The Mathers arrived in beautiful Hawaii for two days of rest and recreation (R&R) before heading out to its station in Vietnam. It was 1969 and even though the word was out that we were winning the war, the reality was that U.S. led forces to defeat the enemy in Vietnam was bogged down.
Lieutenant Reynolds, head of security, was curious why the rush to leave this beautiful paradise. The weather was warm, the people were friendly. and we were welcomed by the residents. It was killing the Lieutenant and he needed to know what was happening.
At that moment, the Captain announced a meeting in the Wardroom promptly.
This was the Lieutenant’s first time serving under Captain Bowten’s command and he wasn’t used to the Captain’s ways. All he knew about the Captain was that he wanted to make Admiral at all cost! This ship was his fast track to Washington and that promotion.
The Captain’s secretary called the meeting to order.
Captain Bowten rose and in a solemn voice said, “Men, we were just notified that a Russian submarine left her Russian port and is headed over to Upper Nappeun. It is our responsibility to track her and then follow directions from Washington. Men, I want that submarine found and found fast!”
The Captain continued, “As soon as Sonar locks onto it, I need to know. Sonar get your men on this fast! We need to find her and follow her. Get back to me as soon as you’ve made contact.”
The meeting was dismissed.
Lt. Smith relayed the order to the Sonar shack and all sonar men were getting the orders, “find that fucking submarine now”.
The sonar crew consisted of Lt. Smith, in charge (or who thought he was in charge), a Chief, who was operationally in charge, and ten other sailors with little to no experience. Most of the sailors were under twenty-one years old and just out of sonar school.
“Get that coffee pot going”, barked the Chief. “It’s going to be a long night.”
The Chief knew the burden rested on his shoulders to groom these young sailors into competent sonar men. This was a task he had done many times before. The Chief was a career sailor with only ten years to go to retirement and he didn’t want anything to destroy his plans!
Coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Chief paced back and forth watching and listening to the “ping” of the sonar equipment.
“Remember, as soon as you see a blimp on that screen, I want to know”.
“Beep, beep, beep” sonar picked up a ship! Chief, I got it!
After examining it closely, it ended up being a freighter in the cargo lanes crossing the Pacific.
“I said submarine, you idiot! scolded the Chief.
Eyes were fixed on that screen and ears perked up every time a simple noise emanated from the sonar equipment. Minutes turned to hours and finally, the Chief came into the sonar shack defiantly screaming for a “Goddammit, get away from the equipment and let me take it over”.
The Chief was a hard-nosed, tough and proud young man. After all, he made Chief when he turned twenty-five! That was unheard of and he knew it. It fed his ego and gave him more fuel to throw his weight around. And, he did! He was one of a few in the Navy that knew how to track Russian submarines. He was trained to identify submarines by a system called SOSUS, a sound surveillance system of underwater listening posts located around the world.
During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy laid fixed networks of underwater hydrophones on the ocean floor called the “Sound Surveillance System” (SOSUS) to detect Soviet submarines transiting from their bases to patrol areas in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Listening arrays placed in strategic checkpoints that submarines would necessarily have to transit, like the waters between Greenland, Iceland, and Scotland — the so-called “GIUK Gap” — nationally let the United States know every time a Soviet submarine entered the North Atlantic, allowing the U.S. Navy to direct its own ships or submarines to track them (Stashwick, 2016).
As he sat staring at the sonar mapping the ocean floor, he watched fish swim by, he listened to the sounds of the whales and watched as they appeared on his display.
“Where the hell was that submarine?”
It was 24-hours since that submarine left Russia and according to his calculation (and he was always right), he should have picked it up just about now!
Wait, what’s that on the screen?
He could tell by the rotation and sound of the propeller that it was a Russian submarine. Now, which submarine was it? He worked in a SOSUS station before his tour on the Mathers and his job was to identify the Russian submarines by the distinct sound of each boat.
He knew that submarine!! It was the Russian submarine – L-154.
“Captain, Sonar has the sub! We’re tracking it right now. It’s bearing 305 to the NE of us. I’ll get it charted and we’ll track this SOB, Sir”.
The Captain ordered the ship to be darkened with only it’s running lights navigation. He gave the command to cut all engines and ordered all personnel to report to general quarters immediately.
The sailors rushed to their muster stations. They pulled the blackout curtains around each exit and secured the portholes. The bridge performed its duties in the glow of a dim red light not visible to other ships. The ship ran only the red portlight and the green starboard light.
The Chief kept a close eye on the screen. He didn’t want that submarine to escape the “eyes” of the Mathers.
The submarine moved across the screen at a slow speed. The Chief followed the dots on the screen. He knew the name and number of the submarine. Those two-years on shore duty trained him for what was happening right now!
What are we going to do once we catch up to this sub?
We can’t take it hostage. Where would we put this submarine and what about the crew? No one has ever captured a Russian submarine and her crew. The Chief just couldn’t figure this out.
Suddenly the pinging stopped.
” Where the hell is she,” shouted the Chief. The others surrounded him to look for it.
“Chief, we lost her again, Sir.” Silence came over Sonar. All eyes focused on the screen. Everyone strained to hear the ping from the sub. Nothing.
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