I was the heavy weapons sergeant (18B) on Green Beret Operational Detachment (ODA)-155, 1st Special Forces Group. We were the combat diver team for our GB battalion. It had taken me two attempts to pass the Special Forces Underwater Operations (SFUWO), as it was titled in the day. I was on ODA-155 with just a couple of years of dive operations under my belt, but they had been years of difficult dive operations in the frigid waters of the Puget Sound in Ft. Lewis, Washington State. We dove tactically at night wearing a bulky Viking dry suit and a LAR-V closed-circuit breathing apparatus.
Then it happened. An invitation made its way to ODA-155: “NAVSPECWAR extends an invitation to U.S. Army 1st Special Forces Group to attend underway submarine operations with U.S. Navy West Coast SEAL Team Five (ST-5).” The boss chose me to attend. I hesitated, but the boss didn’t bat an eye. He had staunch confidence in me to represent the Army dive community.
Our dive team had gone to Bangor Submarine Base several times and done dock-side training on various subs, had gone to Key West on several occasions to conduct escape trunk operations, and to Coronado on even more occasions to conduct more escape trunk operations under the guidance of Navy SEAL instructors.
At Key West, the escape trunk trainer was an old-school diesel trunk from the WWII era; it was cylindrical in shape. At Coronado, the trunk was a more modern trunk from a nuclear-powered boat; it was spherical in shape. In both locations, the escape trunks were attached to large water reservoirs of thousands of gallons of water. The trunks were approximately 35 feet down from the surface of the water reservoirs, so when you flooded the trunk with water right about at nose level and undogged (opened) the hatch to the “open ocean,” you were already at a tactical depth underwater. In any case, it is a very realistic training venue.
I travelled to Coronado Naval Air Station, California, home of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training, and checked in with the proper HQ that would put me in contact with the men of ST-5 the next morning. That night in the dormitory, I switched on the TV to relax and call it a night, and guess what movie popped up? “Das Boot”! You can’t make this stuff up, folks. The Internet IMDb website summarizes the movie in this single line: “The claustrophobic world of a WWII German U-boat; boredom, filth, and sheer terror.” If you haven’t seen the movie yet, it is indeed a “must-see,” but just don’t watch it the night before you launch on an actual submarine voyage.
The thought crossed my mind that it would be a great idea to not watch this movie, not this night anyway, but as a glutton for punishment, I couldn’t turn my eyes away. When the movie was complete, my stomach felt a tad queasy, but I slept in spite of the horrors of “Das Boot.”
I reported to the SEAL team early the following morning and fell in with the formation that was about to conduct physical training (PT). The PT leader began with, “Guys, we’re going to do just a light warm up and a little stretching today.” A chief petty officer (CPO) interrupted, “Guys, we have a guest with us this morning from Army spec ops, out of Washington State, who will be going with us underway tomorrow. Sergeant First Class George Hand, would you raise your hand, please.” I stuck my arm up and gave a single quick wave and nodded my head. “Hey fellahs!” I responded. The surrounding SEALs greeted me, the SEALs a little farther back offered nods and chin tips, the SEALs out of range of politeness said nothing at all.
The PT leader gave me a size-em-up stare for several moments, and then the most grueling, bone-breaking, tendon-snapping PT session I’ve ever experienced, began. We were doing one-legged squats, hand stands, flips, hundreds of pushups, crunches, pull-ups, and sit-ups. It was followed by a several-mile dash on the beach sand. I was half expecting them to bring out a cauldron of flaming coals with the image of a dragon on one side and a tiger on the other, which we would all have to pick up with our forearms, burning a tattoo on each like Kwai Chang Caine.
I can say in good conscience that I accomplished all PT objectives, and was not the last man on the run. The SEALs would surely be able to best me in certain tasks, but those tasks wouldn’t involve dry land, thank you very much.
Let’s get one thing straight: I saw enough of BUD/S training on my many trips to Coronado for waterborne operations. As far as I am concerned, no matter what happens to a SEAL later in life, no matter if he becomes an executive or a vermin scumbag, one thing that you will never be able to take away from a SEAL is the fact that he passed BUD/S. If there were ever a course in military history that you can’t just stand on your head through, it’s BUD/S. Passing that course dispels all suspicion that you are anything but one bad-ass dude. ‘Nuff said.
After PT, we cleaned weapons that had been used in training in seawater the day before. There were HK MP-5s and Sig Sauer P-226s that stank like low tide and were dusted with sand. I broke down an MP-5 and started at the top. By the time I was done with the single weapon, all the others were miraculously done with all of their weapons. Some of the weapons had just been brushed off on the exterior, and some had not even been broken down. I was a little confused. I left it alone, making that none of my business.
At the end of the day, there was no liberty call. We continued to prepare equipment for our underway. Late into the night, we eventually loaded cargo trucks to make our transit to load the surface vessel that would take us out to our submarine some 100 miles off the coast of San Clemente Island. We made a quick excursion through Coronado one last time. There on the street we swerved to pass up a group of six BUD/S candidates hobbling painfully along with an inflatable boat small (IBS) on their heads. They looked like zombies. Immediately, the SEALs in my truck jumped up and screamed profanities at them and taunts bidding them to quit. Eventually, they all took their seats again, satisfied that they had made their contribution to the agony of BUD/S Hell Week.
We transitioned to a large, flat-bottomed sea-going vessel that put me in mind of a Normandy Invasion landing craft. We went “haze gray and underway,” as the SEALs put it. It would be a day at sea at least until we made rendezvous with our submarine, the Los Angeles-class Fast-Attack USS Hado ssn 604. I was given a top bunk in a cramped room. As I climbed in it to sleep, there were barely four inches of room between my face and the steel top deck. I doubted if I would be able to sleep, but the rocking of the boat persuaded me into one of the deepest sleeps I have ever experienced.
In the morning, one of the SEALs stuck his head in our room and shouted, “Turn out, show a leg!” My head came to a sudden stop as it struck the steel upper deck with a sonorous bonk. I rubbed my head and squinted at the sailor. “Turn out, mister!” he shouted again.
“I don’t know what the hell that means, skipper. Should I hit the deck, maybe?” I replied.
I would have to hunker down and add SEAL-ese to my repertoire of foreign languages. I would have to travel across the deck along the bulkhead and up the gangway to the galley for breakfast, or just pass by the scuttlebutt on my way to the gidunk.
As our transport vessel approached, the Hado broke the surface of the sea. It was a glorious thing to see. The SEALs cheered. I cheered. We transitioned ourselves and our gear to the Hado in small rubber boats. Crew on the deck of Hado threw us ropes that we attached to our kit bags for transition. Eventually we grabbed the ropes for ourselves, and with one leg in the rubber boat and one on the Hado, we jumped out and scaled the round hull of the submarine.
We snaked our way to the torpedo room of the boat, where we would live, work, and sleep for the next few days. The boat’s crew assigned to the torpedo room were pale and, for the most part, devoid of facial expression. Their sense of humor revolved exclusively around sexual innuendoes. I would avoid them and mind my manners—after all, I was not on dry land anymore.
We slept on top of the torpedoes. We were issued plywood platforms with crescent-shaped legs that fit over the round bodies of the torpedoes and provided us a flat surface to sleep on. I had no problem with that. Using the head (bathroom) was a bit of a trick that required operating a series of valves in a sequence. I wondered if I got out of sequence…could I sink the boat? How embarrassing would that be?
We familiarized ourselves with the boat and had meals in the galley (cafeteria). Food was served 24/7 on a submarine because it was a 24/7 lifestyle, and the food was great! As there was downtime, I sat by myself and tried to take in the reality of being deep under the Pacific Ocean on a nuclear submarine. I noted during these quiet times, one after another, a SEAL would come up to me and strike up a simple conversation that would inevitably lead to a vent on the horrors of BUD/S training, especially Hell Week. I learned that this platoon was a combination of ST-3 and ST-5 recently thrown together, and was very junior, with many fresh BUD/S. I found the fact mildly unnerving.
And then it happened. We kitted up for our first lock-in/lock-out operation. We would lock out of the escape trunk and ascend to the surface. There, we would meet with a safety diver in the water clinging to the gunwale (side) of an IBS boat; he would have an octopus regulator. An octopus regulator has two second-stage breathing supplies coming from the first-stage regulator attached to his SCUBA tanks. We would receive a breathing regulator and dive back down to the trunk. There, we would see another breathing supply being offered by the men in the trunk. We would transition from the octopus to the trunk’s air supply and enter the trunk. Mission complete.
Getting inside the escape trunk from the submarine required a 12-foot climb. The hatch to enter the trunk was on the floor of the trunk. There were recesses in the bulkhead that allowed us to climb up to gain trunk entry. As I climbed, I noticed man-size rectangular recesses in the bulkhead to my left, covered by red curtains. I slid one open and there lay a sleeping sailor. Embarrassed, I quickly closed it. These were sleeping berths. In a submarine there are not enough sleeping berths for the entire crew because usually a percentage of the crew is always on duty while the others sleep. Every sailor would have to share a berth with another sailor, called “hot bunking.” It was another world for sure down under the sea.
Once inside the trunk, the crew dogged shut (locked) the lower hatch. We were nose-to-nose, nut-to-butt, cheek-to-cheek in the trunk. The looks on some of the young SEALs faces were disturbing. I had to remind myself that I did, in fact, have much more experience with diving and especially in trunk operations than these men. The one saving grace at that time was the trunk operator. In my humble opinion, he was the baddest SEAL in the U.S. Navy: one CPO George “Pepper” Tagle.
This guy was a cool, level-headed, steely eyed, barrel-chested, no-nonsense-talking bad-ass. He took charge like a Viking warlord. He jabbed and poked and shook the young men until he had everyone on kilter and paying attention. He started his dialogue with the Con (control center where the ship’s captain resides): “Con, trunk, check 31 MC.”
The Con responded with: “Trunk, Con, check 31 MC.” The lock-in/lock-out dialogue is recited verbatim; to screw it up could urge the captain to abort trunk operations.
In the cramped, crowded conditions of the escape trunk, it almost seemed like a human-rights violation to suggest filling it with seawater up to our chins, but that’s what Pepper did. Eyes got bigger as the water rose higher. Water rose to the bubble line, which is a black stripe that runs horizontally around the inside circumference of the trunk to give the operator a reference for how high to fill it with seawater. The bubble line is just above the escape hatch, which opens to the outside of the sub.
As the water flood valve is opened, rising water will compress the isolated atmosphere in the trunk, so the vent valve must be opened at the same time to allow air to escape. Once the trunk is filled, the breathable air in the trunk is only a few cubic feet in size, and rapidly becomes saturated with carbon dioxide (CO2). For that reason, the trunk operator must replace the stale air with fresh air often.
To vent the trunk, the operator opens the blow valve, letting in fresh air, and at the same time he opens the vent valve to push the stale air out. That is one balancing act that has some room for error, but once the side hatch is open to allow swimmers out, the margin for error narrows considerably. During a vent cycle, if the operator opens the blow valve too wide, it will push the water level down below the bubble line. If the water level gets lower than the top of the escape hatch, the hatch will “belch” a huge bubble of air that makes the boat shake, and delivers a compromising signature of turbulence to the surface of the sea. More abort criteria for the ship’s captain.
Annoying problem number one: The blow-hole was below the bubble line. That was just plain and simply an engineering error. Every time Pepper opened the blow it was like a hurricane in there, with high-pressure air churning up and spraying seawater. Some of the men cried out in shock during the vent process.
The side hatch was open and Pepper had permission from the Con to send out swimmers. I was the last swimmer. Pepper gave me a “thumbs up” and I gave him a snappy one back. He nodded. I took a last breath and slipped under the bubble line and through the escape hatch. The view of the submarine was breathtaking. It was huge! I looked up and the bright sky made the IBS boat very clear above me. I could see the rest of the SEALs clinging to the side, legs dangling in the sea.
I ascended, exhaling bubbles the entire 35-ish feet, and broke the surface, grabbing a handhold on the boat. It was time for the safety diver to bring the swimmers back to the trunk with his octopus breathing rig. He took the first man down. As we put our faces into the water to watch their descent, I could see Pepper’s arm holding a breathing regulator outside the trunk. Then a big “oops” happened. One of the young SEAL’s weight belt came unhooked and fell from his waist.
A weight belt is a nylon belt with lead weights designed to keep a swimmer’s buoyancy negative and help him sink. It is also designed to cut away very quickly in an emergency event so the swimmer can rise more easily to the surface. By nature of its design, no other equipment can ever be attached to the weight belt. As I watched his belt plummet toward the boat, I noticed he had his dive tool (utility knife) and his emergency signal smoke/flare attached to his belt. He had lost some critical equipment. This was not just difference in SOP between Army and Navy, this was a safety violation of dive fundamentals. Why had his pre-dive inspection by his superiors not caught it? Did he even get an inspection? Again, I would leave it alone and make it none of my business.
The belt smacked the submarine hull with a loud “crack.” The captain was furious. It would do him no good to abort our operations because we were already coming back in. All the men were back in the trunk and I was the last one. The safety swimmer broke the surface and shoved the regulator in my mouth and I exhaled to purged it. I thought that was strange; I should put my own regulator in my mouth, not have it shoved in there by a second party. I was in the process of adjusting my buoyancy compensator (BC, floatation vest), and with no signal for descent, the safety diver dove down, dragging me by the regulator clenched in my teeth. Both of my hands were frantically trying to reconnect the hooks of the BC. My ears felt like they were going to explode because in those days, I needed at least two fingers to Valsalva and equalize the pressure in my sinuses. After more diving experience, I could eventually Valsalva with just a yawning motion or by swallowing.
Ifinally hooked my vest and popped my ears. The diver yanked the regulator out of my mouth. (Again WTF?) I was outside the escape trunk and nobody was offering me any air. Okay, so I can wait a little while; I have only been holding my breath for about 30 seconds, I thought. Going on a minute now and all I could see was a forest of legs in the escape trunk. CO2 was slamming my head now with a sledgehammer and I had to have air. I shoved my way into the trunk and broke into the tiny air pocket at the top.
I gasped for air and was met by screams, cries, and shouts as Pepper Tagle vented the trunk in another furious hurricane of high-pressure air and saltwater. Pepper and I locked eyes and I gave him the “okay” signal. He finished his vent and engaged the Con with permission to dog shut the escape hatch and drain the trunk.
With the trunk finally drained and all the men out of the trunk, I prepared to climb down myself. George “Pepper” Tagle slapped me on the back: “Nice job, Army.” I turned to an outstretched hand, which I shook vigorously with an expression of confidence and appreciation on my face. Pepper was my hero that day, and I was an Army Green Beret puke that had won his approval as a diver. I could accept a modicum of pride in any gesture of respect that such a vaunted SEAL offered.
The next day would feature a daytime wet-deck launch of SEALs and IBS vessels. I would not participate in the operation for reasons that I have yet to discover. I would retire then to the galley for a bite to eat and to get away from the zombie crew of the torpedo room. There were three of the ship’s crew in the galley having lunch as the wet-deck launch transpired.
On a wet-deck launch, the sub would surface and SEALs would exit onto the hull of the boat. They recover and inflate rubber boats from the sub’s external equipment lockers. When ready, the SEALs enter the boats and the submarine sinks out from under them, leaving them floating on the surface of the ocean.
As I sat at my table eating and nursing a coffee, I suddenly saw a four-inch wall of seawater come rushing in at the far end of the aisle that ran the length of the galley. I was petrified and looked to the other crew members for a response. They lifted their feet up to let the flow pass by and just continued to eat.
As soon as it appeared, the water was gone. I asked the men in the galley where the water had gone. They replied that it had drained through the floorboards to the deck beneath the galley. When I asked them what lay beneath, they replied that it was the torpedo room. Oh no…I sprang up and dashed to the gangway to head to the lower deck and inspect the torpedo room.
Yes sir, our area of operations was soaked. I acquired towels and began to mop up as best I could. It took several hours, but by the time the boys returned, I had it pretty ship-shape down there in the “torp room.” When I was crawling down among the torpedoes earlier, I had spotted one down below the others, sort of tucked away on the bottom and against the bulkhead. It had a white warhead and was not even shaped like the others. I called out to the pallid, lecherous-looking boat crew in the torp room. “Hey, what is this oddball torpedo down here?”
One of the crew insisted, “Army, you need to get away from that weapon right now and stay away from it.”
Fair enough. I concluded that it must be a nuke.
Our submarine operation concluded, and we eventually transitioned back to our shuttle vessel. I was once again rocked into a deep sleep by a lullaby of waves. Soon, I’d put my feet back on shore once again. It had been damn-near a life-altering experience. I was proud of the young SEALs, and grateful for the experienced CPOs of ST-5.
Back at my dormitory room in Coronado, I walked to the HQ where I met my Navy liaison officer one final time. On the walk there, I suddenly became off-balance. I veered toward one edge of the sidewalk and then the other. Finally I sat on the curb with my head between my knees, sweating. I recovered and made my appointment to process out with the liaison officer. He asked me if I had any questions, and I responded with a description of my nauseous experience on my walk to his office. He chuckled and replied that I still hadn’t acquired my land legs from being at sea for so many days. I marveled at the notion that I had previously only heard of and had finally experienced.
After my last meet with the men of ST-5, I prepared to depart for my dormitory room for the last night on Coronado Naval Air Station. The young SEALs made no gesture or offered any well-wishes to me as I left their platoon room. That was okay, the Navy didn’t hire these lads for their social skills. Surprisingly, George “Pepper” Tagle blocked my route and suggested that I come to a get-together ST-5 was having that night to celebrate their mission success. I thanked him sincerely and we shook hands warmly. I knew I would not attend the celebration, and he knew I wouldn’t as well. I think as we shook hands we silently acknowledged the maturity and expertise of one another as warriors, and men cut from the same tiny piece of cloth.
I left Coronado with the affirmation that our U.S. Navy SEALS are indispensable components of our American military, having no equal in their area of expertise. When I received the news that George “Pepper” Tagle had died in an aircraft crash in South America, I was weakened with grief. I pondered a weekend afternoon recounting the many ways George had been key to the success of my operations with ST-5. It made me profoundly thankful for the opportunity to have experienced danger with men of such caliber. George Tagle had left an impression on many people. His presence changed my life, and his passing was a sore reminder of the dedication and contribution to our safety that the U.S. Navy SEALs bless us with daily. God loves and blesses our Navy SEALs, a force without peer.