Please note: The Beverly Review is providing this article for free due to a generous grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.
When I was a history teacher years ago, at least once a semester, a student’s hand would go up, and the 15 or 16-year-old teenager would ask a question.
“Mr. C., what was it like on a submarine?”
His objective, more than likely, was to distract me from the assigned topic for the class that day, perhaps something interesting like the Battle of Fredericksburg or the unification of Germany in 1871.
I knew what these youngsters were up to, and my response to their queries about my days as a U.S. Navy nuclear weapons technician aboard the USS James Monroe was always something short and sweet like this.
“I tell you what … take your books, go to the men’s room and stay there for three months.”
Gasps and smiles and maybe a bit of laughter would follow, but their mission had been accomplished. I didn’t mind the diversion from my lesson plan.
I have always loved talking about submarines and of my time, now more than 48 years ago, serving in one, deep underwater and isolated from the world.
With the COVID-19 crisis, I am again being reminded of my days as a submariner when my friends, like my students, ask questions about my service.
“This must be like old times, right? You’re used to isolation, right?”
My basic response to these queries is even more concise than the ones I gave to students.
I was only 26 when I finished my sub tour in 1972, and while some similarities between life in a submarine and the extraordinary conditions that Americans face during this pandemic are similar, many aspects are significantly different.
For the record, the USS Monroe was a 425-foot long Lafayette class fleet ballistic missile submarine. In commission from 1963 to 1990, the boat made dozens of patrols in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Each deterrent patrol was a carefully planned and meticulously executed military mission. Our boat departed from Apra Harbor, Guam, on a specific date and then returned on a specific date.
Tons of food and spare pieces of equipment were loaded in preparation for each well-planned mission.
In the control room on the quartermaster’s table, a chart indicated the boat’s position and course. Latitudes and longitudes were clearly marked, and we knew where we were headed.
Our captain, Commander James Harris, was a veteran officer, a certified diver trained in underwater demolition and to his crew, Harris was a source of complete confidence.
Each time he came off watch as officer of the deck, he would walk the length of the boat fore to aft.
Torpedo room, operations compartment, missile compartment, machinery rooms 1 and 2, reactor compartment and the engine room. He would stop and talk with watch-standers about problems with this or that piece of equipment, ask about their families, wiggle a valve wheel or two and walk on.
I also remember that when he left each compartment, his last words always were directed at the most senior enlisted sailor in that compartment —always a compliment or expression of encouragement.
One time, walking forward along the starboard side of the middle level of the missile compartment, Harris asked me if there had been much water in the after-bilge pocket in the lower level.
His question came out of nowhere, and I quickly responded.
“Let’s take a look, Captain.”
We opened a hatch and climbed down to the lower level. He walked aft with me in tow, and then he got face down on the deck and leaned over to see for himself how much bilge water had collected.
After a minute or so, he got up, walked forward, climbed the ladder and disappeared into the operations compartment.
During a 1970 transit from Charleston, S.C., to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the boat had cleared the Panama Canal and was in the “big ocean.”
The Pacific was calm, but then, a calamity struck.
A bolt on the reduction gear had worked loose and needed to be repaired. We were dead in the water with 16 Polaris missiles and several nuclear torpedoes on board.
Harris assembled several senior chief engineering officers, and together, they quickly and efficiently decided what needed to be done.
In less than a day, we were heading toward Pearl Harbor at full speed. We were due to arrive on the 21st of the month, and that’s exactly when we docked.
Today, however, we find ourselves in a situation that differs in many ways.
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, nothing in this country was analogous to a submarine’s traditional all-hands loading of stores and equipment in preparation for a long deployment.
We have no chart to refer to that specifies our departure or return dates. Our crewmembers have no idea about which body of water they will be traversing, or speed or depth at which they will be operating.
Additionally, the notion of what our action might be if we encounter the viral equivalent of a Soviet submarine does not exist.
Unlike the USS Monroe, America is not a powerful warship manned by a qualified crew; it seems more like a tiny Portuguese caravel, tentatively leaving its home port and sailing slowly down the west coast of Africa, food and water running out, forced to stay in sight of land.
More importantly, Capt. Harris is nowhere to be found.