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Three Knots to Nowhere

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Three Knots to Nowhere

  Three Knots to Nowhere

  A Cold War Submariner on the Undersea Frontline


  McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

  Jefferson, North Carolina



  e-ISBN: 978-1-4766-1404-5

  © 2014 Ted E. Dubay. All rights reserved

  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying or recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

  On the cover: SSBN Deterrent Patrol insignia (United States Navy)

  McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

    Box 611, Jefferson, North Carolina 28640

  Table of Contents




  1. Battle Stations

  2. Troubled Times

  3. Odyssey

  4. Admiral Rickover’s Nuclear Power School

  5. Submarine School—The Final Preparation

  6. Reporting to the USS Henry Clay

  7. Inside the Henry Clay

  8. The Forbidden Zone: The Engineering Spaces

  9. Test Depth

  10. Transit to Hawaii

  11. The Eve of My First Patrol

  12. Getting Underway

  13. Christmas on Patrol

  14. Dolphins and Patrol Pins

  15. R & R in Hawaii

  16. The Escape Tower

  17. Change of Command—The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

  18. Surprise Package from the Blue Crew

  19. Typhoon

  20. Farewell to the Henry Clay

  21. Flight Back to Hawaii

  22. Ford Island

  23. The Circle Begins

  List of Names and Terms


  My appreciation goes to all of my past shipmates. I extend extra thanks to those who maintained a relationship after my discharge from the United States Navy. You are a special breed of people. I could not have written this book without any of you. Special gratitude is in order to the individuals who allowed the use of their names, nicknames, and images, and who provided photographs. Your support added a personal element to this work.

  I used every means at my disposal to contact Robert Montross, Tommy Lee Connell, Charlie Vannoy, Robert Frechette, and Stan Wryn. Regretably, my efforts were fruitless.

  I also employed pseudonyms, if the situation could be considered embarrasing.

  Above all, several exceptional individuals, Ludima Gus Burton, Leona Dubay Lane, Maria Maryeski, and Dr. Edward Monroe Jones, gave their time, support, and technical expertise.

  I would be remiss without out acknowledging my father, Frank Dubay, Sr. He was a remarkable man. Dad was my hero in every sense of the word. If I become half the man he was, I can hold my head high. His younger brother Harry Dubay inspired me to join the submarine service. These two men were the perfect examples of the Greatest Generation. My only regret is they passed on to a better place before my completing this book.

  A final thank you goes to my mom, Mrs. Leona Gus Dubay. Her support and love were always unwavering. She always makes me feel special.


  Several years ago, my granddaughter Annie Thompson and I took a trip to the United States Submarine Museum in Groton, Connecticut.

  Our outing was merely an adventure for Annie. For me, I hoped it would revive long-buried memories of my Cold War submarine experiences.

  While driving, I silently tried to recall facets of that portion of my life. My reward was faint recollections that floated in my mind like the fog swirling around the car. The memories were teasingly present, yet elusive.

  When we arrived at the museum, the sight of a fleet ballistic missile submarine’s missile hatch further tickled long-buried recollections.

  I led Annie to a window on the museum’s second level. We looked out. An eerie scene greeted us. The fog had intensified and we could barely see the faint profile of the USS Nautilus, the museum’s star attraction. Just as the haze was enshrouding the submarine, a similar effect shielded memories of my naval service.

  We exited the building and walked down a pier towards the Nautilus. The submarine gradually emerged from its foggy shroud. I took it as a good omen. If all went well, the Cold War experiences cloaked in my mind would likewise materialize.

  Annie and I entered the submarine via a stairway at its front end. The modified opening replaced the original watertight hatch and vertical ladder. Other than changes to the entrance, items removed for security purposes, and protective Plexiglas over some of the equipment, everything was the same as when the Nautilus was on active duty.

  The crowded Torpedo Room, narrow passageways, cramped bunks, and nearly everything painted Navy gray, caused more and more memories of my submarine service to flash and fade.

  While leaving the Nautilus, I noticed the sailor assisting with the tours was wearing a ship’s patch for the Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine USS Henry Clay, SSBN 625.

  I said, “Hey, buddy. I was on the Clay. Where is she now?”

  Looking at me as if I had three heads, he stated, “Holy Loch, Scotland. Just like always.”

  “When I was on the Clay, her homeport was Pearl Harbor and she operated out of Guam.”

  Taken aback, he blurted, “Wow. That was a long time ago!”

  He was correct. I served in the United States Navy from July 1966 through August 1972. The last four years were on the USS Henry Clay.

  Although Annie enjoyed the tour, it had a different effect on me. I began circling back to a self-defining portion of my life.

  After returning home, I rummaged through the attic and found a dusty box filled with a plethora of materials related to my time in the Navy. Buried in the back of a closet were several photo albums from the same era.

  Fueled by the material, a sporadic hodgepodge of memories emerged from the recesses of my mind: diving to test depth, transit through the Panama Canal, jam dive, Hawaii, Guam, rigged for ultra-quiet, hiding from Russian submarines, Ah-oooo-gah! Ah-oooo-gah! Dive! Dive!

  As the evening passed, the crack in the dam holding back memories of my naval service continued to open. More and more recollections flowed through. At long last, my odyssey from shy adolescent to confident submariner, what it was like serving in the submarine service during the height of the Cold War, and how I coped with the experience slowly emerged.

  I could finally look back. The circle was complete.

  Then I had a troubling thought.

  My submarine service memories were lost for a long time. The holes submarines valiantly punched through the oceans during the Cold War no longer exist. Would my reclaimed memories suffer a similar fate by ebbing away like fading echoes, never to return?

  I began reading every submarine-related book I could find. They disappointed me. None captured the true submarine experience.

  I also joined the United States Submarine Veterans Incorporated. The organization gave me the opportunity to tour present-day submarines and get a feel for crew culture. I found that the present-day submarine service was a different life from the one I experienced. It is a softer, kinder culture. There are other changes. Somewhere along the line, the Navy replaced the traditional ah-oooo-gah diving alarm with a siren. Computers replaced mechanical controls. Instead of a helmsman and planesman using their experience and senses fighting the elements to maintain depth control, sailors perform the same task with touch-screens and computers.

  I was
inspired to write this book, because of the evolution of the submarine service and the inadequate written documentation of Cold War–era submarine duty. Not only would it help other ex-submariners reconnect with their past, it would entertain and educate laypersons about the secret life of submarines.

  My recollections, photographs, and box of artifacts were a good starting point. If the book was going to portray the full breadth of the experience, I needed more.

  I began searching for past shipmates. The arduous process was worth it. I found all of my closest buddies. We now gather at reunions and share past joys, sorrows, good times, and hardships. It is as if we never parted. Serving together, isolated from the world for months at a time, created a bond that can never be broken. These wonderful individuals also provided valuable material that added to the quality of this book.

  Like Richard Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, the work portrays the experience from an ordinary sailor’s perspective. His tale takes place on a sail-driven merchant vessel. This account occurs aboard a submerged nuclear-powered warship and focuses on its extraordinary enlisted men—the backbone of a submarine crew. It is an autobiographical portrait and all events are true, to the best of my knowledge and belief. In order to paint the proper picture, it was necessary to include unclassified technical information. A tour through the Henry Clay describes the actual layout of the submarine. There is one deviation from an accurate portrayal of life on a submarine. I left out the salty language submarine sailors take great pride in using.


  After volunteering for submarine duty, I quickly discovered the obvious: the men of the United States Submarine Service are the cream of the crop. Less than one percent of the United States Navy serves in the submarine service. Having men such as these consider me a fellow submariner is an honor.

  There is a reason the crew of a submarine is all volunteers: a submerged sub is one mistake or equipment malfunction away from never returning to the surface. The fates of the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion are stark reminders of that fact.

  In addition to living with danger, submarine sailors endure seclusion, cramped quarters, and no sunlight or fresh air for months. Only extraordinary men can survive and thrive under these conditions.

  Dr. Joyce Brothers, in part, provided this assessment of submariners:

  Togetherness is an overworked term, but in no other branch of our military service is it given such full meaning as in the “silent service.”

  In an undersea craft, each man is totally dependent upon the skill of every other man in the crew, not only for top performance, but for actual survival.

  Are the men in the submarine service braver than those in other pursuits where the possibility of a sudden tragedy is constant? The glib answer would be to say they are. It is more accurate, from a psychological point of view, to say they are not necessarily braver, but that they are men who have a little more insight into themselves and their capabilities.

  They know themselves a little better than the next man. This has to be so with men who have a healthy reason to volunteer for a risk. They are generally a cut healthier emotionally than others of a similar age and background because of their willingness to push themselves a little bit further and not settle for an easier kind of existence.

  We all have tremendous capabilities but are rarely straining at the upper level of what we can do; these men are1 [see end of Introduction].

  My experience with the USS Henry Clay’s sailors matched Dr. Brothers’s assessment. I trusted them and they never failed to perform as professionals.

  The Clay also earned my respect.

  I found out about the demise of the USS Henry Clay from a one-line sentence buried in a Web site on the Internet. Rumors that her end was near or had already occurred were circulating for some time. Previous attempts to discover the facts were fruitless. A tight-lipped society protected her and those not in the proper circle were not privy to relevant information. When I learned the details, it was comforting to know she succumbed peacefully to old age.

  She and I were close, very close. We parted amicably with neither harboring hard feelings.

  Given a man’s name at birth, she wore it proudly and no one questioned her femininity. I remember her as vibrant, alive, and full of activity. Few would call her beautiful but she was graceful and noble in her own way.

  The Henry Clay’s ability to dispense unimaginable fury made her one of the major players in keeping the peace during the Free World’s Cold War with the Soviet Union. This lady and her crew were the quintessential example of speaking softly but carrying a big stick.

  Former United States Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, Ret., summed up the importance of the FBM fleet with this tribute:

  No one has done more to prevent conflict—no one has made a greater sacrifice for the cause for peace—than you, America’s proud missile submarine family. You stand tall among our heroes of the Cold War.

  America’s leaders place special trust and confidence in the members of their submarine force. You go to sea entrusted with weapons of incredible destructive power. You go to sea propelled by power plants of unbelievable sophistication. You go to sea armed for Armageddon, while charged with the solemn responsibility of preventing it. No other members of America’s Armed Forces have been given so great a burden of responsibility as the sailors of the Ballistic Missile Submarine Force. No other members of America’s Armed Forces have so earned America’s trust.

  Our SSBN patrols continued as the Cold War continued. The Berlin Crisis came and went. The Cuban Crisis came and went. The Vietnam War came and went. Through it all, the sailors of the Submarine Force continued to guide their craft far beneath the surface of the ocean, deterring a Third War that so often looked like it was threatening to break out and destroy us all.

  You did your job well. The terrible War we feared never came.2

  Commissioned on February 20, 1964, the Henry Clay had an active career that lasted 26 years. Her decommissioning occurred on November 5, 1990. She entered the Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling program, and her scrapping was complete on September 30, 1997. It was an ignoble end to a grand lady’s existence.

  One of the last remnants of the USS Henry Clay. The author holding a piece of her hull. From the archives of Ted E. Dubay (September 2012).

  Now she is resting peacefully in the afterlife. Not enough mourn her passing and, unfortunately, many actually rejoice in her departure into oblivion. How sad. Those who are pleased do not understand her true virtues.

  My time in the Navy, especially while assigned to the Clay, was a unique experience. I have no regrets. If given a chance to go back in time and do it again, I would.


  1. Dr. Joyce Brothers, “Why They Behave That Way—Risk Is an Inspiration in Submarine Service,” Milwaukee Journal, April 20, 1963, 1.

  2. Colin L. Powell, “Remarks by General Colin L. Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Ceremony for the 3000th SSBN Patrol,” The Submarine Review, July 1992, 5–8.

  Chapter 1

  * * *

  Battle Stations

  Suddenly the submerged submarine’s speakers shrieked. Immediately following was a terse announcement: “Man Battle Station Missile. Set condition 1SQ. Spin up all missiles.”

  It was midsummer 1971 and three days past Hump Day, the scheduled halfway point of one of my Cold War Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine patrols.

  The USS Henry Clay, SSBN 625, was patrolling the Cold War’s front line beneath the western Pacific. As she maintained a stealthy three-knot pace, her motion through the sea was imperceptible.

  Prior to the announcement, tranquility prevailed—humming electronics, droning pumps and electric motors, whooshing ventilation systems, and whining turbines. I, along with one-third of the crew, was sleeping. Another third were performing assigned maintenance, working on qualifications, or finding ways to combat boredom. The remaining men were on watch, diligently operati
ng and monitoring the complex systems needed to keep the FBM functioning.

  Awakened by the announcements, I heard the click-click-click of my rack’s privacy curtain sliding open as the submarine’s bow tilted up during its ascent to launch depth.

  I, a twenty-two-year-old nuclear-trained electrician, shook the cobwebs from my head. It only took a moment to realize I was aboard the most powerful weapon on Earth. Protection of the United States of America and the responsibility of safely operating a nuclear powered submarine were in direct contrast with my idyllic youth in rural Hickory Township, Pennsylvania. Back then, I did not have a care in the world. The simple life reflected my behavior. I was shy, naive, and a mediocre student. Joining the Navy transformed me. Admiral Hyman Rickover’s highly intensive nuclear propulsion program and qualifying in submarines turned me into an outgoing, confident, and highly respected knowledgeable submariner.

  My mind focused on the present. I dove out of my rack, joining the crew’s scripted pandemonium. It was a struggle to maintain my balance on the sharply angled deck. Second Class Machinist’s Mate Bob “Red” Southerland and I battled for the same portion of the narrow passageway.

  Southerland was slim, smooth-talking, red-haired, fair-skinned, and from Alabama. In the glow of the dimmed compartment lighting, I could see he was sporting sleep-rumpled hair and a day’s growth of stubble. His six-foot-three-inch frame was a distinct disadvantage for maneuvering in a confined space. After bumping his head on a light in the overhead, he muttered a few choice expletives and moved. I, at 5'6", occupied the vacated space.

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