When Tim Perry grew up in Richland County he wanted nothing more than to get as far away as he possibly could.
He likely didn’t imagine that would mean submerging to hundreds of feet below sea level.
But that’s exactly what he did, for a total of 400 days spread out over about three years.
When Perry was a senior at Richland Center High School during the fall of 1974 he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. “That was my ticket out of here,” he said. He had a choice between Great Lakes, Ill., San Diego, Calif., and Orlando, Fla. He says that if he’d known that female recruits were being sent to Orlando, he might have gone there, but not knowing that he opted for San Diego.
After he graduated in 1975 he headed west and turned 18 in boot camp. He stayed in San Diego for “A” school and chose navigation as his rating (job). Ultimately he became a quartermaster, but he wishes to dispel any confusion. He says that in the Army quartermaster means someone involved with supplies, but in the Navy it means someone involved with navigation.
Given a choice, he preferred to be on a small ship with a small crew, which offered three options: a fleet tug, ocean salvage or submarine. To this day, he says, all submarine crewmen must volunteer for that service. “Volunteering eliminates a lot who wouldn’t want to do that,” he says. And, contrary to popular belief, there were no height restrictions; at least not then, when there were more submarines to man than there are today.
Even though a good number of men volunteered back in 1975, Perry says that two-thirds of the volunteers didn’t make it through submarine school for physical reasons and low scores. He and other volunteers had to stoop down to enter a pressure chamber, in which the air pressure got cranked up, it got real hot and the air got thick. “If you’re claustrophobic, you’ll find out right then,” Perry says. Luckily it was no problem for him.
Another potentially claustrophobic situation was when six or so men had to enter an escape trainer, which somewhat looked like a silo, and remain within while it was equalized with twice the air pressure contained in a typical car tire. Perry sustained a ruptured eardrum, but most of the guys did. “It was not uncommon,” he says.
In all, he underwent nearly three months of training in New London, Conn., “The submarine capital of the world,” where the main focus was on academics. He learned about the systems that make a submarine operate, including fluid systems, hydraulics, compressed air, sensors, weapons, and the ship’s construction; how it was built and how it works. He also engaged in advanced firefighting and flooding training.
Perry says, “The reason for knowing all this is casualty control. On a submarine, there’s no fire department. It’s whoever is there. We had a very good curriculum simplified to parts we needed to know. We went through the basics of nuclear power and the propulsion system.”
Upon completion of that course, Perry went to the fleet and was assigned to the USS George Bancroft (SSBN 643) with a homeport in Rota, Spain. At the time the Bancroft was the world’s largest submarine, with a mission as a nuclear deterrent. “We carried 16 Polaris missiles, 33’x6’, which each carried up to 14 Multiple Independent Re-Entry Vehicles (nuclear warheads) and had a range of 3,200 miles. The warheads were 40 kiloton yield each. By comparison, the bomb dropped on Japan was a 12 kiloton yield.)
“That’s a sobering amount of destruction. Do the math and multiply by 41 submarines and then factor in what the Air Force had. The strategic buzzword of the Cold War was ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ (MAD).”
Perry reminds the reader of the Cold War fear that gripped the nation until well into the 1980s. He says, “As long as we were at sea, we were keeping a gun to the bear’s head. We were keeping the Soviet Union in line. Our mission was to go hide with 16 missiles and be on station within range of who our enemies were determined to be.”
People often ask Perry how fast or deep the Bancroft could go. “While the unclassified answer (is) faster than 20 knots and deeper than 400 feet, our normal operating patrol speed was four knots at 200 feet. How deep could we go? All the way to the bottom, but we didn’t like to talk about it like that.”
The crew consisted of about 120 men; 14 officers and 106 enlisted. The captain was 37 years old, but the average age of the crew was 23.
“I spent about 400 days submerged and traveled 46,564 miles underwater. The sub dove and (more importantly) surfaced 68 times,” Perry says.
Perry says that the Bancroft was built in 1966 by General Dynamic-Electric Boat in Groton, Conn. “She was 425 feet long and 33 feet in diameter,” he says. “For the most part the boat had three levels. The torpedo room was forward, followed by the control room and crew living spaces. The central part of the boat contained the missile compartment, which housed the missiles, launch tubes and associated targeting computers.”
To facilitate maximum time on station, the boat had two crews; the blue crew and the gold crew, which alternated patrol periods. Perry says, “The boat would come into Rota, Spain, and one crew would take it on a three-month patrol and the other crew would go back to the States. They’d have a period of R&R and go into training at the U.S. homeport in Charleston, S.C. Then, they’d fly back to Rota and do it all over again. I went on six patrol cycles in three years.”
Perry’s story continues next week, with details about day-to-day life onboard the submarine.