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The BEST Two Years
My time on the USS Bergall SSN 667 was one of the best parts of my entire life. I loved the crew, those who reported to me and helped me even more, and Capt. Wyatt most of all. I reported on board in March 1975 and transferred to the SSEP training facility in New London and October 1977. I left the boat when we were in Holy Loch following a northern run.
A short summary of life after Bergall:
I spent only one more year on active duty following my Bergall time. I began work as a maintenance engineer at a nuclear power plant in North Carolina in October 1978. This resulted in a real career, retiring in 2003 after a career including plant manager of a nuclear plant in Louisiana and site vice president of a nuclear plant in Illinois. I stayed in the reserves after leaving active duty and had the privilege of being commanding officer of five different naval reserve units and retiring as a Commander in 1991.I have been blessed with great success and as a result I was able to buyand move to an old plantation and 300 acres in western South Carolina after retiring from the nuclear business. In December 2008, I was thrown from one of my horses and broke my neck in two places and sustained a spinal cord injury which left me paralyzed from the chest down. I have made great progress in recuperating from this situation, determined to beat all the odds. I have had surgery in Europe in June 2010 and attend a very special recovery/physical therapy facility near Detroit about seven months out of every year. I can now partially use my arms and have greatly improved upper body strength. A couple more years – maybe it will seem like Capt. Wyatt's thoughts about steaming back up the Thames River. Fortunately, no brain damage and no loss of memories about this wonderful submarine and all my times on board.
Reporting on board:
Found Bergall in New London in March 1975 just after it completed an overhaul at EB. I was already surface warfare qualified from my time on USS Forestall and had just avoided – after years of trying to get assigned to a submarine – orders to the USS Nautilus which was a fine boat no doubt, but glued to the pier. Capt. Wyatt welcomed me but took no mercy – expected more out of me because of my previous experience. I made some embarrassing first efforts at conning the boat, but things got better and I was submarine qualified in nine months which I believe was very fast for an officer. Jack Mauer was the XO – always exciting to see the XO! I remember when he figured out the other combination to a special safe by putting in a certain junior officer's (no not me!) Birthday. Exciting! I also remember going down to Tongue of the Ocean for sound trials etc. after the time at EB. The engineers made a special huge fish hook for the captain – I was on the bridge with him while we did some shark fishing with a roast beef. No shark however. And yes, I remember my first water slug. No warning from anyone – I guess officers are just supposed to know these things! I was in my bunk and found out just how hard the bunk above me was. Talk about cleaning out your pants!
Capt. Wyatt's letter outlined a lot of that Mediterranean trip. I remember it well. We were one of the bad guys – Orange forces – attacking the NATO fleet. I don't believe they ever got us. I remember steaming around at periscope depth one Sunday morning looking at all the pretty sailors lined up on the various ships at morning quarters. We shot a flare and got everyone excited. Another time there was a nearby NATO destroyer – Capt. Wyatt took our handheld spotlight and signaled something – what was that you were signaling? – through the periscope at that destroyer. When he finally saw us, I was looking through the periscope and saw him make a hard right turn, heal over to port, black smoke coming out of both stacks and heading straight towards us like one of those Japanese destroyers in the movies. The Capt. took a look, ordered 20° down and engines ahead full and we ran straight under him so fast he couldn't detect us – shot another flare when we popped up on the other side. Our Capt. Wyatt was always cool and smooth. This was a guy you would go to war with any time. He taught me a lot. Up keeps at La Maddelena were both hard work and lots of memorable fun. I help the Polish guy fix two of his outboard motors and became a friend of the family! He was about 70 years old and in great shape and had a girlfriend that was probably 20 years old and also in great shape. I learned a lesson from him that growing old might happen in the body, but not necessarily in the mind. I carried this lesson ever since. The people in the beautiful water and beaches there are still a favorite memory and forever will be. By the way, rumor had it the old guy was a Polish spy! I wonder if we ever figured that out. I was allowed to return to the US in May 1976 for the birth of my first child back in New London. Perfect timing along with some incredible adventures on my trip home and returning. After spending a day on an Italian train and all night home and Italian ferryboat, USS Bergall was a welcome sight back in La Maddelena.
Admissions of guilt:
Only time and lack of good judgment calls me to fess up after all these years.
As the de facto leader of the Blue Noses, I did react to having my mattress removed and stuffed in a torpedo tube. The wrinkly little stiffeners on the bottom of those metal racks just don't let you sleep too well. So yes, all the missing lenin and blankets out of the chief's quarters I did remove over several days to better pad my bunk. And yes Capt. Wyatt, in spite of not admitting it under the threat of torture from you, I was indeed the culprit who removed your flushing water valve from your state room head. And then there was the XO's door – knowing full well that he and the Capt. had conspired to remove my bunk mattress – some of my loyal Blue Nose shipmates responded to my directive that the XO's door of the removed and hidden away. And so it was and I was never told where. The wrath of the XO was surely going to come down on me – which it did. Can't tell what you don't know and even after the Bluenose ceremony, we just kept that door a bit longer. The door was so well hidden it was never found, but one day when I had the maneuvering watch I mentioned that it might be time to put it back in place. Where was it I asked? Those in the know looked at the side door from maneuvering into the engine room where the door was open fully and locked back against the bulkhead. Only then did I realize that there never had been a door there before, but pinned back against the bulkhead and virtually unnoticeable – the XO's door fit perfectly and was seen by everyone, including those interested in finding it, but never recognized.
Odds and ends that I will never forget:
Chief Gray took a special interest in harassing me early in my time on board. While teaching me all he knew about diving officer duties, he asked me if I like music. I said that I did and as he removed the little paper ring around his cigar and handed it to me along with a puff of smoke in my face, he said "well good, so here's a band". I had a special bond and respect for Chief Gray. He and I were the two men on deck transferring our sonar man with appendicitis to the British helicopter. Rough weather. I managed to get washed over the side as a large wave carried our stretcher bound patient in the British guy from the helicopter and me overboard. The two of them were lifted up by the chopper, and I was swimming around in the ocean on the end of the double line recommended by Chief Gray just in case we did need some maneuvering room up there! So there was the chief standing on the boat and he pulled me up the side with seemingly no effort. Thank you Chief Gray. I managed to hurt my knee pretty badly going down the side of the boat so I was in my bunk for a week or so and we had pulled into Northern Italy where Chief Gray had orders off the boat. He came in to say goodbye and I think we both shed tears. I know I did. God bless you where ever you are Chief Gray.
I also remember Lieut. Oltraver as officer of the deck when Capt. Wyatt spoke a little Russian on the underwater MC from the sonar room – of course this was heard on the speaker in the control room. I think the words were something like" surrender now and surface!". We watched all of that unfold trying to keep our composure.
I was the officer the deck one night when we sent the newest seaman on board, down to wake up Lieut. Oltraver for the next watch. We reminded him that the good Lieut. was a very sound sleeper, so he needed to jerk the curtain back as fast as he could and yell "wake up.". We heard several screams a few minutes later, as Lieut.O pulled the young seaman into the bunk with him, with a death grip around his throat.
I remember our first-class cook coming to the control room with our lunch that day – an unfrozen octopus – wrapped around his throat, gagging and saying he was choking. Everyone on watch sort of looked and said too bad he was choking to death. Cookie was great anyway, baked like no one could, and we never had a bad pot of soup.
And then there was the squadron duty officer who came on board in New London ( I had recognized him and told him to come on board ) who toured the boat and then informed the topside watch – who called me – that we really didn't know who he was since we could not call his name. So he said he was maybe a spy and was going to put us on report. Since he was a spy and since I didn't know who he was, according to him, I remember we yelled for him to stop as he walked down the pier – and not stopping, I had the topside watch pullout his .45 and told the good duty officer that since he was a spy i was going to have him shot if he didn't stop. He stopped! Good move, because a shot over his head was next, and believe it or not, one in the leg was what I had in mind. Capt. Wyatt, as usual, kept me out of trouble and made it all okay. I don't think that individual ever came back on our boat as the squadron duty officer.I could go on and on.
Too many good memories now that I start thinking about all of them. I will stop.
There was never a greater unit in the U.S. Navy than USS Bergall, never a greater commanding officer then Capt. Wyatt. The crew – none anywhere could be better. The Chiefs – same thing and they looked after me and talked to me and listened to me and I was a much better officer for it. Many other things I learned on board were things I used later on in my career and even now when overcoming special difficulties.
My greatest respect and sincere hello to everyone I had the pleasure to serve with.