An inside look at life underwater

I had the shot all set up. The destroyer had turned away from us but the stern loomed large in the eyepieces of the periscope. If I had the authority to fire a torpedo, I could have sent one of our United States Navy’s ships to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean a few miles off San Diego. A week ago today.

This was a for-real periscope. On a for-real submarine. And that was a for-real United States Navy Destroyer. This was no video game. It wasn’t any museum exhibit. It wasn’t a ride in Disney World.

It is one of the many vivid memories of a day with the crew of the USS Jefferson City, SSN759, a Los-Angeles class nuclear attack submarine.


About 20 of us were invited to visit the Capital City’s namesake submarine and spend a day at sea with it and with the crew. Such opportunities are pretty rare. The number of people allowed to have such experiences is measured in the dozens each year. The problem, I told some colleagues on the way home a day later, is “trying to describe what we’ve seen.”

All of us during the past week have undoubtedly recited the things we did, from the time shortly after 8:15 a.m. when we climbed down the metal ladder into the innards of the boat until we climbed back out some time after 5 p.m. But the layman’s experience inside a submarine is so much more than verbal. We were not allowed to take recorders, cameras, or cell phones aboard so we can’t let you hear what the inside of the sub sounds like. We couldn’t show you the stained glass decorations in the crew’s mess or the officer’s dining room. The things we use in radio to create the “theatre of the mind” that lets readers and listeners imagine that world can’t be used here. So words will have to do the less adequate job.

Many people have visited World War II subs that are now museum pieces (including the German U-505 at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, the capture of which meant a Medal of Honor for Maryville sailor Albert Leroy David) and undoubtedly marveled at the cramped living and working quarters and left knowing they couldn’t live like that. This visitor to the USS Jefferson City was not at all bothered with those thoughts. The sub is nowhere near as spacious as your home or your apartment of course. But aside from the fact that crew members have to share bunk time, the boat has room to move about, places to go, things to do.

But there is no spare space. In fact, that’s one of the more interesting things about the experience.

The Los Angeles class submarine is 363 feet long, a little longer than the space between the goal lines of a Canadian football field. It’s as tall as a three-story building.


We were all over the place except for a few places. We didn’t get into the reactor room or into the far nose area where the missile tubes and the sonar dome are. But our four groups were just about everywhere else.

It’s quiet. No sound of water. No mechanical sounds to speak of. No smells. One might think that in an enclosed space like this there would be smells of food cooking or cookies being made (maximum discipline had be exerted to hold my intake of wonderful chocolate chip cookies to just two). But, no, there wasn’t that. There was a certain underlying subliminal hum of activity.

A sense of purpose permeated the place. Commitment. Focus. We were in four groups that rotated through the boat, guided by officers who, to be honest, were also our tenders who made sure we didn’t wander off and cause problems for ourselves or for the boat. There are ladders to fall down, wires to touch or grab, pipes that might be hot—things like that.

Each of us got to go up to the top if the sail (that’s the part that sticks up) for a few minutes. Anybody who does that, including the crew, dons a safety harness and fastens themselves to the deck. Although the ocean was smooth when we were up there, it’s not real spacious and there aren’t many things to grab if there’s a misstep.  Standing up there was GLORIOUS.  The bow of the USS Jefferson City is round. It’s not the sharp boat-like bow of the old submarines that are in museums now.  So there wasn’t a big wake being generated. What WAS generated though was an epitome of force.  The black nose of the submarine was pushing through the water with authority, causing a large round mass of water in front that flowed back over the front portion of boat and then spilled over the sides.  And out in front of us were dolphins.  Not to further pummel a defunct “Equus ferus caballus,” but I will forever regret not being able to run some video of that force. The best that can be done is with a picture taken by one of our group, Andy Lenart, several years ago when he was on the crew of the USS Jefferson City.


We told Andy’s story in our newscasts earlier in the week. You can read about it on But briefly put – he was a member of the crew who came to Jefferson City on a Namesake City crew visit and had a great time. When his time in the Navy ended, he and his fiancée headed back toward his home area in Ohio and he decided to show her the city that he had enjoyed so much on that visit. They came, they saw, and they decided to forget about Ohio or forget about trying to stay in San Diego. They moved to Jefferson City and a few months later, Andy joined the police department.

The Jefferson City does leave a wake. Fortunately, Andy took a picture looking aft while he was part of the crew.


Later, inside, we were at the sonar area watching operators keep track of the other boats in the area, checking on the amount of water under the boat, and keeping track of a myriad of other things that the bank of sonar instruments watch for. One of the officers turned up a loudspeaker so we could hear what the sonar operator was listening through his earphones. Splashes. And chatter. We were hearing the porpoises jump and splash back down and discuss how much fun it was to play with this big black thing. We were told that the sonar was so sophisticated that operators could hear crabs walking on the ocean floor. The operators manually changed their screens every few seconds. There was no automatic updating. That, we were told, would allow an operator to doze off. So all screen changes were done manually.

The crew operates on 18-hour days. Six hours at their duty stations. Six hours to sleep. Six more hours to do whatever they want – laundry, read, sleep some more, study. Eat. Although there are clocks in the submarine, they don’t tell anybody if they’re recording a.m. or p.m. We asked Andy about that in the interview we posted with our story on earlier in the week.

A universal question after our return has been, “How deep were you?”  Let me tell you, we went on one heckuvan underwater roller coaster ride. I took notes while the crew ran some “angles and dangles,” as the crew checked the maneuvering systems. I took notes as we started at a depth of 200 feet:

1. 15 degree dive from 150-650 feet

2. 21 degree rise back to 215 feet (9 knots)

3. 21 degree dive to 655 feet (9.3 knots)

4. 25.2 degrees up to 200 feet

5. 26 degrees down to 593.

6. back to 200 feet

I was too busy trying to hang onto something during segments 4 through 6 that I didn’t record the speed but it was about the same nine knots. So was everybody else. We were sort of entertainment for the crew, I suppose, that just stood against a wall and leaned. This wasn’t anything new to them.

I told Commander Brien Dickson (who was an Annapolis classmate of Matt Blunt) that my daughter had been 1,100 feet below sea level and never left land (she visited the Dead Sea a few years ago) and that I’d appreciate it if we could go lower than that during our trip. He smiled courteously. The biggest number I saw on the electronic board was 655.

A lot of information is classified. Maximum operating depth? “Below 700 feet,” was the official answer. How fast can the sub go underwater? “Faster than 20 knots.” Espionage novelist Tom Clancy has written that submarines of this class can fly through the water at 37 knots although other sources say it’s 30 to 33. Thirty knots is 34.5 mph. Thirty-seven knots is 42.6. Jane’s Fighting Ships says the maximum diving depth is 1,475 feet although author Patrick Tyler says the maximum operating depth is 950. We’re happy to let others speculate.

“Did you get seasick?” That’s the next question. Not at all. Everything is inside the boat. There’s no horizon or other external features that your eye and brain try to reconcile. Before we submerged, the sub had a slow side-to side roll of, maybe, a degree or two. But it was so slow that we easily adapted. In fact, it seemed to me there was less motion in the sub than there is in an AMTRAK car.

Torpedoes are long blunt-nosed things. We didn’t know they had tens of thousands of yards of wire attached to them that feed data back to controllers in the sub. If necessary, a torpedo tube can be reloaded in six minutes. There are four tubes. But loading and firing a torpedo through a tube that had just fired one would cut the wire on the first one.  But with four tubes, we were told, there’s not supposed to be a need for doing that.

One of our biggest surprises was a big honkin’ diesel engine. It is a nuclear-powered submarine,  But if you look at the bottom deck of the cutaway drawing, below the sail, you’ll see an auxiliary diesel engine. A 6,000 horsepower, 50 KW backup power supply. So along with everything else the submarine has to carry, it also has to carry 25,000 gallons of diesel fuel in case something leaves the main power supply system inoperable.

There is a discipline throughout the submarine. Not the crisp crease kind of discipline. In fact, the crew members are dressed comfortably (wouldn’t you want to be dressed comfortably if you were going to spend a month or two under water?) – the Chief of Boat even proudly displayed his Jefferson City Jays-red tennis shoes. The discipline is in the exactness necessary to operate a highly-sophisticated, extremely complicated, terribly important tool. Space is not wasted on a submarine. The operations of this extraordinary device operated by 120 people in a confined place for an extended period of time requires precision in every action. Sonar screens must be changed. Instrument readings must be noted and recorded. Operational systems must be checked, not just every now and then, but almost constantly to spot any problems immediately or head off problems. Everything must operate at 100 percent of readiness and each crew member must be prepared to react instinctively. The situation requires people who are always on top of their games. There are no unimportant jobs on the USS Jefferson City.

Suppose you were going to live in your house for sixty days. No going outdoors. No runs to the grocery store to get milk. No trips to the library to borrow a video or to the hardware store for a light bulb. No going out for some fried chicken on Sunday night. Think of everything you would have to store in your home to get you through those sixty days. Don’t forget the toilet paper.  Supply officers on the USS Jefferson City and other subs have to plan for all of that. And where will you put it? They have places. Every inch of a submarine is put to use. Sometimes those places have multiple uses.  The dining table in the wardroom doubles as a medical table. Medical supplies are in cabinets in that room. We had a great lunch in the ward room and in the crew’s mess. Chicken breast, a slice of roast beef, some vegetables. A delicious brownie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  All but the ice cream was made on the boat. Andy remembered a 15 to 20 day mission that became a 55-day mission, when the sugar ran out and some people were starting to horde toilet tissue.

But technology has improved the lives of sub crews. Pads, tablets, and phones let them store thousands of tunes, hundreds of movies and television shows, books and magazines. Although they’re cut off from two-way communication when they’re hundreds of feet under water, they can download and upload hundreds of messages and pictures when the sub comes up, even for a few minutes.

So could we live for two months at a time in that kind of climate? We don’t know. Many years ago when this reporter was a high school freshman, his house burned down. For a couple of months he lived in a 36-foot house trailer with his parents, grandmother, and collie/shepherd dog. The thought did occur, “If I can do this, I could live in a submarine.” This visit to the Jefferson City brought that memory back vividly. From this reporter’s standpoint, I think I could. For a while at least. A couple of months at a time? Weeeeeelllllllll, that’s hard to say.

But think of how a lot of us live our lives. Home to work to home. Some time relaxing and then bed. Up the next morning, go to work, go home. Occasionally there’s a social occasion. Every now and then there’s a movie. Day by day we sleep; we have a purpose – our work; we associate with others at work and away from the office. We eat. We relax. We go to bed. Occasionally we think it would be nice to go to Kansas City or to St. Louis to take in a ball game but we don’t very often do it. Most of our lives are spent living in limited circles.

Kind of like living and working in a submarine. It’s all about where our focus is. So, yeah, I think I could live and work and interact with others in a submarine. But I don’t know for how long. I wonder how many of the other twenty or so people on our trip feel the same way.


That’s the sail of the sub right behind us. Two guys are standing up there and there’s a simple railing. That’s where all of us climbed up to, crawled out onto, and hooked our safety lines into.  We’ll probably never forget the sight of that black nose pushing through the water and watching the water flow back over it. And the dolphins.

We climbed back up a shorter ladder to the deck – you can see the hatch we went into in the morning and that we had just come out of behind us – and walked the portable bridge back to the dock about 5:15 on a delicious early San Diego evening. We felt good about our experience. And we felt even better about the people we had met and the commitment we had witnessed within them. I don’t know that any of us went into the sub that day as doves and came out as hawks. But I think all of us came out proud to have people like those in the USS Jefferson City working for us.

Although we couldn’t take cameras of any kind or recording devices of any kind with us that day, I did have a recorder on the trip and I interviewed some of the participants. You’ll hear their stories in succeeding days on the Missourinet.


One final thing. The 20 of us didn’t just materialize in San Diego for this adventure. A lot of people made this lifetime experience possible. But this entry is long enough. We’ll write a second chapter next time.

And if any of the others on this journey want to add something to this blog, I hope they will.

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One thought on “An inside look at life underwater

  1. Bob, thanks for a wonderfully descriptive account of our day on the USS Jefferson City. It was great spending the time with you and getting to know all of our “crew.” Truly a once in a lifetime experience!

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