A brief submariner

Brookings County Now & Then

This month the submarine USS South Dakota was commissioned.

Gov. Kristi Noem, Rep. Dusty Johnson and Sen. Mike Rounds were there.      

I wasn’t. 

There was no reason I should have been, except that I’d have been the only one of the four of us South Dakotans there who had ever been on a submarine.

I’ve never been “in” a submarine. 

I’ve only been “on” a submarine. 

Actually, I was “in” a helicopter that was “on” a submarine.

It was a somewhat rare event.

It was 1954, and we were about 100 miles out from San Diego. The pilot was at the controls, and I was in the left side seat with my aerial camera that was about the size of a salt lick. 

Our “Uncle Peter Two Holer” was a state-of-the-art helicopter, officially known as a UP-2. 

We were to photograph torpedo practice. 

Far below was an out-of-sight World War II-type submarine tracking a surface ship. We’d circle the surface ship until we saw a torpedo’s wake.

I would then photograph the wake. The torpedo wasn’t armed, and it was set to run deep to pass under the ship, not hit it.

The sub captain would later review the pictures. If the torpedo passed under the surface ship, he received an “A.” After the torpedo’s run, we also chased it down and marked it with a smoke bomb so a smaller craft could recover it for re-use, and wait for another torpedo run.

We arrived in the area, and I slid back the window on my side of the helicopter for better pictures.

But something went awry. The bottom of the window slipped from its track, and it was flapping and banging loudly against the fuselage. We feared it would break free and fly back into the rear rotor blade, which would present a very big problem.

The pilot radioed the sub and it soon reared up out of the blue. We headed for it. WWII submarines, like the new USS South Dakota, are simply metal tubes. In WWII, however, the topside of the tube had a flat deck mounted on it.

Fortunately our helicopter’s wheels were close enough together so we could land on a part of that deck. I looked out and the chopper wheel on my side was about a foot or so from the edge of the deck. The pilot kept the engine running and the blades spinning in the event we needed to leave quickly.

I assumed the pilot had explained our window problem to the sub commander, who would have someone with mechanical aptitude to run out and fix the window. 

Instead, over the radio the pilot ordered me to fix it. I rolled my eyes. I’m the last person you would want to repair a broken chopper window, or any window for that matter. Glancing down at my narrow workspace on the sub’s deck, I made sure my life vest was buckled properly. Then I checked the chopper’s compass. If I misjudged and slipped, I wanted to know in which direction I would have to swim to get back to San Diego. 

As I started to climb out, to my everlasting relief, a sailor came out of the conning tower, scooched sideways along the narrow side of the deck and in a minute or two the window was back on its runners.

As he was shimmying back past the window to a safer part of the deck, I mouthed a “thank you” and gave him a thumbs up. He mouthed back something to me and gave me a hand signal that did not include his thumb.

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