By Greg Pancerev
In recent years, much has been written about the cold exploits of the fast attack submarines in books such as Blind Man’s Bluff. And certainly much has been written of the sacrifices made by the brave Americans who served in Vietnam. While I don’t mean to make light of these topics, in my humble opinion, they represented “hot” manifestations of the cold war and were not the cold war itself.
The real Cold War was a strategic war.
Yes, the real Cold War was a war of strategy… This was biggest, highest stakes chess game ever played in the history of the world. And we were part of it.
The real cold war was fought from SSBN submarines. Our mission was to serve as a deterrent… a deterrent to nuclear war. It's easy now to forget, but for many years, there where those in the government of the Soviet Union who favored the idea of launching a full scale nuclear attack on the United States. The only way we could confidently prevent such an attack was to provide the assurance that if such an attack was ever launched, the retribution that we would deliver would be not only swift and sure, but also the most awful destruction ever unleashed by one nation on another.
In the chilling rhetoric of the cold war, we could only prevent a nuclear war by threatening the certainty of the same, resulting in complete annihilation of the enemy, their country and their people. In the process, it could be assumed that our own country would suffer disastrous consequences as well. This concept would eventually become known as mutually assured destruction or MAD.
For such a concept to work as a deterrent, the threat must be believable. In other words, to prevent a nuclear war, our submarine crews must be 100 percent ready, willing, and able to create our own nuclear war if, and when ordered to do so.
And we were… ready, willing, and able.
With sixteen Poseidon missiles ready in their tubes, we were more than just able. For each missile carried as many as 14 multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Each of those carrying a warhead of 50 kilotons or more.
Of course, the SSBN submarine fleet was only one-third of the nuclear "triad" along with the Air Force's SAC bombers and the land-based nuclear missiles. However, it is widely acknowledged that the SSBNs were (and still are) the most lethal threat of the triad. The major shortcoming of land-based missiles is that their locations were well known and easily targeted. Bombers, also can be detected on radar and shot out of the sky. It was only the submarines, the boomers lurking silently, hidden in the deep, that offered the most real and credible deterrent.
Yet on an average day out on patrol, we seldom thought or talked about the gravity of our situation or the potential outcomes of carrying out our orders if called to do so. Instead, we worried about the day-to-day problems that plague submarine sailors everywhere: getting caught up on preventive maintenance; fixing broken equipment; getting qualified for that next watch station; getting our shipmates qualified; manpower shortages; what movie will be playing tonight; trying to get enough sleep; worrying about someone back home.
From time to time, however, we would be reminded of the seriousness of our mission. Sometimes it was political events, or a drill gone bad, or a Soviet sub detected by Sonar. At these times, I would occasionally wonder: Were we doing the most important job in the world? After all, what could be more important than preventing the end of the world as we know it?
But for the most part, we just did our jobs and stood our watches and hoped the days would pass quickly so we could be back on off-crew with our friends and loved ones.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the great Soviet threat gradually melted away and dissolved. At least for now, the world no longer lives in constant fear of a global nuclear war. At least for now. But during those years of doubt, the Kamehameha and others like her were out there standing the watch and holding the line.
And it worked. Now, many years later, we can say with authority that we did it. Our mission was successful. A job well done. I, for one, am proud to be a part of this group who went to sea on the big black boats without numbers or names, poking holes in the ocean at three knots to nowhere. Just doing our job.
Greg Pancerev - SSBN 642 Blue Crew 1983-1986
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