Depth Charged By the Russians

25 Jun

The following article was in the second issue of the Ling Log, official newsletter of the New Jersey Naval Museum. I , Matthew Milsop, conducted an interview with John O’Meally, a twenty-two year US Navy veteran whose last see assignment was USS Halibut (SSGN-587).

Anyone who has read the book Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of the Submarine Espionage, will remember the story and accounts of the USS Halibut. The only Nuclear Powered Regulus boat of the US Navy, she was modified and used as a spy vessel and had some pretty hair raising experiences keeping an eye on the Soviet Union. One of our newest volunteers was assigned to Halibut for three years, while she was a Regulus Missile boat and had a few interesting experiences to share with us. For even as a missile
boat, Halibut was doing quite a bit of snooping. Just goes to show you how truly diverse our Submarine
Force is.
The best way to learn about history is to hear it straight from the source, that is, the source of a person who was actually there! John O’Meally came to us as a volunteer to give tours through the Ling and had, perhaps, some of the best credentials to do so. John served in the United States Navy for about 22 years, many of those years on submarines, seven of those years on a very unique: USS Halibut SSGN-587.

The first name, the first book that comes to mind when this name is mentioned is Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage , written by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew with Annette Lawrence Drew. Read this book. I say again: read this book! It runs like a spy thriller, it sounds like a spy thriller, it might as well be a spy thriller similar to Tom
Clancy’s work. All of the events in this book, all of the missions, the events, the people, all of it was real, all of this was and continues to be the mission of the submarine force, this and more still happens today under an impenetrable blanket of security! What’s in a name?

This was the second submarine to bear the name Halibut; the first one, a Gato class diesel electric submarine was depth charged 250 times during the War in the Pacific and still returned to base. The account of this and more can be read in
Take Her Deep, by Admiral I.J. Galantin, USN (ret). Halibut, SSGN-587, meanwhile, was a Regulus Boat, commissioned in January of 1960. Carrying five of the winged Regulus type missiles, like the one seen in New Jersey Naval Museum’s park, a Regulus Boat’s job was to conduct Nuclear Deterrence Patrols against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In the event of war, a Regulus Boat would surface, load and begin to fire its big blue nuclear armed missiles at various Soviet targets. The Regulus boats and surface ships equipped with such weapons were eventually replaced by the Polaris missile boats; these submarines could fire their missiles from below the sea at much greater ranges from their targets. In 1965 she entered Pearl Harbor to undergo refit and reconstruction for her new role as a spy submarine. Halibut’s exploits as a spy sub can be read about in Blind Man’s Bluff and they are, to say the least,
impressive. But what makes Mr. O’Meally’s relation to the Halibut so interesting is that he did not serve on her when she was a spy submarine, but a Regulus Boat.

Don’t stop reading.
I know, I know! Missile boats, deterrence patrols, long, long patrols of nothing, absolutely nothing!
No missiles were fired in anger, missile boats don’t hunt submarines and there is no way a missile boat would do something like spy missions. Halibut may have been a missile boat, but this missile boat was busy and its crew was gutsy, and it had its share of danger and discovery. John O’Meally too, is a rather interesting man; in his mid seventies, he still works for a living, volunteers at our museum to give tours and loves to talk about his time in the Navy and in the Submarine Force.

 John joined the Navy in 1954 for several reasons. The influence of the Navy had been great on him, for he and friends had older brothers who had been Navy and had been in the war. In addition, he had gone to a high school that had also doubled as a Navy school to teach students skills they could use in the Navy when they graduated, should they decide to join. He was also a member of the Navy Club and would meet with fellow students every Thursday. What really did it for him, though, were the post cards from his brother who was in the Navy and on a world tour. Every post card was from another part of the world and John, who already had a good job as an electrician, was inspired to join.

His first few years were not on submarines, but surface ships like destroyers. Despite the fact he was already an electrician, a member of the union, had a Journey Man’s card, the Navy ordered him to go to Electrician School. I asked him if he learned anything new there and he laughed; it was an easy school for him, an opportunity to relax. Later on, he volunteered for the submarine force because of increased pay. He said sailors in the Submarine Force who were doing the exact same job he was doing were doing it for $50.00 more. At the age of 19, that seemed like it would solve all of his money problems. Well, it did more than that. Because he never looked back once; he said to me he was glad he volunteered for the submarine force and you can tell just by listening to him, his voice that he is genuine in that feeling. This man truly enjoyed his time in the Submarine Force!
Another motivation was his station at the time, Key West, Florida. John is an African American and as anyone with a very basic history of our nation knows, the Deep South in the 1950’s was not very hospitable toward African Americans I did not press John for detail about what Key West was like for an African American in the 1950’s, but I know when I say uncomfortable, I am probably making a terrible understatement.

 This was a time before the Civil Rights Movement, when schools were still segregated, a different world from what we live in today. I asked him if he ever had any problems with prejudice in his time in the service and, with regards to the Submarine Force. He said he encountered no prejudice on his boats that he was ever aware of. He did relate one story, which gives younger readers an idea of what that world was like and how tough this man really is. On his first Destroyer, before his time in the Submarine Force, out of training, John’s Chief Petty Officer, a man who was not described in very favorable or nice terms by John informed him that he did not believe that, “Colored Boys” did not make good electricians. As a result, John was forced to do mess cook duty for six months. Normally all new sailors did mess cook duty for three months, but upon completing that, the Chief Petty Officer put him on for another three months. Following that, he was made to do another three months of compartment cleaning. In the meantime, he would work in the electrical shop on his off time as he truly enjoyed electrician work. But at the end of his tour cleaning compartments, he was promoted to Petty Officer Third Class and was no longer eligible to do those kinds of jobs. There was nothing the Chief Petty Officer could do or did about it.
His first boat was a diesel-electric submarine on its way out of commission. Later, he would go to New London, Connecticut to attend the submarine school and serve on two other diesel electric boats. Meanwhile, technological advancements were beginning to gain momentum, advancements that would change the Submarine Force forever. During this period, the Navy was in the process of expanding its nuclear powered submarine force. Starting with USS Nautilus, they were developing a fleet of vessels that could remain under the water for months at a time without surfacing, travel underneath the water much faster provide better defensive and offensive power for the Navy. The diesel-electric boats of the time were excellent designs and many of the boats, like the Ling, had been modified and rebuilt, providing them with better batteries for underwater travel, streamlining for smoother, more efficient underwater travel, and improved sensor equipment. The newer diesel boats built after the war were excellent models. Yet, these boats principal disadvantage was their power source; diesel engines requiring hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel and batteries with the capacity to hold two days worth of electricity before running out and forcing the boat to surface and run the engines. The most immediate remedy had been the snorkel system, where a pair of pipes would be raised above the water and air would be drawn in to replenish the boats air supplies, while another pipe serving as an exhaust, would allow the submarine to run its engines. This system had its problems, one of them being that it was highly taxing on the engines. What was needed was a power supply that would allow the submarine to stay submerged. That was found in harnessing the power of the atom. But men were needed to control and maintain these vessels, and the Navy was having a hard time finding qualified individuals in the ranks of volunteers. Therefore, men like John were ordered to go. As long as their grades and service records had been good, they were eligible enough to train. Upon completion of his training, John was sent to one of his more memorable boats, the USS Halibut.
He spent seven years on Halibut, from 1960-67, and did three patrols in three and a half years. On his last year, the Halibut was undergoing conversion into the spy submarine she is best known as. Despite its unusual design and shape, many of the Regulus Boats had an unusual design and shape, the boat was really no different from the Skate class nuclear powered submarine. The difference came forward of Officer Country, the part of the vessel with sleeping quarter reserved for officers only, where the hanger and launch equipment for the Regulus missiles were stored. This section, known as the “Bat Cave” was notable for having a large, 18 foot hatch atop of it, a hatch much bigger than any other in the Submarine Force. In Blind Man’s Bluff this hatch was said to be a source of concern to those serving aboard her, as well as her noise and ballast tanks. None of these concerned John and the rest of the crew, though when
he did see Halibut’s huge missile bay hatch, he had to wonder, “what the hell kind of submarine is this?”

 By the time he was serving on Halibut, he was an Electrician 1st Class and qualified to stand watch in Engineering. This meant, when ordered to by the Engineering Officer, he was in charge of the Engine Rooms, the Reactor, the Electrical Panel etc. In addition, he had electrical specialists under him and, just like any other submarine. He had to have, at the very least, a basic understanding of all the boat’s systems. While it may have been a far more complex beast, a nuclear crew is still responsible for knowing all of their systems just like on the World War II boats. The isolation, the enormous depths and pressures they were subjected to, combined with the immense firepower, requires the crew to be able to react quickly and replace any loss of deficiency as quickly as possible. Halibut engaged in Nuclear Deterrence Patrols as well as spy missions of her own.

One of those spy missions had an ironic twist to it. Halibut sat 50 miles outside of Pearl Harbor gathering information on the US Navy’s own ships as they came in and out of the base and there is no indication that Halibut was ever detected. This was, in a sense, a warning, that if they could do this, the Soviet Union, in all likelihood was doing the same.

Halibut also observed the Soviets firing one of their first intercontinental ballistic missiles from a submarine. The Soviet vessel launched the missiles from the back of its sail structure from what would be called the fairwater on the Ling. In watching this launch, the crew found the missiles were actually so long, that their bottoms actually rested deep in the Soviet boats. This ran counter to what the Navy believed prior to this, that the missiles were only as tall standing as the sail they were launched from.

The patrol area for Halibut was near the largest Soviet Naval base in the Pacific. In the Kamchatka Peninsula and even there, they got so close to the Soviets, Halibut actually slipped underneath a surfaced Soviet Submarine and photographed its propeller, or what naval people refer to as the screw. A screw’s shape and design are closely guarded secrets. Normally when a boat is in dry dock, the screw is covered up as the shape can actually determine how quiet the boat is underwater. On submarines, the quieter the boat, the better.

 But while they were conducting their intelligence gathering missions, Halibut was always ready to receive the orders that would correspond with a terrible breakdown of peace, orders that would come at the beginning of World War III, orders that, thankfully, never came. Halibut would then have to surface and fire its terrible nuclear payload and destroy the base with its Regulus missiles. The Soviets, meanwhile, were always on the lookout for boats like Halibut and the other nuclear boats of the US Navy. Their destroyers constantly trolled the surface, listening, watching for any sign of any Americans spying on their operations. There are several occasions where American boats were discovered, and Halibut was one of them.

 On a Monday, the Russians had pulled their fleet out of the base to conduct training exercises and this provided an enormous opportunity for the Halibut to gather some excellent intelligence on these vessels. Pictures were taken and, even more importantly, the sounds of the vessel’s engines were recorded by Halibut’s sound sensors. Each ship’s engines have a very specific sound; all engines do not age and deteriorate exactly the same way even if they are the same model and these unique variations in sound are like fingerprints and are a good way to identify each vessel. The force the Russian had deployed consisted of two of their own submarines, several destroyers and a larger ship. At some point, the Russians suspected that another submarine was in the area and they ordered their two submarines to surface. As the sound of a submarine was still audible, clearly they had an uninvited quest. Halibut promptly dove deep and hid.

 By Thursday, the Russian fleet had completed their exercises and was on their way back, but several of the Russian destroyers remained behind. Once more, Halibut had been detected and those destroyers were on the hunt for the snooping vessel. At this time, Halibut had been “rigged for patrol quiet”. There was to be no excessive noise in the boat, but showing a movie was permissible. John was one of those men in the forward torpedo room watching a movie and, half way through, the order, “rig for ultra quiet” was given. The movie had to be shut off as well as many other systems. Soon, he could feel the boat beginning to submerge deeper and deeper. The order “rig for deep submergence” was given and several of the movie viewers in the forward torpedo room got up immediately and began to go from compartment to compartment carrying out their assigned task to make sure each compartment was ready for deep submergence. Then came the order John heard for the first time and would never hear again: “Rig for depth charge.”

 He was up and out of the torpedo room, practically jumping. He went to the battery well with someone else and began securing battery buckets by tying them down. That was when the first depth charge went off. Next, he made his way aft to Engineering to see if he was needed. As a qualified officer of the watch, he had skills that would be needed in the event of an emergency. In addition, this was his battle station.

Then the second charge went off.

The Captain had yet to call Battle Stations. Battle Station is such a high state of readiness. Adrenaline flows, focus is laser sharp, and, forefront on everyone’s mind is the reality, unbelievable as it may have seemed, that they were about to go into combat against the Russians. In addition, on a more immediate level and an immediate concern to Halibut’s forward thinking Captain, he had no idea how long he would have his crew at Battle Stations. Instead of wearing everyone out, therefore, those not on duty or watch were ordered to their bunks to get whatever sleep they could.

On the second day of this, however, Battle Stations was called and the Russians were still hunting Halibut.

They dove deep, very deep. Halibut’s test depth had been 710 feet. In other words, that was the depth the official documents and experts said the boat could safely operate at. As a submarine, dives deeper and deeper into the ocean, it is subjected to more and more pressure, above, below and on the sides of the boat. All submarines have their limits, known as the crush depth, the depth which water pressure becomes so much that the steel of the boat can no longer hold back the pressure of the water. When there is so much water around the boat it will squeeze the hull and crush it like an empty soda can in the hands of a heavy weight wrestler. Halibut’s captain, like many captains trying to escape relentless Japanese attacks during World War II, took a page from their books and drove Halibut a little deeper. They continued on somewhere between 805, 810, the Russians still tracking them. There were ways of escape, methods, tricks that would through the Russians, any anti-submarine warfare team off and allow a submarine to escape. The Russians, according to John were not too skilled, but they had a good learning curve and were getting close. The best way for a submarine to escape was to
find what was known as a thermal layer, enter it, and hide there. A thermal layer is an area of ocean, varying in size, where the temperature has suddenly increased. It is not by much, usually about five degrees or so, but the effects this temperature change has on sound is profound. Sound equipment cannot detect much outside the thermal layer, likewise, hunter sound equipment will usually lose track of a submarine when it enters this layer. Research into thermal layers during the war had resulted in the addition of a small piece of equipment onboard submarines called the bathythermograph, a small device that displayed the temperature of the water around the boat which was instrumental in detecting these layers. Many a crew saved themselves from further torment and possible destruction by finding one of these and slipping their boat into it, confusing and eventually loosing hunting vessels above.
Cold War boats had lost hunters in a similar way. They would drive the boat at high speed, find a layer, enter it, shut the engines down while using hard right rudder. It literally threw the sound of the boat like a decoy and sent the hunting vessel on a wild porpoise chase.
The problem was the weather. Above sea it had been a perfect week for exercises for the Russian Navy with clear skies, calm winds, and nice weather, which allowed Halibut to gather all that data as well. But that also meant there would be few thermal layers in the ocean and, therefore almost no cover. It was not until later that the weather began to pick up and Halibut was able to find its
thermal layers, hide and lose the Russian destroyers.

With their escape complete, and the Russian destroyers returning home, Halibut could drive away to a safer distance. But this was not the end of their seventh patrol, not by a long shot. They still had seven more weeks to go and much more snooping to do in addition to serving as a reminder as to what the Russians would face in retaliation if they decided to begin WWIII. That was a deterrence patrol.

 About 25 to 30 miles away from their patrol area, they cleaned up the boat, fixed what they had to and returned to what would be the last patrol of the USS Halibut as a Regulus missile boat. Next would be her yearlong metamorphosis into the pure spy boat written about in Blind Man’s Bluff. This was neither the first time nor the last time a US submarine would be depth charged by Russian surface forces, but little came of this politically. Rare, if ever, is the story such as this in popular media. The Russians never sank one of our boats and the charges they were using were not very big or powerful ones. This was intentional. These depth charges, smaller ones, were never designed to sink a submarine, but to serve as a warning shot to let the US submarine know that they were found, the jig was up, come up and show yourself.

It may seem like a dirty writer’s trick to drop that little piece of information at the end, as if to say, “oh, but Halibut was never in any kind of danger.” One has to remember, that crew was cut off, and crew did not have the benefit of foresight. That crew, at the moment those charges were falling, did not know what was to follow after the next charge- another warning or the real thing.

Had WWIII begun?

All they knew was that there were explosives being dropped around them and they had no idea when it would end. Perhaps the best indicator of this was in the forward torpedo room.

 They had two of the tubes flooded down, loaded each with a very real, very live torpedo, ready to shoot if the need presented itself.

Thankfully it never did.

My Opening Posts

21 Jun

My greatest two loves in life are writing and history. I write almost every day, finding excuses to do so, before my paid job, and I work at a museum as an unpaid volunteer. My fiction just excercises my mind, gives a bit of life and purpose for learning, my volunteering at the museum allows me to give others a little inspiration and knowledge. New Jersey Naval Museum is the home of a truely great historical artifact, a WWII United States Navy Submarine, USS Ling (SS-297). The Submarine Force of the US Navy was the first arm that struck back at the Japanese, in the days after Pearl Harbor. They would continue to strike at the Japanese for the rest of the war, growing in size, in power, refining tactics and weapons. In the opinion of the writer, they did half the work out in the Pacific War as they sunk about fifty-four percent of Japanese cargo shipping and about a third of thier surface ships, strangling Japan itself. Consider the dangers they faced; depth charges, aircraft, being rammed by friendly or enemy ships, malfunctioning equipment; they are one of the most amazing and understudied groups in WWII history.

Here’s a shot of my boat; I’m proud of her and proud of what she has accomplished. No war record; she did not complete her first war patrol because the war ended and she was used as a training boat after fourteen years in the reserves. She is a teacher to the young and old and a memorial to those who braved the depth of the seas for our country and for freedom.


The fairwater/superstructure of the USS Ling