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Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

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Tuesday, February 08, 2005

remembering legends

i was reading the post over at argghh about the SSN-711, and a few things struck a chord with me. one is about how the ship had received a "below average" on her operational reactor safeguards exam (ORSE) the previous year, before Cmdr Mooney took command. and how this last year they were the steely eyed killers of the deep of legend, up to and including receiving an Excellent on their ORSE. for the non-submarine types out there, there really is no way to explain what an ORSE board is, other than it takes hundreds of operational hours and untold classroom hours to prepare for. it's more than an administrative audit, although that's a big part of the board. a commanding officer, his engineering officer, and the division officer responsible for the faux pas can lose their jobs if an irregularity is found. the SEC has nothing on the ORSE team. i worked boats at mare island that lost senior officers because of admin failures. but the real ugly, hard, trying part is the drills.
when my first skipper turned over the seawolf to Charlie MacVean, we were a really sad and dispirited crew. there had been a major bloodbath just prior to my arriving on board, and it was due to the engineering lab techs (my division), so we were seriously under the microscope. when Charlie Mac took over, basically Rickover told him the boat would be scrapped if the crew wasn't turned around. we were basically at the point where a single screwup would have been enough to get the boat welded to the pier (we received an unsat minor....a simple hairs breadth away from failure on the previous ORSE). the crew was shit hot, with one hell of a knowledge base. but they/we had lost faith in the wardroom, and the "give a shit" attitude was pervasive throughout the boat. Charlie Mac took over, turned the crew upside down, read us the riot act, and then treated us like the professionals we were. he explained what was at stake, and then pitched in. when we did field days in the engineering spaces, the rest of the boat usually ran routine whatever. not with Charlie Mac. he had the entire crew in the engineering spaces (guess how impressed we were, and how unimpressed the rest of the crew was!). we did extra field day. we did weekends alongside the pier, drilling, training, then field daying. but it was not an onerous chore like it had been before he showed up. he definitely put his money where his mouth was, so to speak. the engineer, main propulsion assistant, the electrical division officer, the supply officer, the navigator, the weapons officer, ALL of the officers were in the spaces with us, coveralls on, shoulders down, ass up in the bilges, cleaning and painting alongside the rest of the crew. the skipper was in maneuvering, coveralls on, paintbrush in hand, painting the panels. when he said that the boat only worked when the whole crew worked together, he took that statement and made it a reality. by the time we made it through our squadron workups with flying colors, which the squad dog told us afterwards "we knew you guys were going to fail", we were ready for the worst and prepared to give our best.
the orse team came aboard on a transfer off of alcatraz island, and we set off for the 100 fathom curve, and the submarine operational area for our testing.
we killed them. not only did we show what we were capable of in drill scenarios, we tore them up in the knowledge areas as well. and the boat, bless it's little nuclear heart, decided to REALLY show these guys what was what. in the matter of a couple of shifts, we had several real casualties that would have put most boats down for days. we were so used to these types of problems, like a switchgear breaker blowing out of the board simply because it was old, and we'd been cycling the hell out of the system during the drill responses. our electricians were so used to problems, they had almost every contingency covered. the replacement breaker had already been tested (we tested our spares with the rest of the system during routine maintenance), a procedure had already been written up with a tagout made up, staged in the "aw shit" book in maneuvering. they had the old breaker out, buss works repaired, the new one in, tested, and the electric plant back on line in under 2 hours. for us, routine. for the orse team, they had never seen anything like it.
so when hagar says the crew was tight, and that "I will only say that the San Fran was the best damn sub in the Navy under CDR Mooneys leadership. We proved that. God bless him and his family no matter what happens in the future, he is truly a good man." i know what he means.
a little snippet about my old skipper charlie mac :
"There was something about Commander Charles R. MacVean that had a way of inspiring a legend. It wasn't the way he looked: tall, a little chunky, and in his late thirties already crowned by a thatch of thinning gray hair. This was a man who could stand beneath a hatch after being doused with a column of water, deadpan and still chewing his dripping pipe. This was also a man who had led the nuclear attack submarine USS Seawolf on one of the most dangerous operations of the Cold War."

Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage


the pride and sense of accomplishment that comes with doing a job well is magnified when it is done well with others. we were a crew, with one of the most magnificent men i've ever had the privilege to work with as my skipper. i know how hagar feels when he states with pride that his boat was the best damned sub in the navy under his skipper's leadership. damn. one good thing. i get to see my old skipper this summer at our boat's 50th birthday reunion. that should be a blast.
Dr. Charles R. MacVean, i salute you, and thank you for showing me what an adult does when confronted with hard decisions. (that story is for another time)

3 Comments:

Blogger WillyShake said...

Wow. What a great story! You've inspired me to tell about the time I had to recover from violating the MPC curve to becoming a successful ORSE EOOW, so remind me if you don't see that story pop up on my blog within the next week or so.

And you're right--the fact that SSN 711 went from BA to Excellent struck me as incredible. Just to get an Excellent is remarkable, but it sounds like much more happened here that involved overall crew and compatibility and prowess.

Keep 'em comin', Bo, love this blog!

2/9/05, 4:47 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

In late '96/early '97, I was on USS Tucson, and we were recovering from a Below Average with a Message on a surprise ORSE. It was painful...that doesn't even begin to describe it. Six solid months of Vulcan Death Watches, with only a three week upkeep to break the monotony. 2-3 drill sets a day, 4-5 days a week, tons of training to fill the hours when we weren't drilling, and of course a lot of "rub-a-dub-dub, clean up the sub" in the "slack time" (like there was slack time).

We'd gotten the surprise ORSE only a couple of weeks after arriving in Pearl from Norfolk (homeport change), and with about 20-30% of our crew still off the boat doing moving stuff. We'd picked up a new Engineer in San Diego, he did turnover on the trip out from SD to Pearl, and relieved exactly 13 days prior to the surprise ORSE. We were doomed (our previous Eng was so piss-poor, he couldn't find his way out of a wet paper bag in a flooded TDU).

Six months later...an Excellent. We frankly kicked the ORSE team in the junk. And the re-ORSE was (in terms of drills) harder than the one we bombed.

Cut to a few months later, and TRE/POMCERT. With all the drilling (fore and aft) from the ORSE "recovery", the TRE team didn't stand a chance. We ate those inspections for lunch as well.

It was all due to the ORSE, though. Far from just a "nuke inspection", ORSE is also a big 'ol damage control and endurance test for the crew. The framework set by preparing successfully for ORSE stood the boat in good condition to succeed in all aspects...the attention to detail, level of training, review, scrutiny, and involvement by all levels of the command carried over to the whole ship. The skipper, Cmdr. James Miller, was fond of pointing out that if the fixes for deficiencies worked aft, they'd work shipwide.

And I believe it. I'm sure it's that sort of philosophy that Cmdr. Mooney took aboard when he took command of San Fran. And if I were a betting man, I'd put a big chunk of pay on that being why San Fran is in drydock now, vice on the bottom of the Pacific.

I remember a couple of real casualties we suffered on Tucson following that extensive workup and "Excellent" on ORSE...a fire and a hydraulic rupture. And you know what...the response to those was right in line with the training, making them virtually non-events. When the fire was called away, despite our normal training goal of a hose on the scene in something like 4 minutes, we had three hoses and about 6 CO2's on scene in less than 2 minutes :) The poor ol' fire didn't stand a chance.

2/10/05, 3:52 PM  
Blogger bothenook said...

willy, i'll keep my eye out for the story.
and rob, you know where hagar is coming from too. it was an almost absolute that mixed in with all the regular drills of loss of main lube oil, ground on one of the electrical busses, there would be one whole boat drill for each of the three drill sets. radcon, either a spill, or airborne, along with the mechanical cause of the spill like a carried away valve packing, or the elt fell down, and is not injured (i hated those). fire or flooding, with the root cause as a casualty all in itself. did you ever have a fire drill where it was "just a fire"? we didn't. it was pipes carried away, and that needed fixing as well, or an electrical fire which ended up putting you in a weird electric/steam plant lineup, but never just a shitcan fire. and then there was the chemistry drill, chlorides in the steam generators, or some ugly air accident in the primary. and the whole crew ended up supporting those drills.
we had ship's drills thrown into the engineering drills. we had the xo walk aft to the stern room, so we were all ready for a flooding or hydraulic failure drill, when the weapons officer initiated a major flooding in the torpedo room. threw off the coners, let me tell you. we did an emergency surface, and then they had us run the entire scenario over again, because the first 5 guys on the scene were nukes, and that pissed off the skipper. forward guys started playing when they realized the nukes weren't going to be there every time. we weren't allowed to respond on the second running of the drill. kind of opened a lot of eyes about how much the nukes did on the boat.
we used to have a saying on the seawolf that for every one drill the skipper threw at the boat, the boat would throw 3 back. buy one, get three free. we got VERY good at casualty response.

2/10/05, 4:41 PM  

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