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Saturday, June 04, 2016

Review: Making of a Submarine Officer by Alexander Fleming

I very much enjoyed this book, which will probably be of limited interest to most people not of a nautical bent. Fleming had never faced failure in his life having been a superior student and one that learned things easily, yet his first cruise on the nuclear submarine San Francisco was a difficult one as he was forced to learn how to function in a group where everyone had to rely on everyone else and contained a melange of personalities. It covers events from 2002-2005 and was certainly not uneventful having a underwater grounding that resulted in considerable damage to the hull.

Fleming had graduated from my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania with honors in physics and Russian, but after the first year he was close to a nervous breakdown (his words) and wondering if he would spend the last three years of his Naval commitment sitting at a desk.

I’ve read a lot of nautical memoirs but this is the first that really makes you feel part of the ship and feel his pain as he navigates his way through the labyrinth of naval etiquette and responsibility, usually exhausted from the strain of studying to qualify for different jobs on board a ship suffering from constant material failures and being sent to Guam which had just been hit by a major typhoon and had never serviced a nuclear sub. The paperwork alone seemed enough to sink any vessel. Much of that paperwork stems from an effort to make everything perfect (a system that must have totally broken down during their overhaul.) The Naval Sea Systems Command, which controls everything concerning materials and design of ships, created a new standard of material and work control for all the things that make up a submarine. Every bolt, valve, o-ring, and lubricant that goes into a submarine must be perfect, certified, and able to be traced to its origin. If any discrepancies exist, then the piece will not be allowed, and someone has to have locked positive control of it for its entire ‘life.’ The Navy intentionally staffs QA jobs with the most uncompromising and disciplined people that it can find. These people can stop any boat in its tracks if they find even the smallest documentation problem.

Space is at a premium, especially as the junior most officer. After he first steps on board he “immediately discover[s] the first problem of being on a submarine: you are always in the way, no matter where you stand. Submarine passageways are only wide enough for one set of shoulders; if two people pass each other they have to turn sideways, and their chests still touch with both backs on the wall. At the bottom of the ladder, I immediately cause a road-block because I do not know which way to go. Several people give me nasty looks as I finally follow Brown down the steep ladder one more level. We walk aft past an endless stream of people staring at me since I am apparently the fresh meat for the grinder. The hallways are crowded with equipment affixed everywhere. There are lockers and boxes hanging in every space, and I feel surrounded on all sides. There is no wasted space.”

Mistakes happen when many in the crew are newbies. The one that sprayed 700 gallons of raw sewage over the galley area because a junior mechanic misaligned a valve was one of the most disgusting. Cuts and small injuries heal much slower on board because the oxygen mixture is reduced to only 18-20 percent. (Normal outside would be about 21 percent.) This reduces the chances of fire. Some captains would reward the crew by increasing the oxygen content by a percentage point.

The San Francisco had been bedeviled by a loud noise all during her transit to Guam and thereafter. Finally the Navy decided something needed to be done since a loud submarine is probably worse than no submarine and she was sent to San Diego into drydock where they discovered that during her overhaul, the San Francisco had been fitted with the wrong screw by the Norfolk yard, probably to save money. The fix cost millions for repairs not to mention the negative consequences on her mission readiness.

The repairs to the bow following the collision with the sea mountain while running at flank speed at a depth of 525 feet were fascinating. (That they survived is testimony to the hard work of the crew.) They cut the bow off the soon to be decommissioned USS Honolulu and welded it on the San Francisco at a cost of $79 million. Still in service it is expected to retire in 2017.

Fleming conclude the Guam experiment was an expensive failure, but it seems to me only because of problems with the San Francisco, a ship seemingly bedeviled by numerous material failures culminating in the underwater collision that very nearly sank the boat. Fleming’s coming of age, learning hard lessons from several captains, is painfully revealed, but I suspect much of his difficulty stemmed from being coddled in expensive and privileged boarding schools.

Nevertheless, I had difficulty putting this book down.
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