for Submariners

by Hamilton 1:1 Communications, LLC

Under the Deep (Yale) Blue Sea

by Professor Paul Van Tassel, Yale University

Yale University recently announced its intention to partner with the US Armed Forces in returning a Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) to campus, ending a 30+ year absence. As a good-will gesture, the US Navy extended to Yale two invitations to join a submarine excursion from Andros Island, Bahamas to King’s Bay, Georgia. Somehow, one of these invitations made its way to me, so over spring break, while professors grade papers and students spy beaches, I embarked on a three day underwater voyage aboard the USS Missouri.

First, a few words on the sub. A nuclear powered naval submarine is an impressive engineering feat indeed. Nearly 400 feet long and 8000 tons, our Virginia Class sub is home to 130 officers and crew. A nuclear reactor is fueled for the life of the sub (33 years), and provides propulsion and electricity. (Radiation levels are kept lower than those of everyday life.) Oxygen is produced via electrolysis of water, carbon dioxide is removed via amine scrubbing, water is purified via forward osmosis, and a battery pack and even a diesel engine is available for back-up power. A photonic / fiber optic based imaging system replaces the traditional periscope, enabling superior viewing. Sound sensor arrays allow passive and active sonar detection of maritime vessels and ocean floor topography. Each of these features is by itself impressive – together, under 500 feet of water and packed to optimal efficiency, the ensemble is staggering.

Even more impressive than the military hardware are the officers and crew. Admiral Breckenridge is our host, and while not the Commanding Officer of the sub, is the dominant figure on board. A strong and natural leader with a human touch – think football coach meets minister – the Admiral communicates freely, generously, and gregariously, constantly teaching and sharing experience with officers and guests alike. Captain Rexrode, the sub’s Commanding Officer, is focused and knowledgeable, and manages to spend some time with us despite his extensive duties. Some of the officers are very young: Lt. Sullivan is 25, and while his civilian peers are finishing school or searching entry level jobs, he commands a full division within a US Navy submarine.

Whether commanding the ship or cleaning the mess hall, these men “own” their jobs like no one else. Knowledge, dedication, and a sense of responsibility lead to a certain “presence,” as evidenced by the confident and eloquent responses given when asked about their duties. Training, mentorship, and recognition all contribute to this successful formula. Joy and pride were front and center one evening as the Admiral and Captain recognized young officers and crewmen for superior performance during a makeshift award ceremony. What (if any) these men trail Yale students in academic breadth and depth, they make up in purpose and experience.

The control room is the most fascinating place in the sub. Here the captain, pilot, co-pilot, and several others collaborate in the important business of operating the vessel. The atmosphere is focused and serious, yet calm and controlled. Twelve or so of the roughly twenty individuals present attend to sonar, passively tracking surface vessels. Only angular information is available; absolute positioning can only be estimated, and this involves consideration of the time dependence of the external vessel’s angular sonar profile, and the known sub position and velocity. High technology indeed, but also an art! The most exciting moment is the dive, a well choreographed and surprisingly drawn out process (preparation begins about 45 minutes in advance). After numerous checks, the audible “dive” command is given, along with the expected siren, which triggers flooding of the main ballasts. The actual dive is quite rapid: a depth change from 55 to 500 feet in about a minute, with a maximum tilt angle of about 14 degrees. The atmosphere remains calm and peaceful – more like men watching a Hollywood movie than men acting in one.

Morale aboard the sub is exceptional. 90% of the men on board are under 30 (and for the moment, it is all men), but cynicism and sarcasm are totally absent. In its place, a refreshing combination of pride, confidence, humility, respect, good-humor, and “wonder” pervades. Rapport among the men is interesting to observe; support and teamwork are balanced with respect and duty. Although hierarchical, the atmosphere is never tense and not even that formal. I smile repeatedly at the good natured banter, like two young officers self-deprecatingly discussing the pros and cons of the ROTC versus Naval Academy entry routes to the Navy, or a crew member demonstrating a safety procedure joking about the “child size” gloves worn by his “gravitationally challenged” colleague. The closest analogy from civilian life is probably an athletic team, but even there discipline and honor can succumb to swagger and machismo. I’ve never been called “sir” more often in my life (if only my children would take note!), and in no encounter did I ever feel anything but welcome.

What to take home from this experience? The US Navy and Yale University, as institutions, have a lot in common – centuries of world leadership, commitment to excellence, international focus, and willingness to re-invent. The university has a long history with the Armed Forces: from the many students having fought in our wars (just walk through Woolsey Hall) to the number of military leaders having taught in our classrooms. Yale is increasingly focused on science and engineering, and now re-joins ROTC. While the structure and certitude of military life is not for everyone – as impressed as I’ve been, I confess to having no regret for the different path I chose – engineering wonders such as US Navy subs offer unparalleled technical and leadership opportunities to students looking for challenge, open to adventure, and wishing to serve. Three days wandering an underwater war machine’s corridors, and shadowing its dedicated keepers, and three nights of bunking with five men in a room the area of a kitchen table, has provided an unforgettable and eye-opening look at a rich and storied institution, and one of its true engineering marvels.

To the officers and crew of the USS Missouri, for your kindness and hospitality, my most heartfelt thanks. I close with a few memorable quotes:

  • “Speed is like salt – it’s easy to put on, hard to take off” – Admiral Breckenridge, referring to the balance of maneuverability versus response time in choosing a submarine’s speed in narrow waters
  • “Get in, get out, taste it later” – ship doctor, referring to speed-dining in the crew’s mess hall
  • “Rule number one: the admiral is always right” – Admiral Breckenridge, explaining the rules to Uckers, a traditional Naval board game, before a match among the sub’s officers and guests.

Paul Van Tassel
Department of Chemical & Environmental Engineering
Professor and Chair
Yale University
New Haven, CT 06520-8286