One of the more tense moments recorded in the journal I kept on the Thornback was being at Ultra Quiet for real,
on August 29, 1958. We all knew something was up because of all the spooks on board with their exotic listening
and recording equipment.
That morning I requested permission from the bridge to come up for some fresh air and sunshine, and permission
was granted. I was a regular bridge rat when not on duty in the engine room, but when I got up there I was told I
couldn't sit on the partition like I usually did. I had to remain standing on the starboard side because we had orders
to dive at the slightest hint of approaching aircraft. That way I could be the first one down the hatch when we dove
and not cause any delay in clearing the bridge.
The captain put out the word over the 1 MC that we would be intercepting four U.S.S.R. diesel submarines
running on the surface off the coast of Egypt. We were told that we would be submerged and waiting for them to
pass over us, and that we were to keep quiet about the incident after it was over…
I had the 8 to 12 watch in the After Engine Room, and when I got back there we were running on all three main
engines at Standard Speed making 13 knots. As we neared the point of interception we dove and went to Ultra
Quiet. All hands that were not on watch were instructed to stay in their bunks and not move around. The only
communication allowed was whispering.
The engines were still hot from running. We couldn't run the engine "shut-down" pumps to circulate cooling water
through them to cool them down like we usually did to make the heat in the engine room bearable. All fans and
nonessential machinery were off. Everything was dead quiet and the heat crept in. The heat from those two
monstrous engines blasted like ovens as we stood our silent watch between them. Sweat was pouring off us and
we labored to breathe. All we could do now was wait.
It was times like this when I looked around in that engine room and thought about those guys who went to sea on
the Thornback and other submarines like her during WW II. She was built during that war, and served during that
war, and everything I saw was exactly the same as it was back then. That jungle of valves and piping were the
same. The same gauges and levers and electrical conduits were there. The curve of that steel hull holding back
the sea and that same dead stagnant heat that was getting hotter and hotter.
One of the "older" guys on the boat I worked alongside in the engine room was EN1 Mervin Beck. He was one of
the guys on board who wore a WW II Submarine War Patrol combat pin. He told me what it was like being held
down through depth charge attacks in an engine room that was exactly like this one; being exhausted from the heat
and bad air, with everything creaking and shuddering through terrifying explosions.
I was only 20 years old at that time, and what Merve and the others told me made me wonder if I could have done
what they did. I was just old enough to know I was not indestructible, and to this day I still wonder if I could have
done it. I am proud to have served with those guys. I have utmost respect and admiration for them and that
respect and admiration for them will be with me forever.
We were still waiting in the silent heat. It was spooky. We really had no idea what was going on for sure, or just
how serious this was going to be. Maybe it wasn't going to be that much of a big deal, but the Cold War of the
'fifties was very real and anything could happen.
It was a long wait that finally came to an end as we began to hear the sound of approaching screws, getting
louder and louder, and then they were directly above us. I couldn't help thinking they just had to know we were
down here. We waited for what seemed like a long time, then the sounds began to recede as they passed on over
us and went on their way. A little later we got word we could secure from Ultra Quiet and it was over.
I wasn't feeling very good because of the heat, and was glad when my watch was over so I could get out of that
engine room. I went forward to the galley to get some ice cold water and when I got there I wasn't alone. Most of
the crew not on watch were already there, or on their way there, to get in line for a big drink of ice cold water.
My journal describes another event just five days later that was a stark reminder of the consequences we could
have faced during that earlier mission if things had gone wrong. We had moved out of the area that we were in,
and were again engaged in war games with friendly forces. When the exercises were over that day, we surfaced at
1330 and found a 70-pound "hedge-hog" lying on deck!
TM "Kris" Krestensen was tied to a life-line and sent on deck wearing a lifejacket to retrieve it and it was brought
on board. "Inert" was stamped boldly on it, verifying it as an exercise dud. Although it was full of plaster and sand
it left no doubt that we had definitely lost that game!
After we got back to Key West, I heard one of the officers put the hedgehog on the patio at his home in town,
where it was being used as a stand for an ash tray…
From Ken DeKing:
I remember the incident very well that Norm mentioned. It was during the Lebanon crisis, when the marines
landed on the beach and we had been cruising off shore. I was off duty at the time so I didn't experience the heat
in the engine rooms, but the after battery was like an oven, with 120% humidity. We were told to stay put and if we
did have to move it would be in our socks. We couldn't take a leak without permission from the con.
The hedgehog reminded me of a story an old friend from home told me. He did 13 patrols on 2 different boats in
WWII and told me about being on the Gato when they surfaceed with a live depth charge on the deck. Some
volunteers rolled it into a deflated life raft, then they inflated the raft and the Gato submerged to let it float away.
Then they surface and destroyed it with gunfire. I later read about it in the history of the US submarines in WWII.
Talk about guts.