Number Three Periscope
by Gil Frydell, USS Sea Cat, SS-399
The USS SEA CAT(SS399) spent most of her resting hours in Key West during the years I was assigned to help keep her effectively operational. Of course, most of our training time was spent in the waters not far from the island many of us knew as North Cuba. After all, Key West is closer to Cuba than to the real mainland of Florida. Climaxing a Zundapp motorcycle ride from NLON via my Ohio home to Key West, I reported for duty during the summer of 1958. That southbound jaunt was quite a story in itself, as I carried a full seabag and more on the little 2OOcc two-stroke machine. Although this fourth duty assignment was but a stepping stone toward my eventual nuclear submarine duty, my time aboard the SS399 was probably the most meaningful part of my naval career. This ET completed sub school in New London directly after finishing Electronics Technician Class "A" school at Great Lakes.
I expected to find myself working on electronic equipment right away, but I soon found out that further training was going to be required before that would be likely. I learned how to operate the GDU long before I knew the distance between torpedo tubes 6 and 7 was more than a couple feet. I must admit it was quite a while before I got my sea legs and really bit into working toward getting my dolphins. Nonetheless, I did eventually make it to that point.
I don't remember just when this event transpired, but I believe it was during the period while I was still trying to get qualified, for I am sure I was on the helm during much of the activities that day. That day? Just what is it we're talking about, anyway? Just what was so special about that day?
Well, among the events of that day was the fact that the Base Commanding Officer's wife chose that day to take her ride in a U.S. submarine. That day was to find us playing Sea Cat and Mouse with one or two surface ships. I don't know which ships they were or whether they were Navy or Coast Guard types, but you remember what some of those skimmers were like during your boat's games. That day was also the culmination of some somewhat covert activities of a nameless (even if I knew their names) group of submarine sailors.
The aforementioned covert activities took place over an unknown period of perhaps but a few days. I think the whole operation (concept, design, manufacture, and rigging) might have been performed while we were in Gitmo. If that were the true case, the work was really top notch for so short a time. After all, how long should it take to make an accurate full size replica of the top ten feet or so of a periscope? Donít forget to figure in the time to work out the launching method without any opportunities to experiment. Someone might have considered trying to get the skipper to take the boat out for a short jaunt to make a couple practice dives so they could know their launching method would be foolproof. Actually, I kinda think good ole Captain J.J. just might have been willing to help with that task -- unofficially, of course.
It really could have been that the whole scheme was born back at our home port. Maybe somebody started carving the stick a year before that day. I didn't know about things like that -- at least I did not know on that day.
It seems the #3 Scope launching setup was already rigged before we got word the Admiral's wife had picked that day for her venture into the undersea world. The idea of her checking out the conditions inside a giant pipe bobbing around under the briny really wasn't something any of the crew had been looking forward to, of course, but we knew it would be happening soon, nonetheless.
Quite some time after entering our operation area, we commenced to let the surface skimmers try to find Sea Cat with their PDCs. I'm not sure, but I think they might have found us after another day or so. You see, our diving officers didn't always rely on such things as the sinuous course clock. I recall many times when I was told to steer my own course, and who knows what a 22-year-old ETRSN might want to do with "his" submarine. Oh, I was warned in plenty of time if I got too close to the edge of our assigned area. Sea Cat had a really good crew any day, but on that day, our boat was really special.
After a moderate period of feeble attempts to dunk us for good, we made it certain they could see us, and after they were headed our way, we proceeded to release good old #3 Periscope. The model was rigged to release after #2 periscope was extended a certain approximate number of feet.
As accurate a plot as possible was kept so we might be able to retrieve the unit prior to returning to the ammunition pier (where visiting submarines berthed at Gitmo in those days) for the night.
One thing we certainly could not have predicted, however, was that on that day, two separate Navy pilots saw an unidentified submarine very close to the base. I never learned just where this "other" sub was supposed to have been spotted. I also don't know whether an actual submarine had been seen -- or if it might have just been a periscope that brought about the forthcoming orders to the Navy vessels there in Guantanamo Bay that day. At any rate, there was an order issued for all U.S. submarines (I think there was only one other boat at Gitmo at that time.) to return directly to port. If I'm not mistaken, all ships but those heavies at anchor were sent to search the area -- to try to find the Russian (?) submarine. Could either of those Navy pilot sightings have involved a certain experimental effort arranged by some actively naughty U.S. submarine sailors?
Because we were ordered to return to port, we couldn't try to find the scope while en route home. I guess our guestís presence made the possibility even more difficult, too. Well, if we could have planned this whole episode as an attempt to get a chance to spend the afternoon lounging aboard our private theater barge back at the ammunition pier while a whole bunch of surface sailors were running all over the waves trying to find a ten-foot-long chunk of wood, I would say we did a pretty good job. We submariners always have been specialists at getting things done our way.
I have often wondered whether Sea Cat's #3 Periscope was ever found -- and if so, just where, when, and by whom. I asked a certain sailor serving at Gitmo about three decades later if he could dig up any scoop about this incident, but he was unable to come up any information at all ... and I'm sure if there were any scuttlebutt about it, his sources would have brought it to the surface.
My hope is that this might become enjoyable reading for some folks who might never have seen the interior of a diesel submarine except on paper -- and for some guys who really have some similar memories of their days aboard those best-in-the-business submarines.
(c) Gil Frydell1998
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