Rickover’s ‘Little Ship That Could’: NR-1 story continues

The USNS MIZAR towing the NR-1.

After many years of dancing and darting through red tape, fiscal uncertainties, and seemingly never-ending engineering hurdles, Admiral Rickover’s ‘Little Sub that Could’ was successfully built.
Throughout the lengthy build process, the crew of the NR-1 spent their time viewing training movies, working on simulators, and training for something the Navy had never seen before; all while waiting and wondering if the $100 million nuclear submersible/undersea research vehicle/submarine would actually be built. If the crew had doubts, ADM Rickover did not. He ensured that everything moved forward, including the readiness of the people charged with its use and care. And in Rickover’s mind not just any crew would do. Many times he made it clear that only the best-of-the-best would be allowed to sail on her and with only a dozen men onboard (including 3 officers and 9 enlisted men), they all had to know the boat – fore and aft – and be able to run it.

During her sea trials, ADM Rickover decided to test the ranks and their abilities. After one particularly long day, he asked the exhausted Captain, who was piloting the boat with the XO at his side, if an enlisted man was capable of taking control of the boat. While not completely comfortable with giving up the controls, CDR Dwaine Griffith, NR-1’s skipper, assured the Admiral that “yes, they had all had the same training.” Not completely convinced, Rickover looked around and pointed to the lowest ranked sailor and told him to take the helm. The sailor, Jim Turner, not only successfully piloted the ship, he took her down to a depth of three thousand feet (her designed depth limit) with a smiling Rickover by his side. ADM Rickover now knew that the NR-1 and her crew were ready to go…but to where? And to do what?

After NR-1 passed her sea trials (as smoothly as could be expected for a new ship and crew), she was finally ready for her first mission as an official part of the Navy’s fleet. NR-1 was sent to Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel in the Azore Islands, where the sea bottom was filled with rocky volcanic peaks – a hazard to both ships and submarines. The caverns between the peaks wreaked havoc on the vessels’ sonar systems, making it virtually impossible to safely navigate the area. The North Atlantic Trade Organization (NATO) had been planning to place three huge communication towers on some of the undersea volcanoes, as part of Project AFAR (Azores Fixed Acoustic Range). The towers would enhance a submarine’s ability to communicate and navigate within the treacherous area. It was also quietly speculated that the Azores could serve a strategic military purpose, due to its position in the middle of the Atlantic. Directly east of Ponta Delgada is the Straight of Gibraltar; the towers of AFAR could get a fix on any submarine going through the straits, as they left the Mediterranean Sea. The towers could also easily pick up traffic in the central Atlantic, where Soviet Submarines had been found wandering and weaving, awaiting orders. The NR-1 and her unique abilities would play an important part in the AFAR project.

SonarArray

With the orders in hand, NR-1 and the USNS MIZAR, (the mission command and support vessel), set out across the cruel Atlantic, towards the Azores. Upon their arrival, the NR-1 and its crew joined up with ships and crews from various nations, which had varying modes of getting things done (or sometimes not getting things done). NR-1’s crew once again found themselves having to endure and push on, often doing work that was not theirs to do.

As part of the AFAR project, the MIZAR would drop four electronic transponders that NR-1 would anchor to the bottom in a square pattern. A waiting drillship would then vertically lower the three hundred foot steel towers into place. NR-1 was sure to give a wide berth during these placements – as one slight brush with a tower would easily crush her. Once placed, the NR-1 would then cautiously return to the bottom to ensure that the towers were in position and then high-tail it out in time for explosive bolts to be detonated and fasten the towers to their bases. NR-1’s crew had to be vigilant, which could be tough on little sleep, after a long day’s work.

NR-1 was also required to find smooth areas for the cables, which connected the towers, to be laid – not an easy job considering the jagged volcanic ridges and seemingly endless crevasses that threatened to swallow them up with one wrong turn. Making this even more precarious was the fact that NR-1 had suffered some minor damage while being towed across the Atlantic. Damaged were “mountings and vital pipes for the starboard propulsion motor” which severely limited maneuverability. Also affected were the diving planes and rudder, leaving the NR-1 to dive using only its ballast tanks, an inconvenient and nervewracking exercise. The thrusters also required non-stop maintenance – about 50 times more than they were actually used. Nothing, it seemed, would go easily, but always the job got done – a testament to the crew’s flexibility, fast thinking, and unwavering abilities.

Although the NR-1 and its crew accomplished the goals of the mission – all while picking up the slack where others slipped – they received unwarranted criticism from the surface guys whenever anything underwater went awry. Blame was passed to the NR-1 and crew regardless as to whether they participated in the job at hand or not. Crew member, Lee Vyborny, summed up the maiden trip with this statement:

The entire experience was symbolized pretty well near the end of the mission when a swordfish attacked the NR-1, while it was submerged… Even the fish were trying to skewer us.

While the NR-1’s first, formal mission was seemingly mundane and though it did not go perfectly, it did set in motion the exciting, important, and historical journey she was about to undertake.

Be sure to check out the next issue of the Klaxon for NR-1’s next adventure.

Information and photos garnered from Dark Waters by Lee Vyborny.