The Commander who proved Russian subs were in the Atlantic

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The Commander who proved Russian subs were in the Atlantic

Fifty years ago Ted Davis and his 80-member crew made history, forcing a Soviet sub to the surface and proving the Soviet presence in the Atlantic.

It all started as a sporting argument between Adms. Arleigh Burke and Jerald Wright. Wright, who commanded the Atlantic Fleet, claimed there were Soviet subs operating in sea lanes off the U.S. coast. Burke, then chief of naval operations, said, "Prove it."

So the offer came down: The crew that forced a Soviet sub to the surface would win a case of Jack Daniel's whiskey. Davis passed on the challenge to his crew, though he knew they had a one-in-a-million chance of even finding a Soviet sub.

Soon after, the Grenadier left Key West bound for an exercise in the "GIUK gap," the stretches of northern water that flow between Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom.

On May 28, 1959, as the sub waited for a target to pass by overhead, the sonar operator heard an unfamiliar sound, a whoosh that emerged then disappeared.

"He just said, 'This is different,' " Davis recalled. "I didn't have to ask him why."

The crew went to work, flying blind as all subs do. The sonar operators had to estimate depth and range from the quality of the sound, which could be affected by the surrounding water temperature.

How far out was the Soviet sub? About 11 miles. How fast? Five knots. Which way was it headed? Home.

The Grenadier's crew plotted a course based on educated guesses, setting themselves to track right into the Soviet sub, hoping to hear it again before they hit each other. They proceeded in silence for nearly six hours, hearing nothing, then: "Contact! Close aboard! Port bow!"

The Soviet sub was roaring toward them, closing in at about 400 yards. Soviet subs could run hundreds of feet deeper than U.S. subs, so the Soviet commander could have been shooting by underneath to scare them. Davis didn't flinch.

"I assumed the guy was as smart as I was, and that he had as good a crew," Davis said. "I knew he wasn't going to do anything dumb. He wasn't going to fire a torpedo."

But Davis had his torpedoes ready, just in case.

A more likely possibility was that the Soviets would try to damage the Grenadier, leaving it dead in the water. So Davis ordered his sub to maneuver using its sonar, always keeping the Soviet sub in front. This gave the crew a clearer idea of where it was and meant the Grenadier wouldn't present its unprotected rudder and screw to the Soviet sub. "If so," Davis warned, "he can clip the things that will get you home."

The Soviet sub turned several times. Each time, the Grenadier switched around and fell in behind it, trailing at about 2,000 yards.

At this point, the crew was having trouble lighting its cigarettes, a sure sign the carbon dioxide level was building up on board. Diesel subs of that era lacked the air-scrubbing systems of modern nuclear subs. They needed to surface every 24 hours or so to allow the engines to kick in, charge its two massive batteries and flood the sub with fresh air.

Davis decided to surface. While above water, he radioed the Atlantic Fleet: "Have contact with Soviet submarine, can track indefinitely." He called in an anti-submarine patrol plane from the U.S. naval air station in nearby Keflavik, Iceland. He listened. And he waited.

When the sonar operator reported the Soviet sub coming up to take a peek, the Grenadier vectored the patrol plane right over it. As the periscope broke the surface, the plane dropped flares right beside it.

Now the Soviet sub knew the plane knew. It also knew there was probably a U.S. sub out there. The periscope slipped back below the water and the Grenadier stayed above, continuing the hunt. Several hours later, the sonar signal went silent. So did the Grenadier.

"All stop!" Davis ordered. "I want no noise whatsoever."

One officer suggested using the sub's active sonar to find the Soviet sub. Davis declined, since it would give away their position.

"He doesn't know where we are," he said. "We know he's 2,000 yards ahead of us from the last ping."

Davis suspected the sub was deep and hovering. It was time to wait again.

"If he moves, he'll make a noise."

Davis knew the Soviet sub was running out of air and power, so it would have to surface. Diesel subs usually do so under cover of darkness. In the far north, where it never got truly dark at that time of year, the blackest part of night would come sometime around midnight. Davis wagered that's when they'd see the sub.

He was right. Just after midnight, now May 29, the sonar operators picked up the Soviet sub heading for the surface. An officer directed the patrol plane right overhead.

As the sub surfaced, the plane's searchlights lit it up and started taking pictures. They caught the Soviet crew trying to cover the sub's sail with canvas to hide a pair of missile tubes. The U.S. sailors were looking at a Zulu-class sub, the world's first ballistic missile platform.

"What they'd been trying to find out about this sub - the CIA operatives - we discovered in five minutes," Davis recalled.

After its 14-hour pursuit, the Grenadier stayed at about 2,000 yards, recording every sound and emission the Soviet sub made for the 24 hours it remained surfaced.

Its quarry caught, the U.S. sub informed the Atlantic Fleet and requested that Jack Daniel report aboard ASAP and Jack Daniel Jr. (a half case) report to the patrol plane's air station.

The Grenadier returned to its exercise. Three weeks later, the crew was back home in Key West, where Wright greeted it with a commendation and a case of whiskey.

The whiskey disappeared at the next crew party, but Davis held on to a bottle for years, thinking it was the last. He and a friend drank it sometime in the 1960s, after realizing Davis' housekeeper had already broken the seal and had a taste. He recently discovered the Grenadier's chief of the boat had kept an unopened bottle.

Davis, now 85, still advocates for a strong submarine force. He's concerned about new diesel subs, in use by other countries, that don't need to surface for air. And he worries about fighting a future war 600 feet under water, for the world is ultimately no clearer at that depth now than it was 50 years ago:

"Anybody who tells you that one sub knows what another is doing when they're submerged is crazier than hell."
By netchicken: posted on 31-5-2009

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