Renowned for his pioneering research into the role polar regions play in global climate change, Dr. Alfred S. McLaren is also a noted undersea explorer who has dived on such historically important wrecks as Titanic and Bismarck. In his book Unknown Waters (2008), the retired Navy submariner chronicles his 1970 command of the nuclear submarine USS Queenfish beneath the Arctic ice to the North Pole and Siberia. Primarily a scientific mission, the 20-day, 3,100- mile journey also had a definite, if clandestine, military objective.
What prompted the 1970 voyage?
I first had the idea for the voyage when I was an instructor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and I had a close relationship with Dr. Waldo Lyon, head of the Arctic Submarine Laboratory. The Siberian Continental Shelf—the Laptev, East Siberian and Chukchi seas—was a vast and completely unknown region. The voyage was primarily intended to be a mission of first-ever exploration and collection of hydrographic, oceanographic and sea-ice data. Militarily, we wanted to learn just where and how far under the area’s perennial sea-ice cover a nuclear submarine could effectively operate. With the Soviet Union at that time being our most probable adversary in the event of war, we had to know the area quite thoroughly while we had the advantage.
Did you anticipate the possibility of a hostile reception from the Soviets?
We were going to be operating in international waters in an area six times the size of the Mediterranean Sea, and we didn’t have any indication that the Soviets would be [able to detect us]. On the other hand, there is always the possibility that a “hot war” might break out, so we always went out prepared for war, including a full load of “war shots.”
Is that why Queenfish made the trip without identity markings?
It was the Cold War, and Queenfish was a fast-attack submarine, so we didn’t want anyone to be able to positively identify us. Though when we surfaced at the pole, we temporarily attached large white numbers to the sail for the photos.
What were your primary concerns as Queenfish’s commander?
There were three. First, the continued reliability of all Queenfish’s systems, particularly those involved in safely navigating under thick sea ice. Second, that my crew and I would remain in top health—both physical and emotional. And third, that our performance as a team, every hour and every day, would remain at the standard necessary to ensure we safely and successfully completed our mission. The entire crew had to work together, to practice for every imaginable contingency.
Morale was also very important. On a voyage like that you do everything you can to keep people’s spirits up. Frankly, really good food is a big part of that—you can handle just about anything if you know you have a really good meal to look forward to. And, of course, decent berthing and overall cleanliness are also very important.
What were your greatest challenges?
Number one was, of course, avoiding collision with the bottom or with the sea ice—particularly the deep-draft “keels” that projected downward from above. Remember that the region was completely uncharted, with no information on depths or potential obstacles. We also had to worry about getting stuck in the ice or between the ice and the bottom. At some points we had as little as 20 feet of water beneath the keel and above the top of the sail.
What did you learn from the mission?
We learned that U.S. nuclear attack submarines of the Sturgeon class—with normal, well-trained crews and standard equipment—could safely navigate beneath the heavy sea ice covering the Siberian Continental Shelf. We determined the minimum parameters of the operational envelope within which we could operate under the ice. And we further validated the submarine force’s normal training and operations standards—imposed by Admiral Hyman Rickover—for the safe and reliable operation of an American nuclear submarine’s engineering plant.
Which of your 20 Cold War submarine missions was the most memorable?
All I can tell you is that under my command, Queenfish undertook a series of extremely successful missions during the summer and fall of 1971. The first of those was so unusual, and so highly successful, that at its conclusion I was flown from Pearl Harbor to Washington to give three days of briefings to the secretary of the Navy, Admiral Rickover and the CIA. The other two missions were equally successful; I subsequently received the Distinguished Service Medal, and my officers and men received commensurate awards and recognition.
While security restraints prevent me from providing any further details now or in the future, I will say this: The American taxpayers absolutely got their money’s worth from the submarines built during the Cold War, which were used primarily for reconnaissance and intelligence collection. When we were the cat and the other side was the mouse, the mouse never knew we were there. And when we were the mouse, the cat never knew we were there. We were never detected, and we were extremely successful.
Does the U.S. Navy remain the dominant military force beneath the polar ice?
Absolutely. We’re sending submarines up there so often that it’s really become routine. All classes of our submarines have operated in the polar regions; we’re very comfortable up there. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be challenges, of course—the competition for territory and resources among circumpolar nations is increasing, and the steady effects of global warming are decreasing the extent of the ice.
What was it like to work with the Russians on your dives to Titanic?
It was very easy. We were all recognized undersea professionals, respected each other and worked very well as a team. The Cold War was never discussed and was never a factor in any way.
What did you learn from your exploration of Bismarck?
That it was, and still is, a truly magnificent warship that was built and crewed to very high standards.
While Titanic is an absolute mess— there’s really only one intact section, and she’s covered with rusticles that are consuming her steel—Bismarck is markedly different. With the exception of the superstructure and a relatively small section of the stern, the ship lies [about 350 nautical miles west of Brest, France] virtually intact on the bottom at some 5,850 meters beneath the sea. I was just awestruck at how good her condition was— her paint was still beautifully preserved, and her teak deck was still intact. She looked like she could just be floated to the surface and sent off to war again.
My two lengthy dives to, and examination of, Bismarck convinced me that while the British torpedo hit on her rudder/ screw area certainly put the ship out of action, she ultimately went down as a result of well-planned and well-executed scuttling by her crew and not as a result of Royal Navy torpedoes and shells. We saw no holes or penetrations of the hull anywhere near or below the ship’s waterline.
What can the exploration of sunken warships teach us so many years later?
You can learn considerably more detail about the ships and the events, depending on what equipment you’re using and how well you’ve prepared in terms of research. The latter is very important, because the more you know about the engagements and the vessels involved, the more you’ll get out of what you observe.
Bismarck is an excellent example of that. There is no question she was disabled by a British torpedo, but a close examination of the ship shows that she was not sunk by enemy fire. So the close-up examination of a sunken vessel allows you to learn so much more about what really happened and gives you information that allows you take another look at the event and may even allow you to rewrite history.
Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.