After the conference I had some time to kill so I decided to visit Magnuson State Park. It wasn’t an arbitrary decision just selected at random from the Seattle area map, I had heard (and seen some pictures) of a sculpture there and decided to visit there if I could as a result. My first set of directions actually took me to the artist’s house, I didn’t stop in and say hi, but just backtracked and went to the park.
In the picture shown above, if you are not sure what you are looking at, let me explain. From the 1950’s to the current date the USA has been building and using Nuclear Submarines, starting with the USS Nautilus, SSN 571 commissioned in 1954. Both search and destroy (fast attack) and stealth missile deployment (Ballistic Missiles) submarines utilize stern planes and sail planes (the “sail” is what landlubbers would call the conning tower.) The sail planes are also called the dive planes as they are used to cause the submarine to dive and surface when it is neutrally buoyant.
Seattle Fins: SSN 669 Seahorse, SSBN 641 Simon Bolivar, SSN 652 Puffer, SSN 615 Gato, SSBN 620 John Adams, SSN 595 Plunger, SSN 638 Whale, SSN 667 Bergall, SSN 673 Flying Fish, SSN 597 Tullibee, SSN 650 Pargo, SSN 662 Gurnard.
Miami Fins: Sea Devil SSN 664, Pogy SSN 647, Sand Lance SSN 660, Pintado SSN 672, Trepang SSN 674, Billfish SSN 676, Archerfish SSN 678, Tunny SSN 682, Von Steuben SSBN 632, Sculpin SSN 590, Cavalla SSN 684.
I served on two nuclear submarines during the period 1976-1979, the USS John Adams, SSBN 620 and the USS Bergall, SSN 667, so you can see my interest in the Seattle sculpture. The SSBN on the Adams number means she was a ballistic missile boat, we carried up to 16 Poseidon missiles with MIRV warheads (multiple independent re-entry vehicle, meaning each missile of the Poseidon class could hit multiple targets) with the nuclear capability that exceeded the explosive power of all the munitions used in WWII. All this was used to carry out the MAD (mutually assured destruction) doctrine between the USA, USSR and at times Communist (Red) China, although the main targets were predominantly in the USSR. The SSN means the Bergall was a fast attack submarine used to hunt and kill other ships, including hostile submarines.
The MAD concept was that the SSBN type submarines, being undetectable, would be unstoppable launch platforms that would be used to respond to any nuclear aggression from anywhere in the world. Thus assuring we could utterly destroy Russian civilization should they launch a first attack that succeeded in taking out our land based missile systems. The Russians spent a great deal of time, money and resources trying to find ways to beat the SSBN submarines, in no small part they were one of the key technologies that kept the Russians and Chinese from launching a first strike during the worst part of the cold war.
ComSubLAnt (Commander Submarine Atlantic) could communicate with us using radio and LFT (Low Frequency Transmissions.) They kept the encrypted traffic going 24X7 replacing any actual command traffic with 15 word family grams, news and other items to not allow the Russians the ability to sense something was happening by seeing increased communications traffic. Each sailor was only allowed a limited number of family grams per patrol, no reverse communication, from the sailors back to the families was allowed. A patrol lasted 3 months with most of that spent underwater on patrol and the balance in such sun-fun spots as Holy Loch, Scotland repairing what the other crew broke on their patrol. The SSBNs had two crews, the Golds and Blues, I was on the gold crew. You usually spent about 70-80 days underwater with no fresh air, no outside views and no females! Your biggest enemies where boredom and doing qualifications, you didn’t think about the hundreds of pounds per square inch of pressure that were striving to snuff out your life every second of every day while you were on patrol or you would go mad.
We were the warriors of the cold war. The cold war was officially over (at least most felt it was) when the Berlin wall was taken down in 1989, the submarine fleet was as much responsible for that as any president. We were away 3 months out of every 6 from our families, for these patrols, I did 5 patrols and a DASO run for a total of 18 months out of the 33 I spent on the Adams. At just about any time during those 18 months a worn seal, a broken valve, a busted pipe could have killed us all, as it did for the sailors on the two nuclear submarines that didn’t come back, the USS Thresher, SSN 593 and the USS Scorpion, SSN 589. Believe me, listening to the pings and squeals as we went to test and one time to crush depth was a bit unnerving when you realized how much pressure it took to do that to several inches of stainless steel pressure hull. The Russians lost several submarines during that time as well and now most of their fleet lies in ruins silently rusting away at the piers in Vladivostok and other Russian ports.
As I stood there and placed my hand against the only surviving part of the submarine that had guarded my (and your) life both directly when I was aboard her and indirectly through the MAD concept when I wasn’t I couldn’t help but feel a bit nostalgic and melancholy that such a fine ship met such an ignoble end as becoming feed stock for John Deere tractors except for one sail plane in this sculpture garden. Of course the transition from a ship of war to farm implements maybe has greater cosmic import that I realize. The Bergall had both of her sail planes here, but since I only spent a few months and never went to sea on her, I didn’t feel the connection I did with the Adams.
As I wandered the sculpture garden taking pictures I heard and watched a group of children playing on a nearby hill. Later from that same hill I watched them walk down through the sculpture garden toward the beach and right past the last intact piece of the USS John Adams. I wondered if any of them truly understood what that piece of steel really meant? Of course maybe it’s true purpose was so that they never again would have to live under the threat of nuclear annihilation of the entire planet. I hope someone explains it to them, so that the meaning is not forgotten.
The Author beside the USS John Adams SSBN 620 Sail Plane