One Foot In The Grave
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One Foot In The Grave
By Mike Bailey
In the summer of 1963, the US Navy submarine I was station on was conducting special drills and
practicing some mine laying exercises off the coast of Charleston, SC, our home port. We were
scheduled for a deployment to the waters around Cuba to do special electronic eavesdropping
reconnaissance later that summer and were testing out all the work that had been done on our sub
in the shipyard there at Charleston over the past few months.

We had been running at periscope depth for a sometime when the order was given to dive further
and to see how all checked out as we approached our official test depth of 412 feet. At first, no
one paid any attention to the water dripping onto the passageway by the low pressure manifold
area on the rear starboard side of the Control Room. Believe me, old diesel subs leaked!

Anyway, the low pressure manifold was used to create and deliver air at only 10 pounds per square
inch (psi) up through 9 pipes that then go through special valves penetrating our pressure hull and
then on to all of our main ballast tanks. After using the regular 600 psi pressure air to blow water
out of these tanks on a normal surfacing procedure, the low pressure manifold was used to
continue blowing water out of the tanks once we had broken the surface, but was still low in
the water.

Using just the 10 psi air and not the high pressured air stored in special tank allowed us to
conserve that air. While we could compress and store more air, this was a time consuming process
that the low pressure system helped manage how often we had to do it.  

Meanwhile -- about the time someone slipped and fell because of the water that had now pooled up
on the deck floor beneath one of the dripping low pressure valves mounted on the hull ceiling above
the manifold, there was this extremely loud metal ripping, tearing, ear-piercing explosive boom!

The sounds were overwhelmingly frightening as one of the low pressure pipe and control valve
assemblies through our pressure hull ruptured and exploded into our Control Room.

Within seconds, thousands of gallons of salt water per minute were flooding into my submarine
through a hole in the pressure hull as if a fully charged fire hydrant had been installed in the
overhead and had been maliciously opened.  To make matters worse, we were already diving at a
fairly steep angle to reach our approved test depth on a test dive.  

With the outside sea pressure against the hull already surpassing 200 psi, the volume of water
being forced into our sub was increasing at an accelerated rate -- one that if not soon stopped or
slowed down could cripple our ability to handle the flooding and the excessive weight being added
to our sub as we soon passed through our official test depth.

Added to all these elements of noise and confusion was the ear piercing collision alarm going off in
each compartment throughout the sub.  To make matters even more critical was the ruptured pipe
incident occurred directly above the aux power distribution panels on the starboard side of the
Control Room and electrical shorts were occurring like fireworks going off on July the 4th.  
Within seconds, all the lights were flickering on and off and finally, all went out and we were
thrown into a pitch black darkness that was filled with people shouting orders and instructions of
what to do as we rapidly passed through our approved test depth.

It seemed like an eternity before the auxiliary power came on (backup emergency lighting) and
once again bathed us in light.

The Control Room and the Conning Tower above it are the operational heart of a US WWII era
diesel submarine. This is where the bow and stern planes (external fins -- like wings on a plane --
that move up and down to control the sub’s upward and downward movement through the water
while diving or surfacing).

Our helm (rudder) controls was also here plus all the hydraulic manifolds that control the opening
and closing of all the major valves that control the flooding and pumping out of ballast tanks, trim
tanks, etc.  All this was in additions to trim tank manifolds, electronic navigation, sonar, and
communications equipment and other devices critical to the operation of a war-time equipped
submarine.

Bottom line, it is command central -- the nerve center if you will -- and with it damaged and or
severely incapacitated, the lives of all aboard would be placed in serious jeopardy.

We were in all reality, just a moment or two away from a total, catastrophic failure on our
submarine -- we literally had one foot in the grave and time was rapidly running out.

Within seconds everyone in the Control Room sprang into action. From a special locker built into
the side of the Radio Room immediately aft of the Control Room, two of us retrieved a special
jacking pole and several large wooden cone-shape plugs. Struggling to maintain our balance against
the onslaught of water under high pressure being streamed downward against us, four of us were
able to set the jacking pole into place with a large damage control plug placed on top.

Taking turns jacking the handle as fast as we could, we finally got the tip of the plug poised to be
plunged up into the ruptured valve hole in our hull. Two people grasped the jacking handle and
pumped like crazy to force the plus up into the gaping hole.

Within seconds, the volume of flooding water was greatly reduced. Helping this to happen was also
the fact that while several of us were struggling with the plug and jacking device, the Dive Officer
was barking out orders to the men at the bow and stern planes plus orders to the men manning the
both the trim and air manifolds that were blowing water out of special ballast tanks. All of these
coordinated and well executed orders contributed to stopping the downward decent of our sub and
had not only leveled us off but had caused us to start rising rapidly back up towards the surface.

Seconds later, the Captain ordered “Surface, Surface, Surface” and all hands throughout the sub
went about their assigned duties to carry out that order. What seemed like an eternity was only a
few seconds in real time before we breached the surface and the all clear signal was given to move
about between compartments and to return the boat back to its normal operating status.

Needless to say, we immediately headed back to the Charleston Naval Base and shipyard
for repairs.

Thankfully, we had only been a hundred miles off the coast from Charleston and were able to get
back to port safely and quickly. It took several weeks to restore order to all equipment that had
been damaged or destroyed by the flooding.

Catastrophic times like this were the times to test our souls, spirit, and most challenging of all, our
training. Thank God for all of our training onboard our submarine and becoming “Qualified in
Submarines.” The wearing of the coveted “Dolphins” on our uniforms was the signal to all those in
the Navy who saw us wearing them that we had successfully undergone over a years’ worth of
intense training and testing (verbal, written, and operationally) on every system, every pipe, every
valve, every switch, and every piece of equipment onboard our submarine, etc.  

That knowledge, team work, and unwavering determination to succeed kept us alive that day.

Failure was never an option.
...The End
One Foot In The Grave
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