Electronics Technician, 2nd Class, Submarine Service, U.S. Navy
April 1964 – October 1966
Graduating from high school in June 1960, I was all set to go to Marquette University, but my family couldn’t afford it. A buddy of mine came over and said,“Wow, we can get all this good schooling by going in the Navy.” We were intrigued with the nuclear Navy. I still have the flyer showing the outline of the Nautilus, which was a cutting-edge submarine back then.
My passion was electronics, so after boot camp and electronics school at Great Lakes, I went off to New London, Conn., to become a submariner. I qualified for subs in June 1962. We learned every system: tanks, compartmentation, electrical, torpedo, ballast, air trim and drain.
I got on board the USS Segundo in September 1962, and in October the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out. For my first cruise, it was unreal to get underway in San Diego, hit the sack and wake up out in the Pacific. We patrolled up and down the coast in case the Cuban thing was a big diversion for a Soviet push from the west.
I was stationed on the USS Perch in April 1964, over in Subic Bay, Philippines. This sub became my real home, my family of submariners. I stood watch in radar, sonar and electronic counter measures. In ECM we’d quietly sit out there and take in all the radio signals being transmitted, then decipher them for enemy threat emitters. In the Gulf of Tonkin, we did some recon work in which we’d submerge to periscope depth and do time-bearing photography of the North Vietnam shoreline.We taped the pictures together, like a panoramic photo, and sent them off to intelligence so they could learn the topography of the beaches.
In August of 1964 everything changed. After the North Vietnamese attack on the Maddox, we started doing patrols and operating with SEAL teams, Green Berets, underwater demolition teams (UDTs), frogmen and Republic of Korea Special Forces. They had converted Perch from SS to APSS (auxiliary personnel) by pulling two engines and removing all the torpedoes and their tubes to make more berthing spaces for the extra bodies on board. Typical book complement of a sub was 72 enlisted and eight officers. Sometimes we had as many as 110 to 120 troops and crew on board.
The Special Forces executed beach recon, sabotage, etc. Our job was to assist the troops to disembark and embark on the sub—whether it was dry deck, wet deck or tank launch. After launching them in their boats, we would sit at periscope depth, with our scope out, watching for the pickup. At a set time, the troops would arrange their boats in two groups, maybe 30 to 40 yards apart, with a rope hanging between them. They would either blink at us with infrared flashlights or drop two sonar transducers in the water, which put out high-frequency pulses.As we headed toward the signals, the two beeps would start to separate and we’d position the periscope between them and actually snag the line with the scope, do a U-turn and pull the boats back out to sea very slowly—nothing over 4 or 5 knots or we’d have oars and guys all over the place. In calm seas, we would surface beneath the boats and actually bring them right out of the water. In rough seas, we’d surface, haul the boats up, deflate them and reset them for the next launch. It was always a relief when we got everyone back on board!
For our work with UDTs, we had an escape trunk in the forward torpedo room that could hold three men with scuba tanks. Sometimes, instead of having the guys get into boats on the surface, we’d lock them out underwater and they would go up on their own. The HALO (high altitude–low opening) guys would jump out of a plane at night, parachute down to the water with scuba gear, dive down and lock into the sub. What a way to go to war!
I’ve seen copper sunsets, a luminescent sea and starlit night skies that were just unbelievable. I’d usually get off my watch at midnight and go up topside to look at the ocean and the stars before grabbing something to eat. One time we helped evacuate a village a few miles north of Qui Nhon. It felt great to be doing something good for people, rather than killing and blowing things up. Some refugees came aboard with just a knotted bag of possessions.
Perch departed Subic Bay for the last time on Oct. 7, 1966, and ultimately arrived at Mare Island, a Navy shipyard north of San Francisco, where it was decommissioned in May 1967. I was discharged from the Navy in August, and after living in the ship’s world for so long it was disheartening to see the war protests, etc. But I just wanted to head home, as I had not seen my family for several years.
Adapted from the documentary Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories, by Wisconsin Public Television, www.wisconsinstories.org/vietnam.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.