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January 10, 2005

Silent Service

I don't know if you have heard in the news about the submarine that ran aground over the weekend but here is a link to the article.

Our C.O. gave us a brief on the incident today and while much of the information is classified, and will not show up in the papers, there are a few things about the incident that have hit the sub community pretty hard.

The accident that has left this boat in serious damage, as well as many injured personnel, also claimed the life of a 24 year old sailor. His name is Joe Ashley and I knew him, not very well, however, just as a friend-of-a-friend when I was on the L.A. He was a nuke and was on watch when the grounding happened. He was thrown against some valves and hit his head; he never woke up. He stopped breathing and he died in the bridge hatch as they were preparing him to be helo transferred off the boat.

I have told my friends and family on many occasions that I feel extremely safe onboard the sub when the hatches are closed. I never worried about a melee attack with another sub because of the technological superiority of my sub over theirs. I never worried about hitting anything because what is there to hit at 800 feet except another sub but what are the odds of that? The hull is extremely tough and can withstand the extreme pressures of the ocean depths, depths that would instantaneously crush us if there ever were a hull breach. I slept with my head less than 8 inches from an air valve that directed 3000 pound air; a pinprick hole in that valve has enough pressure to cut through a 2 inch board. But I never worried about it. I never even worried about getting too much radiation- I have received little more than 5 hours equivalent of a day on the beach in 17 the years I have ridden on submarines.

I don't feel that way anymore. I realized today that no matter how tough that outside hull is I am still flesh and bone. I realized that no matter how much technology we have and no matter how accurate we think our navigation charts are that there is still room for error. I feel like a kid that just found out Santa Claus isn't real.

The submarine force makes up a small percentage of the Navy and we are very small and tight-knit. We have to be because of the unforgiving environment that we live in. I see and hear about soldiers and marines dying in Iraq and I get frustrated and sad to hear that news. I think it is expected to have casualties in a war so unless you know the person the casualty report doesn't have as much impact.

This boat wasn't in a wartime scenario, it wasn't running from anything, there wasn't any Hunt for Red October stuff going on- just a bunch of guys going to Australia for some well-earned liberty. They were traveling on a route, that presumably, many submarine have used before, a hundred times before. What would have been the outcome if the track they laid down was just 500 yards to left?

There is the romantic, but gallow-humored, scenario that is jokingly talked about on boats- that if we were to ever go down, that we would go down fighting and shooting weapons as long as we had the air, that when our time had come and as the sonar from the incoming torpedo got louder and more frequent, that we would go out in a blaze of glory. At least the letter to the next of kin would give the reader some sort of comfort that the death was not in vain, that is was necessary to preserve an ideology. Joe's parents received a phone call and perhaps told the circumstances of the accident. I just know that I would have a hard time with knowing my son died because he hit his head while on the way to Australia.

The Navy flew Joe's father out to Guam and he was there when the boat limped into the harbor. As Joe's body was taken off the boat by his shipmates, shipmates with broken bones, he was given military honors. Dozens of people from Pearl Harbor shipyard and investigation teams were also on the pier waiting to assess the damage to both the boat and to the crew. I am sure there will be new procedures for the submarine community; tragically, it always happens after an accident of this magnitude. This is absolutely the worst navigational accident in U.S. submarine history.

I guess I just needed to get this off my chest and the best way I can express myself is through my writing. This event has opened my eyes to the frailty of human life when I thought that, in at least one place, I was invincible. Whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else around the world, including 500 feet under the ocean, the men and women of the U.S. military are always in harms way.


  1. Great post, Greg. Weird stuff happens sometimes. The semester before I arrived at my conservatory in NY, a talented young student fell on the subway and died after hitting his head (sober and everything). In many ways it's good to be reminded just how fragile we are; it helps us renew our commitment to making every moment count.

  2. wow - wow. I need to come back to read more. Am bookmarking your site. Thanks.