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Helmut Schmidt, Published November 01 2013

Former ND submariners relay tales from below the ocean

FARGO – North Dakota is far from the Atlantic or Pacific oceans. But some of its sons and daughters have long felt the tug of the sea, joining the U.S. Navy to serve their country.

Today, the first warship to carry the state’s name in 90 years, the nuclear fast attack submarine USS North Dakota, will be christened in a ceremony in Groton, Conn.

The $2.6 billion submarine will be the most modern warship of its kind. The 377-foot long, 7,800-ton boat is designed to be among the stealthiest in the “Silent service,” with state-of-the-art surveillance gear and the ability to deliver special operations troops close in to shore.

Among North Dakota’s Navy submarine veterans, the christening of the ship also known as SSN-784 is a point of pride.

Capt. Duane Sand, a naval reservist, is regularly called back to active duty, training U.S. and foreign crews in international submarine rescue techniques.

Sand said the North Dakota will be the best of the Virginia class subs to date. “We were overdue for getting this submarine named after North Dakota. It’s a huge privilege,” he said.

Opting for submarines involved good old-fashioned North Dakota hard-headedness, says the Bismarck businessman, who grew up in Fargo, Pembina, N.D., and Lancaster, Minn.

As a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, Sand was told by an instructor that he wasn’t smart enough to work on a sub.

“I wanted to prove him wrong, and I studied really hard,” to make it into the nuclear submarine pipeline, Sand said. “I love challenges. I just buckled down and stayed with it.”

He served on the USS West Virginia and USS Florida, both Trident class ballistic missile submarines, and the USS Atlanta, a Los Angeles attack submarine.

His worst experience underwater occurred off the coast of Bosnia in 1998.

“We were at periscope depth for 35 days and nights, and we almost got run over by a boat running weapons for the Serbs,” he said. “I was the officer of the deck that night. We had our torpedo tubes loaded with torpedoes and cruise missiles. It’s very stressful.”

‘Some awful tight spots’

Ken Larson is a happily retired 88-year-old in Pelican Rapids, Minn.

But in March 1943, the then 17-year-old from Oakes, N.D., wanted to get into the fight in World War II.

He joined the Navy. A buddy then convinced him that being a submariner was a good deal.

“It paid 50 percent more, and that sounded pretty good,” Larson said.

His first military school was in New London, Conn. The training sub was a World War I leftover.

“They figured if you could stand it in that, you could stand it in anything. They were crowded,” he said.

Larson was then sent to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii to learn how to run the control panel regulating power from a sub’s diesel engines.

In October 1944, he was assigned to the USS Blackfin, boat No. 322. It was 310 feet long, with a crew of 81 or 82. It had four large diesel engines and two massive batteries allowing the sub to stay submerged up to 18 hours.

“We had no way of making air and had to come up to charge batteries,” he said.

“I made five war patrols on that boat. And we sank I think it was a cruiser, and then we sank three or four merchant ships,” Larson said.

“We got into some awful tight spots, which I never did expect to come out of, but I’m here,” he said.

“We took a lot of depth-charging. At one point, our boat was damaged quite heavily. We had to go back to Pearl Harbor to get it repaired,” Larson said.

His last cruise on the Blackfin ended in March 1946. He then left the Navy.

After the war, he began wiring farms for electricity, then got a job with Otter Tail Power Co., working there for 37 years.

Larson would like to tour the USS North Dakota, “but I wouldn’t care to go for a ride. I don’t really like closed-in places anymore. I guess I got out of that.”

‘Sharks of Steel’ star

If you’ve watched the Discovery Channel, you might have caught a glimpse of Steve Volk.

Volk served in the Navy from 1974 to 1995.

Back in the early 1990s, the 57-year-old from Mandan, N.D., was a torpedo man on the USS Topeka, an attack submarine. The pay was great, the food was good, but the duty was hard because of the long separations from family, he said.

Besides the Topeka, he served on the fast attack submarines USS Bergall, USS Guitarro, and a ballistic missile boat, the USS Ohio.

For the Discovery show “Sharks of Steel,” a cameraman went into one of the Topeka’s torpedo tubes. When the hatch was opened, the video was of Volk preparing to slide a torpedo into the breach.

For a few moments, he was a star.

Volk, who rose to the rank of petty officer first class, says much work on modern subs is classified.

“If we were on a hairy mission, we always got briefed first. Then we signed papers saying we wouldn’t talk about it. Then we got debriefed. And signed papers again that we couldn’t talk about it,” he said.

Volk, now works for a railroad in the Bismarck-Mandan area, and recently finished a yearlong stint as state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

‘I miss those guys’

Ryan Johnson wanted to someday become an engineer, and he also knew he wanted to serve his country.

The solution?

After graduating from Lisbon (N.D.) High School, he decided to sign up for a six-year hitch in the Navy to become an electronics technician for nuclear propulsion systems.

Between boot camp and rigorous technical training, it was nearly two years before he was posted to the USS Chicago, an attack submarine, where he spent much of the next four years.

“It’s a small space. The crew was 120 to 130 people,” Johnson said.

The days ended up being 18 hours long, he said.

“On long cruises, it can get tiresome because you never get a weekend. You’re always running,” Johnson said. “It’s like a small town. It’s completely self-sufficient. You can’t go out and have a shop do something for you when you’re out to sea.”

The training paid off. The 39-year-old West Fargo man now is an engineer with John Deere Electronic Solutions.

“I’m glad I did it. The people that you serve with become very close friends when you spend that much time with them. I miss those guys,” he said.

‘Get me down deep’

Phillip Johnston and his buddies almost met some Russians the hard way.

Johnston, a 67-year-old retired farmer from Forest River, served in the Navy from 1967 to 1970. Trained as a sonar operator, he was assigned to the “gold crew” for a “boomer,” a ballistic missile submarine named the Henry L. Stimson.

Normally, the Polaris missile sub cruised quietly in the ocean, fulfilling its role as part of the nation’s Cold War nuclear deterrent.

But things got exciting in the Mediterranean.

“We had been listening to an active sonar (contact) for several days and it kept getting louder and louder and finally we could hear it through the hull,” Johnston said.

“Commander (Robert) Weeks walked into sonar on my watch. And he asked what we should do. And I said, ‘Sir, we’ve got a lot of tapes on this guy. We’re pretty sure he’s a Russian. Let’s go up and see if we can take a peek and get a picture.’

“The skipper said, ‘I think that’s a great idea.’ So he walked out into control and said, ‘Take me to periscope depth.’ So we went to periscope depth,” Johnston said.

“And then I heard him say. ‘Get me down deep. All ahead flank . Take me to 900 feet. And he came back into sonar and his face was just as white as the wall.

“I asked him what it was. It was the new Russian (helicopter) carrier the Moskva. She had been 250 yards behind us.

“So, we ran deep and fast for 24 hours. And we came up and listened, and she was gone. In my opinion, the Russians never knew we were there,” Johnston said.

Another incident drove home the fragility of life.

“Young men tend not to believe that a sub is a dangerous place to serve,” he said. “We were on patrol when the USS Scorpion went down. She went down with all hands.”

The Scorpion sank in May 1968 in the Atlantic Ocean, killing 99 men. It is one of only two nuclear submarines the Navy has ever lost.

‘A close community’

Jerry Samuelson spent eight of his 21 years as a Navy cook on submarines, ending up as a senior chief petty officer. The 58-year-old McKenzie County (N.D.) veterans service officer said he drawn to submarines by the pay.

From 1980 to 1984, he served on the USS Ohio, and then later served four years on the older USS Will Rogers, a Polaris missile submarine. He also did a short tour on the USS Greenling, a fast attack submarine.

“The best part was the camaraderie. You’re there with (your crewmates) 24 hours a day for 70 days at a time,” he said.

That extends to the families, too.

“It’s such a close community. They take care of their own,” Samuelson said.

Normally, the ballistic missile subs cruised about 70 days submerged before returning to port.

But once, one of the boats had to extend its cruise 10 days because another sub needed repairs.

The subs are supposed to go out with 90 days of food, but at the end of that cruise, when Samuelson opened the freezer, they had one box of meat.

“For a cook that can be career ending, running out of food,” he said.

Samuelson said it’s important to support the USS North Dakota and its crew.

“It’s going to be our submarine for the next 33 years, as long as that reactor is there. We have to support that crew,” he said.

Humor on deck

Starting in 1979, Duane Kleven served 17 years in the Navy, eight of them on two attack submarines, the USS Cincinnati and the USS Pargo.

During his time on the Cincinnati, Kleven, now a business analyst for Catholic Health Initiatives in Fargo, learned how not to wake up a sub’s senior enlisted man, the chief of boat or COB.

Kleven, then a fire control man second class, was the messenger on a night watch when the officer of the deck ordered the ship to periscope depth. But the diving officer had a difficult time maintaining neutral buoyancy.

“The diving officer in his frustration, ordered me to ‘Go wake up the COB and thank him for the wonderful trim he had left him,’ ” Kleven wrote in an email.

“The COB was the diving officer on the previous watch. Being the naïve country farm boy that I was, I did exactly what I was told. I went to wake up the COB.”

Kleven describes submarine bunks as coffin-like structures just big enough for someone to sleep on their side, with a fluorescent light and a privacy curtain.

“I dashed out the forward control room door, down the ladder and forward to the ‘goat locker’ (chief’s quarters). I knocked on the door and entered. Sure enough, the COB was asleep in the top bunk … I yelled ‘COB!’ with authority and yanked his curtain open as fast as I could.

“I frightened the COB so badly, he attempted to sit straight up in his bunk. He hit his head so hard against his bunk light that he fell backwards, bounced off the mattress and hit his head on the bunk light a second time,” Kleven said.

Kleven said he then knew fear.

“The sound that emanated from his bunk was not of this world. I was stunned. The next 30 seconds were the longest seconds of my life. The COB unleashed a verbal tirade using a vocabulary and a tone of voice that seemed humanly impossible.

“When the COB stopped to take a breath, I saw my chance for a quick exit,” Kleven said.

“As I entered the control room, everyone was laughing so hard they were crying. Before I could come to grips with what had just happened and the fact the joke was on me, the COB came storming into the control room behind me in his skivvies, angry beyond belief,” then proceeded to dress down the diving officer and Kleven.

The incident earned Kleven 35 days of mess duty, ensuring he’d meet each of his 120 crewmates every day.

“You can do a lot of self-reflection while washing dishes,” Kleven wrote.

After Kleven’s sins were washed away, the COB assigned him to his watch.

“As it turns out, the COB was a great guy. He took me under his wing and taught me a lot about leadership and how to be a submariner. He is a man I will never forget,” Kleven wrote.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583