeth, my ears threatening to explode from the inability to equalize sinus pressure.
Again, without a signal, the diver pulled the regulator from my mouth and left. I was beginning to drift a little south of pleased by now, and furthermore, the last diver had failed to hold out a regulator of the ship’s air for me to breathe. I peered into the hatch to see a forest of thrashing legs. I couldn’t hold my breath any longer and bulldozed my way into the trunk.
When I broke into the air bubble there was loud panicked screaming from the men. The water line had risen too high and the trunk operator’s attempt to blow the water level back down revealed that the air blow pipe was submerged and creating a hurricane of wind, noise, and water spray in the small air space that remained.
Schematic of a nuclear submarine escape trunk (Wikipedia Commons)
Quickly, though, the water line blew down to the normal depth and the trunk operator, a well-seasoned senior SEAL, immediately grabbed control of the junior men. He got them to calm down and regain composure. I was just a spectator in awe. I cast zero judgments on these men. It was my first time too, but I had by that time been through enough insane situations that very little nudged me over the edge.
With the trunk drained and equalized in pressure with the boat, the inner hatch was thrown open and the men filed out. I was the last out before the trunk operator, who always remained behind to close out operations with the con over 31MC. In silence, I reached out my hand to George, the trunk operator. He smiled definitively and shook his head slowly as he rendered a spirited handshake.
Day one of high-risk operations with America’s elite was not at all a waste. I was pleased with how it all worked out, with all I did and did not do. After a stint in the restroom, I learned that the valve sequence instructions for flushing waste down the boat’s head was an even more cheek-clenching (no pun intended) experience than the escape trunk had been that day. And, speaking of cheek clenching, it was back to the torpedo room for more ass worship from the pasty-face deckhands.
United States Navy SEALs: when it absolutely, positively has to have its ass kicked overnight!
By almighty God and with honor,