By Captain Bryan Lopez, USN (Ret)
The recent passing of Sean Connery brought me back to his memorable role as the Russian Typhoon-class submarine Captain, Marko Ramius in the film adaptation of Tom Clancy’s blockbuster novel, The Hunt Red October.
In 1989, I was a 24-year-old midshipman (cadet) attending the University of New Mexico on a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) scholarship. It was the summer after my sophomore year of college. As part of the Navy’s annual officer training curriculum, midshipmen from the Naval Academy and from university NROTC units across the country are sent to ships and stations for a summer training “cruise”. The sophomore summer cruise, is unique from the other cruises. It is called CORTRAMID, which is short for Career Orientation and Training of Midshipman. It is designed to help midshipmen decide on which career path they would like to pursue by giving them a taste of each of the fields available to them. During CORTRAMID, midshipmen spend one week with each of the unrestricted line officer communities; surface (ship) week, submarine week, aviation week, and Marine Corps week. I was happy to have been sent to San Diego for my CORTRAMID experience and excited for what I would learn.
I spent the first week with the surface warfare community, riding two different ships on “short cruises” just off the coast of Coronado. I stood watch on the bridge, spent time in engineering learning about the power plant, and learned how to “fight the ship” in the Combat Information Center (CIC). Next, I went to Camp Pendleton for Marine week, where I spent the week learning what life as a Marine would be like. I rode in helicopters, launched out of an LST (ship) in an Amtrak (amphibious vehicle), watched tank demonstrations, fired guns, and participated in a mock assault of combat town. I did not think it could get any better than that. Then, for the third week, I went to Miramar Naval Air Station (now Marine Corps Air Station) for aviation week. Top Gun was only a couple of years old and all young men (me included) wanted to be fighter pilots. As luck would have it, I was assigned to VF-124, the F-14 Replacement Air Group or fighter training squadron. I spent the week hanging out with the fighter guys. I learned about the aircraft, played golf and we even made a pilgrimage to the legendary Miramar Officer’s Club made famous by Top Gun. It was a blast, but the crown jewel of that week was my flight in an F-14 Tomcat. I was in heaven and did not think that could be topped. I was expecting the last week, submarine week, to be less exciting as I reported to the Submarine base in Point Loma. I could not have been more wrong. We were given the weekend to explore San Diego before we had to report back to the base. On Monday morning we gathered in the lobby for a short explanation of the week ahead. We were told we would be split into groups based on the submarine we would be assigned to. I was the team lead for Group 4 Gold Crew. Most would be assigned to pier side submarines that would not be getting underway, but a small handful would have the opportunity to get underway for the week. Naturally, we all wanted to get underway.
I waited patiently as each assignment was read aloud. Finally, my team was called. We were assigned to the Los Angeles class fast attack submarine, USS HOUSTON, SSN-713. We were one of the only teams that would be getting underway. We did not know it at the time, but we had just hit the jackpot. We grabbed our gear and were escorted down to the pier where HOUSTON was moored. As we approached the pier, HOUSTON’s sleek, black body stood out formidably against the deep blue California water. We were welcomed aboard by the Commanding Officer, CDR John Sohl. He shared that we were going to be getting underway and heading north to Long Beach, where we would be taking part in the filming of Tom Clancy’s novel-based film, The Hunt for Red October! We all knew the book and could not believe our good fortune.
For most of us, it was the first time we had ever been aboard a submarine, let alone one of the Navy’s formidable fast attack boats. We climbed aboard, while the crew prepared to get underway. We were each assigned to a different division for our experience. Having been an enlisted Cryptologist, I was assigned to “Radio,” the communications center. As we pulled away from the pier, each of us midshipmen were given the opportunity to spend 15 minutes observing the operation from the conning tower on top of the sail while we transited on the surface before we submerged for our overnight trip to Long Beach. When it was my turn I climbed the ladder through the darkness of the sail and emerged into a beautiful San Diego sunset. We were just making our way past Point Loma into open water. We cut through the sea like a giant bullet as water gushed over the partially submerged hull.
Later after we submerged, I was given a turn looking through the periscope before returning to Radio. Back in Radio the Radiomen took turns explaining their jobs to me and sharing how their equipment worked. When dinner time rolled around, we headed to the galley where I met the Chief Engineer, LT Rhett Ross. He explained his job and talked about how he loved submarine life. Then he described what we would be doing the next day during the film sequences. HOUSTON would be playing the part of the USS DALLAS in the movie. The film crews would be on station and capturing the action as we performed a series of emergency blows. This is where a submerged submarine blows all of its ballast in a single burst. The sub’s buoyancy is so strong that it shoots to the surface and leaps out of the water like a gigantic 7,000-ton black whale breaching. It is such a dramatic sight to behold.
As dinner wrapped up, LT Ross went to grab a short nap before he came back on duty as the Officer of the Deck at midnight. I returned to Radio and passed the evening trading sea stories with the guys. Hours later, I headed to my rack and settled in to get a few hours of shut eye before reveille. It had been an exciting day and the next day promised to be every bit as thrilling as the previous three weeks. It seemed like I had just closed my eyes when I was jolted awake as the boat lurched heavily and the GQ (General Quarters) alarm screamed to life. My watch read 4:45 am. Within seconds, the entire crew were at their battle stations. I reported to Radio where I learned that we had been involved in what was thought to be a collision. LT Ross had been on watch when the accident happened. No one knew what we had hit or the extent of the damage. Tense minutes turned into hours as we waited impatiently for news of what happened and of our own material condition. Initial reports were that we had struck and sunk a 97-ton, 73-foot tugboat named Barcona. This turned out to be partially true. Barcona had been towing two empty barges from Long Beach to Santa Catalina through the restricted operations filming area. Before surfacing, LT Ross had extended the sub’s periscope to check for traffic and get a navigational fix to verify its location when he spotted the Barcona. Thinking a catastrophic collision was imminent, he called for an emergency dive. The antenna snagged Barcona’s tow cable dragging it backwards and downward. The Barcona sunk within seconds in 2,500 feet of water. Two of Barcona’s crewmen were able to escape by swimming to safety and were later rescued. A third crewman was not so fortunate and perished when he went down with the tug. We stayed on station off Catalina for two more days to assist with the search and rescue efforts and wrap up shooting for the film. We then headed south toward San Diego on the surface at the painfully slow speed of two knots. If we had not already had enough misfortune, on the way back to San Diego, HOUSTON’s screw became entangled in a local fishing boat’s deployed net. This left us stranded on the surface, necessitating the call for external assistance and added another day to our transit. As our very long week, came to an end, we finally arrived back at the submarine base in Point Loma (San Diego). We gathered our gear and slowly made our way onto the pier. When I looked back over my shoulder, I could see the skipper. He was engaged in a very serious conversation with a small group of senior officers. Even without knowing exactly what they were saying, I could discern the gist of the conversation. Beyond him, I saw the silhouette of HOUSTON’s sail. It had sustained substantial damage. This was quite a sobering sight for a young midshipman to witness. Our group was escorted directly to the base auditorium. There we were instructed not to discuss the matter with the press.
Almost a year later, the movie, The Hunt for Red October, was released to the public. I saw it in the theater and was reminded of my unforgettable week aboard USS HOUSTON. A subsequent investigation identified several contributing factors that led to the accident. 1) A thick, foggy marine layer impaired visibility the morning of the accident. 2) Barcona had been transiting the restricted operating area when the accident happened. 3) There were no running lights on the barges Barcona was towing. 4) Barcona’s tow cable, was way beyond the acceptable legal length at over 1,000 feet. 5) HOUSTON’s Sonar Technicians were aware Barcona was in the area, but believed their position was well west of the tug. 5) HOUSTON’s short wave sonar, normally used to detect potential obstacles on the surface before surfacing, was not working at the time of the accident. 6) HOUSTON’s crew was sleep deprived. LT Ross had only had two hours of sleep in the previous 24 hours before the accident happened. Was this accident avoidable? Maybe, but as with most incidents, it was not the result of a single issue, but rather the result of a chain of events that led to an unfortunate outcome. HOUSTON’s readiness, characterized by the broken short-wave radar, was not the sole reason for the accident, but it was certainly a major contributing factor. The accident impacted the production schedule of a big budget Hollywood movie, sunk a commercial vessel, caused a loss of life and created a public affairs nightmare for the Navy. In the end, the burden of responsibility always lies with the Commanding Officer, regardless of the specific circumstances. HOUSTON’s Skipper was no exception. CDR John Sohl, who had only assumed command a month before our arrival, was relieved of command for a lack of confidence less than four months later in August 1989, a month and a half after the accident. It served to highlight the importance and seriousness of shipboard leadership and readiness as I prepared to embark on my career as a Naval officer.