The Sinking of USS GUITARRO (SSN-665)

USS GUITARRO (SSN-665) was launched on 27 July 1968. Less than a year later, on 15 May 1969, the boat would have a much less positive experience with the water surrounding her: she sank at the pier. “The Guitarro should not have sunk,” a report on the incident later concluded. “It was not overwhelmed by cataclysmic forces of nature or an imperfection in design or an inherent weakness in its hull. Rather, it was sent to the bottom by the action, or inaction, of certain construction workers who either failed to recognize an actual or potential threat to the ship’s safety or assumed that it was not their responsibility. …Its sinking could have been prevented by the timely exercise of very little commonsense and the taking of a few simple precautions.”

On the day in question, GUITARRO, not yet commissioned, was moored at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in California. At 1600, according to the report, “a civilian construction group (nuclear) began an instrument calibration assignment which required the filling of certain [ballast] tanks, located aft of the ship’s pivot point, with approximately five tons of water.” Half an hour later, “a civilian construction group (nonnuclear) began an assignment to bring the ship within a half degree of trim. This entailed the adding of water to tanks forward of the ship’s pivot point, to overcome a reported two degree up-bow attitude [the result of the water added to the aft end by the nuclear workers].” Between 1630 and 2000, both groups, seemingly unaware of each other, continued to add water to their respective ends of the boat.

Meanwhile, on shore, the changes in GUITARRO’s trim were noticeable. At 1900 and again at 1930, “a security watch advised the nonnuclear group that [the boat] was riding so low forward that a one and a half foot wave action, stirred up by boats operating in the river, was causing water to enter an uncovered manhole in the most forward and lowest portion of the ship’s deck. These warnings went unheeded.”

At 1945, the nonnuclear workers, in preparation for their lunch break, stopped adding water to the forward ballast tanks. They departed at 2000. Unbeknownst to them, the nuclear group had completed their calibration and began to empty the aft ballast tanks at 1950. At 2030, “the nuclear group emptying the water from the aft tanks…noticed ‘sudden down angle being taken by the boat.’ At approximately the same time, the nonnuclear group and others, returning to the ship from lunch, observed [that the boat was] down sharply at the bow with a massive flooding taking place through several large open hatches.” The workers scrambled to close the hatches and the watertight doors within the submarine, but it was too late. GUITARRO sank at 2055. Investigators estimated the cost of the damage at between $15 and $22 million.

“After reviewing all pertinent facts,” the report concluded, “it is still difficult to understand how all the circumstances which had to be present in order to sink this vessel fell into place on the evening of May 15. One would surely expect that with all the security and precautionary directives such a disaster just could not happen. However, there was one vital defect in the system—a lack of centralized control and responsibility for all construction.

“A memorandum dated March 27, 1969 describes a meeting held on March 15 at which the prospective commanding officer (i.e. the naval officer who would be given command of the ship after completion of construction) urged an agency of this nature. According to the memorandum this suggestion was opposed by the shipyard representatives. One enlightening paragraph of that memorandum reads: ‘CO 665 [the prospective commanding officer] pointed out the need for a central controlling agency in the nonnuclear construction areas of the ship. Shipyard representatives (Lampson and Sheldon) pointed out the fact that the shipyard had been building ships for a long time without the need for such a procedure and no one had been killed or equipments damaged yet. CO 665 replied that they had been lucky.’

“On May 15, the shipyard’s luck ran out.”

After a 32-month delay, GUITARRO was finally commissioned in January of 1970. The “Mare Island Mud Puppy” was in service until 1992.

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