Introduction to Crash Dive

By Larry Bond

Imagine working in a factory, surrounded by machinery. It's a high-tech installation, full of vital equipment. It's two stories high, and anywhere from 200 to 350 feet long. Space is at a premium, so the aisles are narrow, and equipment juts into the working spaces, with lots of corners and angles to bump into. It's dangerous, exacting work. A lot of the machinery can kill you if it isn't maintained properly.

The work is done in shifts, because the plant runs twenty-four hours a day. In addition to operating the equipment at regular intervals, which probably interferes with your sleep, the gear has to be maintained and repaired, which takes up more of your time. And occasionally, at least once a day, all the workers have to get on the job at a moment's notice.

Now imagine that you not only work there, but also live there — but there's precious little space for people. Space is grudgingly granted for bunks (not enough for everyone, so you may have to "hot bunk" with another worker). You get a small locker for clothing and a few personal items. You share a few toilets with the rest of your co-workers, and there's barely enough water for infrequent showers.

You eat in a cafeteria, and luckily the food is pretty good, although you stock up every few months with so much food it covers the deck, and then don't get anything new for the rest of the time. Fresh food is rare.

It's crowded, smelly, and it can be noisy. There's no privacy, and here's the best part: You can't go outside for a stroll. In fact, the factory's surrounded by a hostile, demanding wilderness so dangerous that if you do leave, you'll be dead in hours.

The only outside air comes in the ceiling of the head office, and when it does, the whole factory moves — side to side, up and down, back and forth, and sometimes in a crazy combination of all three.

And by the way, you volunteered for this. You sweated months or years of school to get this job. In a time of slow business, the training required for this job could net you twice or three times your current salary if you changed to a more conventional employer. If business is brisk, it radically increases your chances of being killed, more than any other kind of employment.

I'm talking about submarine service, of course, putting it in familiar terms. Even as a former naval officer, It's hard to imagine life submerged for days or weeks or longer. I served on surface vessels, which can at times feel very much like an "outside" job. I spent one day on USS Permit (SSN-594). My ship (a destroyer) exchanged a few officers with her, then we chased each other around for a while. It was fun, we were treated well, and we learned a lot about how the other half lives, but there wasn't a moment that I wasn't in dire danger of bumping into something or somebody. It's crowded.

So what kind of person volunteers for the submarine service? And they only take volunteers. All navies, for as long as they've had subs, have only taken volunteers to serve in them. Even with the exigencies of military service, no navy will put a sailor in a boat unless he wants to be there.

I just used the word "boat." Now I have to explain. In naval parlance, commissioned vessels are always referred to as ships, regardless of their size. As I was informed roughly 3.2 milliseconds after being sworn in, "a boat is carried on a ship." The first subs, the Hollands and Lakes, were so small that they literally were boats, with only a handful of men in the crew. Even in WW II, they were smaller than most surface ships, with smaller crew, and they kept the term as a reminder of their uniqueness.

And that describes the men as well. The average sub sailor is more intelligent than his peers in the rest of the fleet. He still swabs the deck, but only when he's not operating a nuclear reactor or fixing a computerized fire control system.

He likes a challenge. Submarine service is dangerous, even in peacetime. Disasters like the loss of Squalus, Scorpion, and recently Kursk remind the public of the risk.

But there are benefits, too. Sub crews are small, and legendary for their closeness. The same thing happens to any group of men in a combat unit, but it's enhanced by the sub's isolation. Most misfits and shirkers are weeded out during submarine training. Those who are left work well together.

As special as the enlisted men were, they are still Navy sailors, and their duties and dangers are only somewhat different from their surface ship brethren. The officers on a submarine have to be a different breed entirely.

A surface ship, regardless of its size, is almost never alone. Small ships protect bigger ships, bigger ships protect the heavies, and the heavies get the job done. Nobody can do it by themselves, and they're not supposed to. A surface task force lives and breathes teamwork, spreading out the danger and backing each other up.

Officers on a surface ship know that if they're hit, other ships in the formation will come to their aid. Even a ship's captain, the most experienced officer aboard, knows that other men (the Admiral and his staff), will guide his actions. They're the ones with the plan; he's just got to worry about his piece of it.

Submarine officers also follow the Admiral's plan, but he's not on a flagship nearby. He's thousands of miles and weeks away. On a submarine, the skipper is truly on his own. Even if he's cooperating with a surface force, that cooperation will consist of staying in his patrol area and keeping as far away from the formation as possible. On a regular mission, he leaves port and won't expect to see another friendly face for weeks, probably months.

Combat on a surface ship needs teamwork. Information is gathered by the ship's sensors, collected and analyzed by the Combat Information Center, and distributed to the people who need it. The gunnery officer controls the guns, the torpedo officer fires the torpedoes, and so on. The Captain sits above it all, acting only if things aren't happening the way he wants them to. It's called "command by negation."

On a sub, it's completely different. All information flows to the captain, who analyzes it himself. He maneuvers the boat, and controls its weapons. It's one-man control of a warship hundreds of feet long, weighing thousands of tons, and able to do terrible damage to the enemy.

A sub may patrol in enemy waters, attacking merchant ships, probably sailing in convoy. It may have to sail close to an enemy shore to gather intelligence. It may even have to land commandos or intelligence agents on that shore. None of these missions are easy, and most are outright dangerous.

A sub commander depends on skill and pure brass to outwit or evade enemy defenses and successfully attack the enemy, usually a target of his own choosing. A good submarine captain is a hunter, someone who aggressively and intelligently seeks out the enemy in order to do him the most damage possible. He also uses the boat's stealth to good advantage. Sub captains pride themselves on being sneaky, conniving types who will work every angle they can, and cheat on the rest.

Throughout this book, you will read of submarine skippers who are not satisfied with just patrolling a box and sinking whatever they encounter. They work hard to learn the enemy's methods and operating patterns, then go in at the cracks, or sometimes make the cracks themselves.

And they'll do it alone. If a plan fails because of poor judgment or bad luck, he and his crew will have to endure the consequences. At best, it's a missed shot, which is disheartening to everyone. It may mean pursuit lasting hours or days by an enemy that has many advantages over the now-exposed hunter.

A sub has no defenses except that fact it is very hard to see through water. After fifty years of technological progress, the primary ASW sensor is still sonar. Others sensors, ranging from sniffing diesel fumes to detecting neutrinos and Kelvin wakes have not panned out. A sub simply depends on the opacity of water to conceal its movements, both on approach and as it makes it escape.

Surface ships expect to be shot at, and a large part of a surface ship's displacement is devoted to defense — armor, countermeasures, and defensive weapons. A sub's only armor is its stealth, which it can lose in a single unhappy moment. True, it can regain its stealth with proper tactics and a little luck, but in the meantime the enemy will do everything it can to sink it.

And they did sink subs. In spite of being hard to find and manned by each navy's best men, a lot of subs have been sunk. In WW II, 52 US subs, 83 British subs, 128 Japanese subs, and somewhere between 700 and 800 German subs were sunk.

Of course, the submarine was the major arm of the German Kriegsmarine, which skews the numbers a little. The Germans built a little over 1000 boats of all types, but losses still amounted to about 70% of the all the subs the Reich ever built! U.S. losses, by comparison, represented about 18% of its submarine force — still high.

And losses were almost always total. When a sub went down, it usually took its entire crew with it. Some tried escape gear or a free ascent to the surface, but however many tried, few succeeded.

And it's no better today then it was in WW I. Komsomolsk, a Russian nuclear submarine that was lost in 1989, was equipped with a sophisticated rescue sphere capable of holding her entire crew. In spite of this precaution, of the five men that used it, only one survived. Others, like Thresher and Scorpion, were total losses.

These men were some of the best we had, who chose an uncomfortable, dangerous service. Some of them did not come back. Those who did brought us these stories.