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Memories of Rick Bolin - STSCS ’76-‘79
I was the Chief Sonar Technician aboard the Bergall from 1976 through 1979. I was a “convertee” from the surface fleet, had just made Chief, and the Bergall was my first boat. I had made Chief pretty quickly and also looked pretty young for my age, which made it difficult for many people to take me seriously. The first day I reported aboard, in my brand new khakis, the topside watch took one look at me and laughed. I used to get carded at the Chief’s Club. Eventually, I was able to earn some respect.
My time on the
Bergall was definitely the most challenging of my tours in the Navy, as well as
the the most fulfilling. I must have done okay for an ex-skimmer because I was
commissioned as an LDO at the end of my tour. Although submarines were only a
part of my Navy career, I’m still a submariner at heart, as that’s where my
fondest memories lay. Here are a few of my stories:
It’s the Captain’s Boat
On a submarine you
get to see what the Captain does in a much more intimate way than you do on a
surface ship with many more times the size and crew. This was driven home to me
one day when the diving officer lost the bubble badly and the boat started going
nose-up about 15 degrees. I stepped out of Sonar and went into Control to see
what the hell was going on. Behind me came Captain Wyatt, naked and covered
with soap. He’d been taking a shower and when all the water started running out
of the stall into his stateroom he became a little pissed, to put it mildly. He
stood on the periscope stand and gave the Diving Officer hell for a few minutes.
Nothing like a public ass chewing from a naked man to let you know exactly who
is in charge.
Many people have asked me if I ever got claustrophobic serving on a submarine. My answer was usually “no”, but there were two incidents.
We had recently replaced a bunch of sonar transducers in the sonar sphere. For those that don’t remember, the sonar sphere was part of the pressure hull. The transducers penetrated the sphere and were subject to sea pressure. The safety rules say that every time the pressure hull is disturbed, you must dive to test depth and visually check for leaks. I decided that I’d do this myself. The problem is that the sonar sphere is accessed through a thick metal plate secured by 50 or so bolts. I went in, they sealed me up, which took about 10 minutes, and we did the test dive. I had a flashlight and a set of sound-powered phones. Once that hatch was bolted up, there was almost absolute silence, as all the humming and other mechanical noise usually present in the sub was gone. All I could hear was water flow and creaking of the hull as we descended. There were no leaks, but I was never so glad to get out of a tight place. Except for the next one …
We trying to isolate a pesky flow-induced rattle. We just couldn’t seem to find using the hydrophones that were positioned around the boat for that purpose, so we resorted to going all around the boat listening with our ear against the hull. At one point, I crawled into a torpedo tube and had the torpedoman shut the door … plunging me into complete quiet and absolute darkness, with the tube walls pressing against my shoulders. My panic was instant, and I just began screaming “LET ME OUT OF HERE!”
LT Reardon Saves My Life
The rattle mentioned above was compromising our ability to stay undetected, and we were on an important mission, so finding it was a top priority. We thought the rattle might be coming from something loose in the forward line lockers so Captain Smith found a suitable area to surface the boat so we could check them out. The seas were not favorable, with 6-8 ft swells, but the Captain seemed to have found a good course that would let us go forward safely. LT Reardon and I put on life jackets and safety harnesses, and went out on deck. As you probably remember, the safety harness has a clip that attaches to a safety track recessed into the deck.
The track has cutouts at periodic intervals to allow you to attach or detach. You just slide the clip along the track to walk down the deck. I was in the lead. As I reached the area we intended to inspect, a big wave washed right over us. Fortunately, I had a good grip on the forward sensor fairing, and LT Reardon was pulling up with his harness against the track, so we didn’t fall off. Then a 2nd wave knocked me loose and as I washed aft, my harness slipped out of the track. As I floated past Lt Reardon, he grabbed the collar of my life jacket. Had he not, I might not be writing this today. The Captain aborted the effort and we got back inside the boat, but not before taking considerable water down the middle hatch when they opened it to let us in.
If LT Reardon ever
reads this, I just need to say “thanks” again. At the time, I didn’t appreciate
the difficulty of maneuvering a sub in rough seas, or spotting a swimmer in bad
weather, but I know better now.
Nuts to Butts
There are things you
just have to get used to on a submarine, and close physical contact is one of
them. During one upkeep period, a civilian technician was trying to repair the
atmosphere monitoring equipment which was located in the main passageway right
below the main hatch. He had his tools all spread out on the deck. He endured
the first couple days of people stepping on his gear and brushing their crotches
by his face. But in the middle of the 3nd day, he threw his
equipment down and stomped off, never to be seen again. Obviously he was not an
Although we did a lot
of hairy tings while I was on the Bergall, I was never fearful, except for one
time when the call came over the 1MC “Fire in the oxygen generator!”.
Fortunately, it was just smoke and not fire. There can be few things worse on a
boat than an oxygen fire, which is just about impossible to put out. The USS
Sargo had one while she was next to the pier that was so bad she had to be
intentionally sunk to save her.
Tales from the Shipyard
One day when the boat
was undergoing a minor overhaul, I was Chief of the Watch. I was making the
rounds of the boat with the OOD, LT Zacharis. We went forward to start in the
diesel generator room. When we got down the ladder, we paused for a moment and
LT Zacharis told me a story about the previous week when he was inspecting the
diesel and heard a noise at the aft part of the room. When he stepped around the
generator he found a female shipyard employee squatting taking a pee in the
bilge. I laughed and we stood there making a few jokes about her. Just then we
heard another noise in the aft part of the room… yep, same girl. She thought we
were saying these things to harass her and complained to the shipyard brass, who
had the balls to complain to Captain Smith. I’d have loved to hear his response
Close Encounters of the Submarine Kind
If you want to let your family and friends know what you did on submarines without revealing information that is still likely classified, tell them to read “Blind Man’s Bluff” by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew. It is an excellent non-fiction book about submarine service in the Cold War era.
One of Bergall’s close encounters happened just after sprinting toward a spot of interest. As we came shallow and slowed to the point where the sonar was effective again, we were shocked to pick up a very loud contact and reported “Conn-Sonar … submerged contact dead ahead and close aboard!” After a hard maneuver and couple frantic moments, we regained control of the situation. Post analysis showed the closest point of approach was about 150 yards, or about one submarine length. One the good side, we did a damn fine job of estimating were we’d find the contact we were looking for.
On another occasion,
while tracking a sub we reported “Conn-Sonar” … Contact is going shallow”. We
came to periscope depth as well to see what might be going on. A couple minutes
later the OOD reported, “Sonar-Conn … We see his scope, bearing 270”. We
replied “Conn-Sonar … His scope should bear 090”. The OOD said “Sonar-Conn …
Yep, there’s one there too”. Oops! … no one likes surprises.
There are many characters on submarines, and one the folks who served with him will remember vividly “Yahoo”. Yahoo was a competent sonar tech and submariner, but had an issue about his hygiene, or the complete lack thereof. He never showered, washed his clothes, or changed his linen willingly. His rack looked like an animal’s nest … a concave pit of brown sheets, old cigarette packs, dirty clothes, and debris. Its smell was horrid. Finally, after taking yet another ass-chewing by the COB, I decided I had to do something about it, so I just ordered him into the shower, and while he was there, we washed all his clothes and remade his bed. That became the norm from then on. We decided that if he wouldn’t do it, we’d just do it for him … problem solved. If he hadn’t been a good sailor and a nice guy, he would probably have been kicked out of the Navy long before then.
One day we had a Sonar Tech party at one of the guy’s houses. Yahoo showed up all spick and span in new clothes. We were amazed and everybody complemented him. Yahoo was eating this up and drank way too much. He ended up passing out, and we decided we’d bring him back to the boat and put him in his rack (he may not have been the only one with too much to drink). Yahoo was a really big guy, like 250 lbs, so it took four of us to carry him to the car. We couldn’t get a good grip on him due to his long sleeve sweater, so we rolled it up, only to discover that his new spiffy look was a sham. He’d washed his hands, face, and hair, but everything not showing was still filthy. We just shook our heads. When we got him to the boat, we were faced with the dilemma of how to get him down the hatch. Someone had the bright idea to strap him in the medical stretcher. The straps in the stretcher must have had a little dry rot, or they just couldn’t support 250 lbs, because when we got him about half way down the hatch, they snapped and dumped him on his head. Good thing he was drunk … he showed no signs of injury.
Yahoo was so famous
that his legacy lived on after he was transferred. We had an informal paper
that a couple crew members put together and each month it bestowed the “Yahoo”
award to the most deserving crewmember. Nothing was said about the nature of
the award, but the recipient usually got the point.
The Bergall was
returning from a mission and was a couple hours from port when we gained an
interesting sonar contact. Knowing adversary subs like to hang out just outside
our ports, we looked at this closely. We were so close to port that a couple of
the crew had changed from “poopy suits” into the uniform of the day. One of
those was “Doc” Guiterrez, our corpsman, who stood sonar watches when he was not
patching folks up. Because of the contact, the Captain had set the Fire
Control Tracking Party, which meant many more folks were now coming into Sonar.
Doc, who had been the only one in Sonar in formal attire, was assigned to
analyze a particular display. Don Stephenson, the sonar supervisor, went out
to round up couple folks who were probably still in their rack. Between the
time Don left and came back, I sent Doc on an errand. Shortly after, Captain
Smith came in and bent over the same display Doc had been examining. He was in
dress uniform just like Doc. Don Stephenson came back and seeing who he thought
was Doc, grabbed a hand full of the Captain’s ass, squeezed, and said “What do
you got there, Doc”. The Captain turned around and answered in a nonchalant way
“You’re getting awfully friendly, aren’t you”? The look on Don’s face was
We had a tradition
while I was on the Bergall of smashing a whip crème pie in the face of the
birthday boys. It was Jerry Donaldson’s birthday and he was determined that no
one was going to pie him. Usually, the ceremonial pie toss was done on the mess
deck where there would be plenty of spectators. Jerry was being very watchful
and positioned himself at the table right next to Sick Bay (the library for the
literate) with his back against the wall where he could see everything. His
intent was if he saw someone coming with a pie, he’s jump into Sick Bay and lock
the door. Determined to get him, I artfully concealed the pie in a large
official-looking binder and walked into Sick Bay right past him. He never
batted an eye. When the crew started singing Happy Birthday on my cue, he
looked around frantically, but there was no threat in sight … until I leaned
around the corner and let him have it.
We were just
returning from a lengthy cruise, just a few hours from port and everyone was
anxious to get home. Unfortunately we picked up a sonar contact that we
classified as a nuclear submarine. This wasn’t totally unexpected because,
again, some of the “bad guys” are known to hang out just off our ports. We
ended up following this contact for about a day and a half. Finally, we got
close and the Captain came up to periscope depth to take a look. He then
called me to the scope to see the great big “Texaco” logo on the side of our
“submarine” contact. I heard about that one for months. It was not my greatest
Everyone in the Navy who has participated in a Bluenose ceremony remembers it vividly, but my two favorite memories are about other crewmen’s experiences.
Cosmo Zizzi, one of the sonar techs, was determined that no one was going to subject him to the usual hair butchering and other humiliation, so he successfully hid during the whole ceremony. This is not an easy thing to do on a submarine, and many have tried and failed. However, we just could not find Cosmo, even after almost everyone knew he was hiding. Finally, after the Bluenose initiation was over, which took a couple hours, we heard a voice coming from a 2 ft x 2 ft storage locker saying “Please help me out of here”. Cosmos had spend the whole time doubled up in such an impossibly small space that we didn’t even think about looking there. He could barely move on his own once extracted.
The other crewmember
was a nuke whose name I don’t remember. He simply barricaded himself in the
“snake pit”, a small space between the turbine generators that had its own
door. He wedged a crossbar in the door mechanism so there was no way opening it
from the outside. The Engineer wasn’t having it, however, and said “Cut him out
of there”. The torch came out, and when the sparks started pouring down on the
nuke’s head he decided that attending the Bluenose ceremony was probably the
lesser of two evils. He may have been one of those folks sporting just half a
head of hair and one eyebrow for the next few weeks.
Demise of the USS Sea Lion
As a member of a submarine development squadron, Bergall got to do a lot of exciting things in addition to completing cold war operational missions. One I remember vividly was sinking the USS Sea Lion, a WW-II diesel boat, as part of a torpedo test in the summer of 1978. Although we were quite a distance away, the torpedo explosion could be heard directly through our hull. The most fascinating sounds were the implosions, cracking, and groaning we could hear over sonar for a full 10 minutes as the Sea Lion’s destroyed hull sank to the bottom with bulkheads crushing as she went to her final berth. The memory still sends shivers down my spine.
To return to memories of the SSN 667,
To return to the main page of the SSN 667, click here.