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A. M. D. G.

My U.S. Navy Tour 1969-1975 and The USS SAND LANCE (SSN 660)
Author: Bernard F. O’Neill, MAS/PMP – February 2003

Introduction

Since technology has given us all the capability to document and share glimpses of times in our lives, I thought I would take advantage of that gift and provide a view of a time when I greatly appreciated being part of, in my opinion, the worlds greatest armed service, that being:


The
United States Naval Submarine

- Silent Service -

Purpose 

My purpose for writing this work is very basic. I want to share what I consider the best opportunity that I was part of in my life, so far, and thereby enlighten others who may be considering a similar path in military life. In addition, since I so thoroughly enjoyed this adventure, perhaps some readers may find these items interesting or simply entertaining, in any case I would have achieved my purpose in compiling this information. No matter what your personal reason is for looking over these few pages I sincerely hope you take away with you the same sense of pride and dignity that has implanted itself in my heart and soul. It is my wish that I can effectively express my total respect, deep appreciation and gratitude to the US Naval Submarine School Instructors of New London, Connecticut; my fellow crew members of the USS SAND LANCE (SSN 660) and the women and men of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, in whose hands we placed our very lives. Thanks to each and every one of these individuals, we all made it safely home to our families and friends.



Commissioning Crew – First Ships Patch – 1970
 


Note: Due to the age of some documents and my lack of equipment to adjust “signs of age” some documents are dark in appearance – an ever-present reminder of our temporary interlude with history. I have made every effort to provide the “Source” of all material – disclaiming original authorship and credit wherever possible.



USS SAND LANCE (SSN 660) Departing Charleston, South Carolina: First - Home Port.
Photo by:
U.S. Navy Photographer



-Where It All Began For Me-

The timeframe was the later part of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. The Vietnam War was a major part of the daily news, and the military draft lottery was displayed on television as if it were some game show from time to time. I had recently graduated in 1968 from Milford Mill, High School near Randallstown, Maryland.


Milford Mill, High School 1968 Senior Prom.
Bernard and Debbie (Jent) O’Neill
Photo by: Marie E. Griffith


I was fully aware of the brutality of the war and knew at some point I would soon be faced with the decision – do I volunteer or do I wait on the draft? After High School I began my formal work career as a Telephone Central Office Installer Technician for the Western Electric Company, located in
Cockeysville, Maryland a subsidiary of American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T). In 1968 as a single eligible male draft candidate I gave much consideration to my military options so I began investigating different military services and alternatives, none, by the way, was to go to Canada.

 

 



-The Sales Pitch-

One summer afternoon I somehow found my way down to the U.S. Naval Reserve Training Center located at the historic “
Fort McHenry” home of the “Star Spangled Banner” located on Fort Avenue in Baltimore City, Maryland. I was approached by one of the recruiting officers and provided a memorable tour of the Training Center. To the rear of the building there was an aging World War II diesel powered submarine christened the “USS REDFIN (SS 272)” and no, it is not the same boat tied up to the pier in the Baltimore Inner Harbor today. I was invited aboard and there I mingled with some very good natured and cordial individuals who were charged with keeping the inner mechanical equipment fully functional on this vessel; who, by the way, were very successful at their assigned task. I then continued my tour with the recruiting officer and moved on to see a Navy Reserve Construction “Sea Bee” Division drill area, then another area designated as “The Naval Communications Technical Squadron 5-1” which had numerous meritorious service awards to the U.S. Naval Active Fleet posted on their drill hall area bulletin board. (This Security Group would later be part of my Naval duty tour.)

We soon got down to business and after I had filled out a plethora of paperwork I was asked, “Well have you given it any thought as to which unit you may be interested in joining here at the Reserve Center?” I clearly remember being impressed with several of the proactive drill units and their missions and promptly said – “no not as of yet!” The next response from the recruiter was – well, how about the Submarine Service? My answer was – well I thought that was a dying branch of the service in a post World War II era. He laughed and said, no I think you’ll make an excellent submariner and you’ll find it very challenging and technically educational. So with such glowing comments and encouragement, I said “ok” “Submarines it is!”


My Family and I visiting : USS TORSK (SS 423) Baltimore Inner Harbor
The first Naval Reserve Submarine, I ever toured was the USS REDFIN (SS 272) When Deciding on Submarine Duty.
Photo by: William A. Jent, Major
US Air Force - Retired
 


- Away To
Submarine School Training -

I was soon placed on a waiting list for “Active Duty for Training” at the noted U.S. Naval Submarine Training Base in
New London, CT. It seemed like forever waiting for orders to submarine school, so in my own enthusiastic way I went and requested early assignment to report for training. I arrived in New London by train after departing from the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in Baltimore, I was sent off by my fiancé and her parents. Upon arriving at the Submarine Base Information Office I was greeted by the Officer of the Day (OD) and one of the First Class Petty Officers assigned to shore duty in personnel administration. I was then given the grand tour of the Naval Enlisted Submarine School facilities. I was promptly shown where I was to “bunk”. The place looked like a long building with hundreds of bunk beds lined up side by side on both sides of the building and down what appeared to be an endless hallway as far as one could see. The quarters were painted a bright blue with individual lockers of dark “pea green” and crowded sleeping accommodations that were “poor” at best, folded mattress about three inches thick, however, I was here to be trained, and that was where my focus would remain at this time. Reporting for duty over the weekend had its advantages. I was able to take a quick look around the sub base and local town before beginning training bright and early Monday morning.


Main Gate New London Submarine Base.
Photo by: William A. Jent, Major U.S. Air Force-Retired

 


Monday morning I found myself in class with a group of about 35 feisty but determined enlisted sailors. The Instructor entered our classroom and immediately took control. After a brief introduction of who everyone was and where they were from the Instructor asked a final question: “Has everyone heard of the Navy Great Lakes Basic Enlisted Training Facilities?” He then proceeded to make the point that that particular facility was not a place where anyone of us would ever want to be. He made the following motivational statement, “Anyone who successfully completes this Submarine Training would not have to report to “Basic Training at the Great Lakes Facility”. Enough said, it worked for me and I immediately was convinced and made up my mind that if this place was not all that great – then the “
Great Lakes” had to be much worse – so it was my intention to succeed right here and now.

On Tuesday we all had to go through physicals and psychological evaluations. I made it through the medical physical and psychological training including the hyperberic chamber training where four of ten of us who had been squeezed into chamber (which was made for 4-5 people) had their ear drums burst and several began bleeding, but in spite of all this I was determined to move on, so I did, right to the eye examination and an - immediate release – the problem – eyesight, measured 20/40 vision without correctable lenses.


Hyperberic Chamber – New London Submarine School – Ouch!
Photo by: William A. Jent, Major U.S. Air Force-Retired


I was promptly advised to pack-up and go back to my reserve unit in
Baltimore and await further instructions. Upon arriving home I went directly to the reserve center and inquired what I had to do to obtain permission to complete my submarine training. “Well”, the Officer of the Day said, you need a “Waiver for Glasses” and that requires the signature of the Commanding Officer of the Reserve Facility. Hearing this, I made sure to get my waiver, and the rest is history. I promptly returned to New London to complete my submarine training. Upon my return it was pointed out to me that the newly forming class got a break from nature – lightning had struck the 100 foot tall submarine rescue escape training water tower on base and placed it out of commission for an extended period of time, long enough for me to get through Sub School and not have to worry about the challenging “Blow and Go” exercise which was a mandatory part of Submarine Training and another filtering point for the faint of heart. Quite frankly I have never missed not having to go through that ordeal, however, I bet I would have entered that tower and completed that task in record time (smile).


One Hundred Foot High Under Water Emergency Escape Training Tower.
U.S. Naval Submarine Base New London, CT. – Base Store Post Card



- First Duty Assignment: Nuclear Submarine Pre-Commissioning Crew -

Time flew and Submarine School was down right challenging – having to learn all about hydraulics, pneumatics, electro-mechanical and electronic life support systems and ship maneuvering and control systems along with onboard communications, diving controls and their importance to my survival and the overall survival of the crew. Classes were finally over and I had obtained a 4.0 rating on a 4.0 scale for my personal student rating. It was now time for all of us to obtain our orders and be notified of where and which submarine we were going to be assigned. Several of my classmates were sent to boats actively serving in the
Viet Nam arena, others were sent to Ballistic Missile Boats, often called “Boomers” and still others Nuclear Fast Attack boats and some even went to Diesel boats. Me, well, I waited and waited and waited, finally one day after about 3 weeks, I went to the base Personnel Office and asked if anyone could find out what was the status of my orders. The reply came one day later when I was informed that somehow I was assigned to a Nuclear Submarine billet and nobody had completed a security clearance background check on me. So a little while later the Security clearance was completed and I was ordered to a pre-commissioning unit located in the Portsmouth Naval Ship Yard in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Upon obtaining my orders I was asked by the Officer of the Day: “Hey Sailor, how did you rate such choice duty?” My response was simply a big smile and I replied “I have friends in “High Places”. I then promptly went packing to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, without a clue about how fortunate I was to have this type of duty assignment right out of submarine school training.


Worth Every Minute This Took To Achieve
Source: Personal Memorabilia


 



Portsmouth Naval Shipyard: Magazine Photo. New Hampshire.
Source: 170 years of service
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard booklet.  

I again traveled by train to my destination. Upon arriving in
Portsmouth I was soon to find out that the Naval Base while officially in Portsmouth, New Hampshire but was actually right next to Kittery, Maine and in walking distance to Pease Air Force Base, It was at Pease my wife and I would entertain ourselves at the air base movie theatre. I entered the Ship Yard through Kittery, Maine carrying my duffle bag over my shoulder and was greeted by a U.S. Marine Guard. I displayed my orders and was told someone would be over to show me to my quarters in a few minutes. Sure enough I was escorted to a Navy Barge, “Well here you are pal,” my escort said – “Welcome Aboard!” Within a few minutes I was given my quarters – a third rack high bunk bed on a shipyard-floating barge. Again I thought this is to be temporary and I can live with that. As soon as I unpacked I inquired where the “Sand Lance” was located. I was again escorted to the dry dock area where all at once I saw the entire boat elevated out of the water. It was astonishing to me to see such a sight. I then moved to the boarding area and was showed the entire boat inside and out. The inside at that time was nothing but cables and piping as it was still entirely under construction.

So, I asked how long until we are ready for sea? The escort smiled and said: “well we have had to nearly rebuild this entire boat ever since the “Thresher” was lost, you see we learned a great deal from that tragedy and we are putting backup systems onto the backup systems to increase the safety factor, it’s going be awhile.”

The USS
SAND LANCE (SSN 660) was going to be the first 637 Class Submarine to go to sea from Portsmouth Naval Ship Yard since the loss of the USS THRESHER (SSN 593) during her sea trials after her 1963 modification. It was also during 1968 the USS SCORPION (SSN 589) was lost at sea.
 

 

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©2003-2005 Bernard F. O’Neill, MAS/PMP