Ocean Depth Death
A submarine is little more than a steel tube crammed full of gadgets, with the remaining space for the men aboard who keep the steel tube from sinking to the bottom of the ocean. A submarinerâs day last 18 hours: three 6-hour watch cycles, 1 on and 2 off. He stands a duty watch, then has the next 12 hours for everything else: repair and maintenance tasks, study, relaxation, eating and when everything else is done, sleeping. Then itâs back to the duty watch. Aboard a Los Angeles class submarine, thereâs always something to keep a submariner busy.
Commander Mick Block stood in the control room looking completely at ease and comfortable and at the same time, totally in control. He loved his name, Mick Block. It was a strong name with lots of hard, strong sounds to it. He was born Mickey Aaron Block almost forty years ago. At age twenty-one, he changed his name to Mick Aaron Block. His father, an ex-Marine made it clear he didnât approve, and died a year later. It was only a coincidence he died a year later. He was hit by a New York City cab.
Mick ruled the death natural causes.
For a submariner, dying aboard a sunken sub would be natural causes. Itâs a subâs natural tendency to sink. It takes a crew of about 141 to keep the sub off the bottom; 14 officers, 18 Chief Petty Officer and 109 enlisted men. In a sense, the crew was like a family. The enlisted men were the youngest children and the officers the older children. The captain was the father, and the executive officer would be the mother. The XO, Scott Baldwin was a manâs man; he loved sports, especially football and hockey, was in to NASCAR and when he was home in Savannah. Georgia, he rode his Harley everyday, even when it rained. In spite of the testosterone surplus, Baldwin was soft spoken, but his square face and stern brow spoke silently for him. He was well respected, liked, and probably a few men would even admit they loved the guy. He was there to talk to, always confident and never without a good word for somebody. Most of the enlisted men called Scott the morale officer.
The primary purpose of the newer Los Angeles Class submarine is anti-submarine warfare. These 360-foot, 6,900 ton ships are also well equipped for special assignments because of their stealth, mobility and endurance. The nuclear power plant gives the ship the ability to remain deployed for extended periods. To take advantage of this, the ship is outfitted with auxiliary equipment to provide for needs of the crew. Atmosphere control equipment replenishes air used by the crew, and removes carbon dioxide and other atmospheric contaminants. The ship is also equipped with two distilling plants, which convert salt water for drinking, washing, and the propulsion plant. Sustained operation of the complex equipment and machinery on the ship requires an on-board inventory of repair parts. The ship carries enough food to feed the crew for as long as 90 days.
The submarine is divided into two watertight compartments. The forward compartment houses all the living spaces, weapons systems, control centers, and sonar/fire control computers. The after compartment houses the nuclear reactor and the shipâs propulsion equipment. The flooding of either compartment would, without a doubt, sink the ship.
âLower all masts and take her down to seven hundred,â Block ordered.
âAye aye, sir. Lower the masts,â Ben Hamilton ordered. A petty officer pulled on the hydraulic control levers.
âESM and UHF masts lowered, sir,â the duty electrician reported.
âVery well. Diving officer, make your depth seven hundred feet,â Block commanded. They were currently cruising at about two hundred feet below the surface.
âSeven hundred feet, aye,â the diving officer responded. âFifteen degrees down-angle on the planes.â
âFifteen degrees down, ayeâ
âOkay. Letâs move it,â Block said.
âAye, Skipper. All ahead full.â
âAll ahead full, aye.â The helmsman reached up to turn the annunciator.
They were in the Atlantic beyond the shallow seas of the continental shelf. Their patrol, like nearly all subs, commanded a large area, and for the most part, the sub commander had free reign of where to point his ship. Occasional contact with another sub, usually Russian broke up the long boredom. Generally, most Russian subs were not as quiet as their American counterparts, making them easier to detect. There were exceptions.
In the reactor spaces aft, Lieutenant Wade had his engine-men acknowledge the command and then gave the necessary orders. The reactor coolant pumps went to fast speed. An increased amount of hot, pressurized water entered the exchanger, where its heat was transferred to steam on the outside loop. When the coolant returned to the reactor, it was cooler than it had been and therefore denser. Being denser, it trapped more neutrons in the reactor pile, increasing the fission reaction and giving off more power.
Forward, Hamilton watched the depth gauge go below three hundred. The diving officer would wait until they got to about six hundred before starting to level off, the object being to zero the dive out at exactly the ordered depth. It was a track record men kept score of, and Hamilton had one of the best records in the fleet.
âSir, I think you should hear this,â the sonarman said.
âWhat is it?â Block asked.
âIâm not sure, Captain. It isnât screw sounds, and it isnât any naturally produced sound that Iâve heard.â
âPut it on speaker,â Block told him. The bulkhead mounted speaker, like everything else on the 688-class sub, was the very best money could buy. It would have commanded a four-figure price tag in any stereo shop. The sonarman, Thomas Goodman was determined to figure out a way to hook up music to it. The quality of sound was important in a submarine. A sub moved blindly in the ocean, and listening for the enemy was essential. As Goodman worked the sound controls, they heard the whining chirp of propeller cavitation and the deeper rumble of a subâs reactor plant at full power.
âSounds different,â Block commented. He rubbed his chin, a sign that everyone took notice of. The crew knew it was their cue to be quiet and let the old man, as they affectionately called him, room to think. They knew that fact because on the first voyage with Block, he stopped in mid sentence to rub his chin and ponder a thought when he was interrupted. His bark of a response made it extremely clear that his gesture meant quiet. Word on a sub spreads quickly, and information like that moved across the sub with the speed of a hurricane wind gust. Unlike a business office, there was no need for a memo to communicate. After a long moment, he spoke again. âI wonder if itâs that new Russian sub.â He listened to the sound again. âNo, itâs an older sub, but somethingâs been modified. This oneâs a Charlie class.â
âIâd agree, sir,â Goodman said. âCharlie II, number eleven. But youâre right, somethingâs been modified.â
âWhatâs the bearing?â Block wanted to know.
âBearing zero-seven-eight, doing turns for thirty-one knots.â
âThirty-one knots? That canât be right! The Russkies donât have a ship thatâll do thirty-one knots.â
âI double checked. Itâs thirty-one knots.â
âThey keeping company with anyone?â It wasnât unusual to find a pair of Russian subs in the same area. It was almost as though they were afraid to get too far apart from each other when away from home.
âIâm picking up another noise, but no cavitation sounds. Maybe itâs a sub dead in the water.â
âUnlikely,â Block told him. âHow far off?â
âIâm not exactly sure, but theyâre close. Real close.â In submarine terms, that meant under ten miles.
Block rubbed his chin again. They were on their way to a naval exercise, so he had no time to play cat and mouse. âLetâs yankee search himâ, Block finally said. He knew their expensive and sophisticated sonar device had limited accuracy the faster they traveled. The noise of the subâs movement made listening in the water more difficult. At twenty knots, the subâs BQQ-5 retained only twenty percent effectiveness, nothing to brag to the Pentagon about. A sub running at high speed was essentially blind. There was no telling how close this other sub was, or what class it was.
Reaching, Goodman powered up the active transducers in the BQQ-5âs main sphere at the bow.
Ping! A wave front of sound energy rolled through the dark ocean depths.
Pong! The wave was reflected back off the hard steel hull of the unknown sub.
âRange to target, four hundred yards. Location of target is almost directly in front of us.â Goodman hesitated, made some quick calculations, and then continued. âSir, I think weâre on a collision course.â
âPing them again, only louder. Make sure they know weâre here.â
âAye, aye sir.â
âChange course to zero-eighty-one.â
âAye, aye, sir. Change course to zero-eighty-one.â
Just then a loud ping bounced off the hull. Then another. Even in peacetime, hearing that sound was unnerving to any submariner. It stole the feeling of invincibility and power and replaced it with fear and vulnerability. It was a little like being caught in battle in your underwear.
âSir, distance closing rapidly. Range to target, two-hundred twenty yards and closing rapidly. Her depth is three hundred sixty. Hearing reactor noises. Heâs powering up, sir.â
âHard left rudder. Damn it. He mustâve been following us.â He eyed the depth gauge. It read three hundred and falling.
The number of Soviet-American collisions was a closely guarded secret; that there had been collisions was not. Usually, it was the Americans who crept up dangerously close on Russian subs. This time, the Russians were following American tactics.
âAye, aye sir. Hard left rudder.â It was a decision made that calculated the Russian was going to go the opposite direction. That was their habit.
The pinging continued, like a cornered animal calling out a warning to stay away.
Block stared forward, his mind picturing the two subs. It was rumored the best captains were left-handed and possessed an excellent capacity to visualize objects in three dimensions. The right brain, the dominant hemisphere in lefties, excels in spatial relations. He didnât like what his mind visualized.
âRange sir, one hundred-ten. Now hearing screw sounds. Heâs moving.â He pressed the earphones closer to his ear. âTrying to get a fix on his direction and speed.â
âI donât know if thereâs time,â Block said quietly. Everyone in the control room heard him. They knew at times he talked softly, and they also knew he always carried that proverbial big stick. Block looked at the depth gauge. It read three hundred forty. They were almost on the same plane as the Russian sub. It still amazed Block that in the vastness of the Atlantic, two subs could still collide. But, that was the side effect of Soviet-American war games.
Ping. . . . . .Ping. . . . . Ping. . . .
The sound was tormenting. Block clenched his fist, cursing his weakness. A Russian sub had caught him, and he hadnât even known it was there.
âSir, range fifty-nine and closing.â
âBrace for collisionâ, Block finally ordered. His voice remained firm, yet still calm. He was a pro.
The OOD, officer of the deck quickly grabbed the mic and relayed the message. âAll hands, attention all hands. Brace for collision. Close all watertight doors. I repeat, brace for collision.â The OOD replaced the mic and grabbed onto the chart table. If there was a collision, he knew it didnât matter what he held on to.
The two subs were nearing collision. The Russian sub had been following the American ship for three days. Bored with a chase that elicited no response, the Russian commander ordered his ship ahead at two-thirds full speed, passing the slower American ship hours earlier. He couldnât have known that right there, in the middle of a huge ocean, the American captain would order his ship to turn and dive, right into the path of the lower sub. The second Russian sub was merely passing through the area when it stumbled upon the American sub. It was as surprised as the Americans to find another Russian sub in the area.
Block held onto to the chart table at the conn. He knew this collision could easily sink the ship. Any collision at sea could. A submarine was a fragile machine, which is one reason why every crew-member underwent rigorous training and psychological testing before being chosen to wear the coveted dolphin of the submariner.
âRange thirty-two and closing.â
Block noticed his stooped posture and straightened. It was better to be a little bent in a collision and not so rigid. It helped absorb the force. But a more erect posture showed strength and courage. He wondered about his wife and two daughters. No matter what any father said, there was a special connection between father and daughter that was always different than between father and son. He deeply loved Alison and Julie. They were the bright spot of his life. And his wife, also Julie. How did he ever get so lucky? She had the patience of Job, waiting six-months between visits. She was faithful, too. He was sure of that. And unlike many submariners, Mick had been faithful for every one of the fourteen years heâd known Julie. He couldnât consider any other life style. Now, in a moment where a man faces death, he was glad that he had resisted all those temptations. He didnât know exactly what he was going to say to the man upstairs, but having fourteen years of loyalty and monogamy had to count for something in this day and age.
âRange, twenty, and closing. . . .â
Ping. . . . .
âRange four, and . . . â
The roar of the collision was deafening. Suddenly it felt like the floor had completely shifted twenty feet. The collision tossed everyone standing in the control room to the floor. Block was suddenly thrust forward and hit the bulkhead. He felt a gush of warmth on his forehead, and the next thing he knew, he was on the deck.
The scraping sound that followed was worse than fingernails on a chalkboard. The ocean depth greatly magnified any sound. The metallic noise screamed and screeched and vibrated throughout the entire ship. In the forward torpedo room, the force of the collision loosened three torpedoes that fell off the rack onto several sailors. They heard the rumble of the torpedoes rolling, but it happened so quickly they could not get out of their path. It didnât matter. Two had their chests crushed flat, and a third got his head caught between the torpedo and a vertical beam. As he fell to the deck, his head dangled lifelessly on his shoulders.
The outer bulkhead gave way. The metal hull that was inches thick, rolled back like foil. Seawater gushed through a small opening, shoved by the intense water depth, the hull wider like a wire fence tears open a good pair of jeans. A nearly solid wall of cold water gushed into the forward torpedo room knocking down anyone in its path. The force of the water slamming sailors against the bulkhead killed most instantly. It happened so quickly that those who died did so almost immediately. The pressure was crushing; it represented the weight of all the water above the submarine. A full can of soda crumbled into a small mass of foil. In less than two seconds, water filled the entire forward torpedo room. The air from the torpedo room raced to the surface, carrying with it many a sailorâs last breath.
Since the collision occurred in the forward section, the entire forward watertight compartment had been compromised. Although water-tight doors existed between areas, there were spaces that highly pressurized water could quickly seep through, not too unlike the spaces in the walls of a house, or tiny crawlspaces under new additions.
In the upper level of the forward compartment, the control room and attack center was located. The control room also functioned as the attack center when necessary. This area was the nerve center, controlling and monitoring all functions of the ship.
The gush of numbing cold seawater continued to pour through the huge gash in the bow of the ship. The forward torpedo room was flooded and pressurized seawater continued to push its way through the doomed submarine. The added weight sent the sub diving nose-first toward the bottom. For an eternity of nine seconds, the two subs scraped sides. Then there was a deafening silence, broken only by quiet sobs and moans.
In the control room, a few men were pushing themselves off the floor. Some moaned quietly, but the rushing roar of water in the next compartment erased the sounds.
Block slowly got up as he wiped the blood away from his eyes. âBlow all tanks!â He barked with fury and desperation in his voice. âSurface! Emergency surface!â
âAye aye, sir.â The order was followed and all tanks were blown.
The sub was pointed nose down and rapidly slipping to the bottom. The sound of water being forced out of the ballast tanks was always welcomed noise. Everyone in the control room hung on tightly as the ship remained pointed down at a sharp forty-one degree angle. Block leaned against the charting tables, his fingers white from clutching it so tightly. He hoped and waited for the ship to level off, but it appeared the damage was too great. âFull speed ahead,â he ordered.
âFull speed ahead,â came the reply. The âaye aye sirâ had been totally forgotten in the stress of the events. Forgotten, or simply omitted in an effort to conserve every second and put every movement into saving the ship. When death was that close, shortcuts were taken and forgiven. The helmsman adjusted the diving planes in an attempt to get more lift, much like a jet makes adjustments to obtain more lift. For a moment, it worked, and the sub slowly began to level off.