by Robert L. Huguenin, MMC(SS), USN USS SEA ROBIN (SS 407)
The story you are about to read may seem a little far fetched during this day and age, but it’s true all right. This saga really starts on January 8th, 1968 when the towing crew of POGY, consisting of Lieutenant Victor P. Default (OIC), Robert L. Huguenin MMC(SS), George M. Papillard MM1(SS), John H. Ballard QM2(SS), David B. McCollum ETR2 and last but not least Terrence L. Howells EN3(SS) met together for the first time at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
They were there to prepare USS POGY (SSN 647) for a tow of approximately 1800 miles from a berth at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where she had laid idle from June until January, to a new constructing site at Ingalls Shipbuilding & Drydock Co., Pascagoula, Mississippi.
Preparing a ship like this (less than 50 percent complete) for a tow of that distance turns into a monumental task. Items that normally would be taken for granted on a submarine were not yet installed on POGY.
There was no water, plumbing, or electrical systems, nor cooking or messing facilities, no berthing, no D.C. gear or emergency gear of any kind, and loose gear was adrift throughout the ship. All this had to be taken into consideration plus the fact of a tow past Cape Hatteras at the end of January, where weather could play havoc.
None of the men involved had over been on a tow before, but all being good submarine men took to their jobs with the typical naval can-do attitude and proceeded to get the job done.
First of all, we had only seven full working days to get the numerous jobs done.Three emergency diesel generators had been lowered into the upper level of the Operations Compartment. Two 10kw and one 30kw generator would be supplying all the power needed for lighting, refrigeration, hot plate electric griddle, space heaters, signal light, running lights and submersible pumps.The next problem was fuel to keep the generators running for the 10+ days required for the trip. This turned into quite a headache. Six hundred gallons of #2 fuel oil was pumped into #1 MBT.
The flood ports on all ballast tanks had been welded shut. Fuel lines were tapped into the main vent cover plate with a line extended into the fuel itself, a pressure of 12 psi was then put into the tank to provide the push to supply the fuel for our engines. The system was pressure tested and all leaks located and repaired one day prior to getting underway.
The system was constructed so that it could be pressurized from below decks using installed nitrogen bottles. As an emergency back-up system, six 55 gallon drums were mounted topside and piped below decks.
A combination refrigeration/freezer was borrowed from the Reserve Fleet in Philadelphia and lowered into the upper level of Operations compartment to provide for the stowage of our food for the trip. (We intended to at least eat well).
Our water problem was solved after much debate by buying 5 gallon poly bottles, with caps. These were set in the lower level of the Operations Compartment and filled with water. This gave us approximately 640 gallons of water, a little more than 10 gallons of water per man per day.To solve our cooking problems we purchased a two-burner hot plate and an electric griddle (18″ x 10″), three pots, a 30 cup electric coffee pot, 300 paper plates, 350 hot drinking cups, plastic knives, forks, and spoons. (Also in case we ran out of silverware we purchased 1/2 dozen stainless knives, forks and spoons).
To determine what to bring in the line of food, we enlisted the aide of the submarine barracks chief cook (Robert Smith, CSCS(SS)). He prepared our menu and planned what we would need to make this trip. The food was then purchased at the base commissary.For a sanitary tank we purchased one of Sears & Roebuck’s portable toilets.
Also from Sears & Roebuck we purchased four 9-mile range two-way radios (two for use by the sea-going tug and two were to be used on board POGY). Using the radios below decks we had to install an antenna. We did this by running a wire from the outer edge of our sail planes to the top of the sail then down through a stuffing tube and into the galley where we set up our communications center.We installed our hot plate, coffee pot and grill in the galley.
For our mess deck we scrounged up an old table and benches from Shop 17 and had them installed in the wardroom. For our head we installed our portable party pooper in the wardroom pantry.
For berthing we scrounged up some old bunks and mattresses and had them installed in the crews mess hall (keeping everything centrally located kept our lighting down to a minimum).
Emergency equipment was borrowed from USS SEA ROBIN (SS407) and the Reserve Fleet in Philadelphia and loaded aboard.The morning of January 18th arrived bright, sunny and crisp and at 0945 we tossed of our lines and bid farewell to the many people who helped us prepare for our long trip south.
The trip down the Delaware River, through the Delaware Bay and out into the Atlantic proved uneventful and we settled down to our routine tasks of keeping the portable generator running, checking the towing rig, eating and sleeping. The temperature on the lower level of the Operations Compartment at this time was a chilly 41°F.
We spent the first two days checking for loose gear, preparing for what we expected to be a rough ride as we passed Cape Hatteras. As it turned out, the day we were towed past the Cape was a beautiful day, warm with a slight breeze and unbelievably calm seas. We the busied ourselves with adding some new comforts.
We installed a shower (to the delight of all hands). Of course all water had to be hand carried in 5 gallon jugs to our new haven. We heated the water by placing the water jugs between the hot running emergency generator for a few hours. As we drew further south, heating was no longer a problem, and now we had to find ways to cool the ship down. The seas having been as smooth as silk enabled us to open our hatch on the main deck and we now devised a way to secure our 30kw and one 10kw and run with just one 10kw set on lighting.
When we were cooking, we ran a second 10 kw set. This reduced our heat load enough to keep the boat cool and habitable.It might be noted that one member of the towing crew has to be a good cook. The food eaten on a trip is the only morale booster available, so if you eat well, morale will remain high.
The cook also has to be a willing worker. His job under these conditions is no easy one. All the water has to be poured our of a 5 gallon jug. Washing dishes after a meal turns into quite a job. All water has to be heated on the hot plate and there was no running water, hot or cold. In the galley we used anywhere from 25 to 30 gallons of water a day for cooking and washing pots and pans and dishes. With luck we were able to rig one of the deep sinks in the galley to drain into a sanitary tank or we would have had quite a job disposing of waste water from the galley.
The weather was so nice on the fifth day of our journey that we were able to go topside and sunbathe. After six days we discovered that no one had taken any lighter fluid for our lighters, so we made our own electric lighter using a battle lantern battery. It worked good! Our portable head provided us a source of amusement. On several occasions, while using this unique device, it collapsed, much to the delight of the non-users. Also our poly bags (used on the seat) were running short so we substituted our 5 gallon jugs and lined the southern U.S. Atlantic coast with some of the largest urine samples they have probably ever seen.
Seven days underway, just southeast of Cape Kennedy, Florida, our lives suddenly took on a new meaning. At 0300 on the morning of the 25th of January, the tow line parted and we were drifting free from our tug.
The tow line parted on or near USS PAPAGO allowing approximately 1700 feet of 2″ steel cable to drop into the sea. Our watch woke the remainder of the crew and all six of us dressed in our special deck shoes, life jackets and new designed life lines (shoulder harness types) and rushed topside to be greeted by a cool breeze and even cooler water.
Turning on our signal light in an attempt to light up our bow on this dark night enabled us to see to receive our shot line. To our dismay we found that the light had been mounted too far aft on the top of the sail and could not illuminate the main deck forward of the sail. But even so, it was an asset in the dark night. The sea rolled up over the deck, soaking the entire crew, and working was hard at best. The new life lines, combined with our Randy Boat Shoes were a welcome combination and work progressed until, at last, after several attempts we finally had a 7″ nylon line attached to POGY.
By now it was daylight and we attempted to retrieve the 2″ steel tow cable. All attempts at this failed. To make matters worse, the 7″ line snapped and we were again cast free of PAPAGO.
After what seemed like days of hauling line in, hand over hand, on a slippery cold wet deck we finally managed to get another 7″ line made fast to us. During this last attempt PAPAGO and the POGY collided which resulted in the buckling of several frames on PAPAGO and she started taking on a small amount of water. A radio message was now sent out and two other tugs were dispatched to assist us. The USS KIOWA arrived on the scene at approximately 1530, later the SS CABLE (a civilian salvage ship) arrived, then the USS PAIUTE arrived. With all this help and talent we figured our problems would now be solved.
With PAPAGO damaged it was decided to link up to KIOWA so she could take us the rest of the way to Mississippi. We had now been towed close to shore just north of Cape Kennedy into shallow water. KIOWA moved into position to get a tow wire on us. (We were held at anchor by our 1700 feet of steel cable now dragging on the bottom). On her first pass, KIOWA shot wide of her mark and although we received her shot line and about 1000 feet of her messenger we were unable to drag in any more line and the line was released. KIOWA made another approach on us. On this approach she came in too close for the wind conditions and before we get a line aboard she drifted into our bow and damaged her hull and bent some of the blades on her screw.
Now with two tugs out of the picture (as far as towing was concerned) a new approach to the problem was tried. USS PAIUTE moved into position forward of us and dropped both her anchors. This allowed her to drift down to within approximately 400 feet of our bow. Next, she lowered a rubber boat into the water with an outboard motor, and drove over to us with four men and equipment with their messenger and a snatch block. The seas at this time were running about 8 to 10 feet and on occasion were up to 20 to 25 feet. During this operation, darkness overtook us and to make matters worse the rubber boat came up under our ladder and was punctured and sunk. But not before we recovered all her gear and men.
It was now decided to wait until dawn to complete the hook-up. At first break of light a tired but determined crew mustered topside for a tough days work and by 1610 we were made fast to PAIUTE and after dropping our 1700 foot of steel cable to the bottom, we were underway again for Mississippi. At this time, PAPAGO and KIOWA were released to head to port for repairs. SS CABLE was to stay with us. It was a tired worn-out bunch that crawled into their bunks that night, but all were happy to know that were now on our way again with a secure rig enroute to Mississippi.
The next morning at approximately 0900 on 28 January (the day we were supposed to pull into Mississippi) under the watchful eyes of two members of the towing crew, PAIUTE made an unusual maneuver and ripped the bull nose right off the bow of POGY. The towing pad-eye at this time was still intact although weakened and bent at approximately a 30° angle. Radio contact was made with PAIUTE and this information was passed to them. The towing rig was now closely inspected by members of the POGY crew and the information relayed to the tug.
At approximately 0920 for some unknown reason, the tug again changed course. When the towing cable came taut the towing pad-eye ripped free of the deck breaking practically everything on the bow, with all the junk that flew everywhere. The back-up rig that had been installed never seemed to slow anything down, and once again those familiar words echoed across the sea: “POGY is drifting free again!”. Only this time we had nothing to tie to for a tow except our retractable cleats and those had never been designed for towing.
It was a disgusted crew that finally hauled in a new 7″ nylon line and made it fast to our retractable cleats. A new radio message had been dispatched for more help and once again we headed for shallow water. We arrived in shallow water off the shores of Fort Pierce, Florida and PAIUTE dropped her hook and it was decided to wait for help to arrive and also daylight to work in. we settled down for an uneasy night of watching the 7″ line and weather. After approximately 2 hours, the watch, making his rounds discovered that the 7″ line was fraying badly and a radio message was sent to the tug informing them of the situation.
The tug sent over a team of men to appraise the situation. It was decided to get underway again and shift POGY around and send over a 5″ line (they had no more 7″ line aboard). After things settled down again it was decided to wait until dawn to commence our temporary hook-up for towing us into Cape Kennedy for a permanent rig that would get us to Mississippi. The next morning arrived and it seemed like lady luck was finally on our side. The weather had calmed down and we proceeded to rig POGY for our tow to the Cape some 65 miles north of us. It had been decided to use 2-1/4″ anchor chain looped around the conning tower.
Work progressed well and with the aid of the five salvage vessels now in our group we completed our hook-up and tied to USS RECOVERY. At 1610 we were underway for Cape Kennedy. The following morning after an uneventful night we were gallantly towed into Cape Kennedy. By now it was a very tired, dirty looking and disgusted crew that was seen topside of what must have looked like a rusted and battered looking hulk come limping into port.
Luckily for us, an FBM was in port and like any sub crew, they treated us like kings. Oh, how wonderful those hot showers and clean clothes felt. At least we felt human again. By now we should have been in Mississippi but here we were, only half way there and we had e repaired before we could again put to sea. This gave us a chance to gather up more supplies and relax for a couple of days. Finally after 5 days of round the clock work by welders and burners from Electric Boat, we were ready to cast off all lines and continue on our way for Mississippi. We left the Cape at approximately 1330 on 4 February. We bid farewells again and started on our last leg of what we hoped would be an uneventful tow the rest of the way to Mississippi. This time we were towed by USS RECOVERY (twin screw ship)./font>
That night we lost our main supply oil line from #1 MBT (it had been washed away). We shifted to our emergency supply, our six 55 gallon drums in a rack topside. This lasted until noon the next day. When the seas picked up and a wave hit the oil drums and knocked three drums loose breaking the supply line. Oil was spilling out on deck. Being our only oil left, it was decided to send two men topside to salvage the three remaining oil drums. At this time waves were breaking over the ship’s sail lanes and footing on the main deck was at best extremely hazardous, but the remaining three drums had to be salvaged or we would have been without fuel for our diesels and therefore without lights. The job was accomplished without any injuries to personnel and we rode out the remainder of the storm losing practically all of our gear topside and pushing in the forward part of the sail.
During the storm, a radio message was received by RECOVERY from Key West requesting we turn back and wait out the storm. However, it was requested by both RECOVERY and POGY crew to ride it out – and ride it out, we did. We were glad we did, since now we could continue on to Mississippi and not lose any time. We finally arrived off the coast of Mississippi on 12 February, but due to strong wind and the coming of darkness it was decided to wait until daybreak to enter the narrow channel and up to the piers.
As luck would have it, we ran aground just south of buoy #18. With the aid of two tugs and RECOVERY, we were finally pulled free of the soft bottom and continued on to the piers, arriving at approximately 1810. Our intended 10 day trip was over after 26 days. The actual time spent under tow was 21 days. When we pulled alongside the pier, we had enough fuel remaining for approximately 16 more hours of running time. We had enough food and water for 4 or 5 more days. But our hot plate had only one burner working and it only worked on medium range. Our sonar dome was flooded, our port running light had shorted out, our signal light had burned out, and our ballast tank was leaking fuel oil. But we had made it!
It was a happy crew that tied up the lines and prepared to leave POGY for the shipyard to build into the finest fast attack nuclear powered submarine ever to sail the seven seas!