Terror under the high seas- a submariner's tale

íI couldnít believe it: Water was gushing through main ventí
By Christopher Lehman

As soon as I read about the USS Greeneville sinking the Japanese fishing boat Ehime Maru off the coast of Hawaii, killing nine people, I knew what was in store for the crew of that submarine. I donít  mean just the Navy inquiry into  the accident, the possible courts-martial of the Greenevilleís top officers, or even the hours and hours of retraining and recertification every person on the sub will have to undergo.
Christopher Lehman
Served in the U.S. Navy for 21 years. 10 of them as a submariner. he works for a Department of Defense contractor. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.

  What Iím talking about is the months of   low morale, the personal disarray anti   intra-squadron scapegoating that are likely  to dog the shipís crew in the wake of the disaster. Iím talking about the sense of failure and responsibility and fear that you might never do anything right again ó that may follow at least some of those men for a lifetime.

Submarine life, under any circumstances, means high pressure, constant stress and unrelenting challenge. It demands excellence; mistakes are not tolerated, because mistakes can be fatal, and the Greeneville made a huge mistake. So every last man on that submarine is going to take a beating from here on out, mentally and emotionally, from himself and from his comrades at sea. Heís going to have the feeling of being associated with a marked ship. And that feeling can lead to further error, further failure and the potential for more catastrophe. I know, because Iíve seen it happen firsthand. And I know how terrifying the consequences can be.

On July 1, 1989, I reported for duty aboard the USS Houston, a Los Angeles-class attack submarine like the Greeneville. I was nervous, for lots of reasons. This was my third sub tour, but the truth was, I didnít much like submarines. Iíd never gotten used to the close quarters, the feeling of blindness and the undeniable fear that are all part of life underwater. I had just been made chief of the auxiliary division. Which meant I would be responsible for about 70 percent of the mechanical workings of the ship. And I had heard  the talk about the Houston around the piers.

The word was, it was a bad-luck boat. Its number was SSN-713, and guys referred to it as the Lucky 7 with an unlucky 13 on its back. A few weeks earlier, it had been detailed to take part in the movie "The Hunt for ked October." That was lucky, but then, during filming off the coast of California, it snagged the towline of a tugboat named the Barcona and sank it. One of the Barconaís crew drowned. Just two days later, the sub got entangled in a fishing boatís net. Nobody was hurt, but it was another mistake. By the time I came aboard, the boat bad a reputation for having serious material and morale problems. Still, I thought, how bad could it be?

My first day, I went down to the chief of the boatís quarters. He was leaning against a bunk with his head in his hands, as if he were deep in thought or in pain. He sat me down and told me I was facing a challenge, because my whole division was in disarray. Then the executive officer escorted me over to meet the CO (commanding officer). Iíll never forget the first words out of the COís mouth: "Chief," he said, "your division is crippling my ship." All I could say was "Yes, sir, thatís why Iím here to fix all of that."
As we headed out to sea for a training run, I had a bad feeling that I couldnít place, but I shook it off. Not long after we submerged, I went to meet the chief engineer in the torpedo room. As we talked, I glanced behind his shoulder. I couldnít believe my eyes. Across the room, in a scene that looked like something out of an animated cartoon, seawater was gushing through a main air vent. I thought to myself, "Is this some weird joke to test my reactions?" I turned to the engineer. He stood frozen in silence, staring at the water with a look that said it all: This was not a drill.

In that instant, the flooding alarm sounded, signaling one of a submarinerís worst fears - uncontrolled water rushing in. Sometimes I can still hear that chilling sound in my sleep late at night. It was Showtime. This was what all the training had been about: We would need nerves of steel, quick thinking, quick reactions and true courage to survive. If the men in control of the ship failed now in anyway, we were all simply doomed.

The chief engineer and I ran toward the air vent to investigate. Before we could get there, we were nearly thrown off our feet as the subís nose turned upward and we drove hard toward the surface. But the weight of the water we were taking on abruptly halted our forward motion. We began an eerie slide backward for a period that seemed like an eternity. All about the sub, silence set in; the only sound seemed to be that of our main engines, fighting to overcome the massive water drag. Then, slowly, we started moving upward again, at an angle so steep we were forced nearly parallel to the deck. The six or seven of us in the torpedo room clung to the torpedo stowage racks for our very lives. Letting go meant a possible 40-foot free-fall, straight back and down, or sliding down the length of the deck like a cue ball heading for a pocket. We could only pray that the torpedo shackles would hold those 3,000-pound beasts that lay beside us. If one broke loose, it could have smashed us, or caused an explosion on impact.

When it seemed things couldnít get any worse, a second alarm sounded. This time the word was passed: "Toxic gas!" Seawater had apparently entered into an area surrounding the battery. We had a potentially compound emergency on our hands. It was time to grab an oxygen mask and put it on. But I couldn't let go to get to one.

Suddenly, the sub pierced the ocean surface and leveled off. In that split second, I let go, grabbed a gas mask and started heading for the emergency damage control gear. "The worst is over," I thought - but not for long. In an instant, the sub pitched sharply forward. It was obvious that the thousands of gallons of seawater that we had taken on, equaling tons of negative weight, had shifted toward the front of the sub, forcing us downward again, back into the ocean depths.

The reactive speed of our ascent took us down at a critical rate. The sub was being simultaneously pushed by the turbine and pulled by the water. I could hear the outer hull sing as the metal shrank and buckled under the tremendous ocean pressure. It felt as though we were on an endless, rapid elevator ride from which there would be no return.

My thoughts became trancelike. I donít remember seeing a soul or bearing any more sounds. I donít remember anyone around me doing anything, but I do remember thinking, "Today Iíll die." I remember thinking that my fear of submarines had finally caught up with me and that it was true, thereís no death worse than dying in the way you most fear. In my mindís eye, as I listened to the walls crack, I began to see them closing in. I didnít think of anyone or anything in particular; I was ready to accept my fate.

 donít know what was going on in the control room that day. I didnít really know the men on duty. I didnít know whether they were the Houstonís best control crew or not. But I know that their courage saved us. Their many hours of critical training and their steadfastness of heart came together, and somehow, the descent slowed, stopped, and we began to rise again. This time, the crew managed an emergency blow - the same maneuver the Greeneville was performing on its fateful day. The emergency blow system forces a massive amount of air into the main ballast tanks, rapidly expelling the ballast water in them, so that the ship quickly achieves positive buoyancy and rises like a cork. Our speed overcame the weight of the seawater, and we shot out of the ocean like a breaching whale.

As we stabilized on the surface I began to check for damage in other areas. I moved about the ship, coming upon grown men crying in corners and others curled in the fetal position in in shock and unable to move. Later, we learned that the crisis had been due to a malfunction in the ventilation systemís main snorkel valve, which had failed to close properly and had allowed the seawater to rush in. Weíd been unaware of this because someone had turned off the audible signal that allows you to hear the valveís rhythmic opening and closing.

When we pulled back into port, barely six hours after having left, the crew was assembled on the pier. We had been through a traumatic event, and we were told that we had the option of undergoing evaluation to determine our further suitability for submarine duty. Some of us, the ones who exhibited signs of real mental trauma, were either individually escorted to family services or encouraged to go more forcefully. But I felt that the higher-ups actually hoped that most of us would just shake this incident off and go on as though nothing much had happened.

Well, a lot of us did that, but the sad reality is that some of my shipmates never mentally made it back up that day. They were lost emotionally and are still out there, somewhere, still on patrol trying to get back home. I know for certain that at least eight men never returned to duty after that day. Over the following months, more would leave, virtually all of them citing that terrifying incident as a factor in their decisions.

Our performance that day prompted another barrage of training cycles, with inspectors and certifiers descending upon the ship to assess the entire crew once more. We got lots of help, but probably not the kind of help we really needed. If our reputation in the squadron had already been tainted, now it got worse. We were labeled as the boat that
couldnít do anything right, a haven for misfits and rejects (although the crew members were all great guys). And that tag became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

More incidents followed. Exactly one month later, we had an electrical fire in the engineering spaces. A little later, because of a navigation error, we bad a close call with a torpedo deployed from a helicopter in a training exercise. Then, in November, another navigation error caused us to lose an expensive sonar device. That was the last straw. When we returned to home port after that one, our CO was relieved of his post. Several months later, the Houston was put into dry dock for repairs, and thatís where she was when I left submarine duty in 1991.

I wasnít sorry to put submarine life behind me, to say goodbye to the pressures, the fears and the demands. But! remember them vividly: the isolation and the separation from family and loved ones for up to 90 days at a time in a constantly hostile environment; the grueling training; the necessity of 150 minds pulling together in perfect sync; the need not to think about the living ocean that waits mere inches from your head.

All this is part of me, and when I read about a submarine disaster- like the sinking of the Russian sub Kursk last summer, or the Greenevilleís collision - they all come back, led by the memory of that hair-raising day.

Our experience had been terrifying, but I suppose you could say that at least we had the good fortune of having put no oneís lives at risk but our own. The ocean is a big place, and we made it out of the water without ramming into anything, without compounding our errors with a loss of life. I can only imagine the kind of horror the Greenevilleís captain and crew must have felt when they realized they had hit another ship and eventually learned that their mistake had taken innocent lives.

I hope the Navy is thinking about the crewís reaction and feelings. I hope it will do more than send in the inspectors and the certifiers, and change the rules about civilian guests aboard submarines. I hope it will understand that the Greenevilleís crew needs more than just a token offer of psychological evaluation and counseling.

Most of all, I hope the Navy will realize itís not enough to make the top officers pay for the Greenevilleís mistake, then let the ship slide back into the water and continue on its silent rounds, with a crew carrying on as though nothing bad ever happened, while the pressures mount. I hope it will give the men of the Greeneville the help they really need, and the attention they deserve.
© 2001 The Washington Post

Underway is the USS Greenville, the writer served on a similar ship, the USS Houston.