Sid's N T I N S Locker || OUR SUBMARINE HISTORY  ||  All Gave Some - Some Gave All
Naval Operating Base Norfolk Virginia, Saturday 16 January 1999

Some Thoughts on the Occasion
of the USS NARWHAL SSN-671 Decommissioning
by Alan Donn, LCDR, USN(Ret)
Operations Officer/Navigator USS NARWHAL (SSN 671) May 1974 - Oct 1976 

MISSION REPORT (Shipmates Bid Farewell to NARWHAL) With Remarks by CAPT William A. Matson, USN (Ret.)
NARWHAL Gets a Second Life

Alan Donn on NARWHAL
Alan Donn, LCDR, USN(Ret)Little noted by the world at large or even by the U.S. Naval community, an unusual and unprecedented event occurred today at NOB Norfolk. Some 800 of us gathered at Pier 11 to mark the inactivation of the USS NARWHAL (SSN 671), a 30 year old submarine whose final Mediterranean operations in support of the Desert Fox strikes against Iraq were carried out with the distinction and elan that characterized her service during the hottest years of the cold war.

Eight hundred people to honor the passing into history of a ship manned by a little over one hundred souls! This unique group included veterans of WWII war patrols on the second of the three submarines NARWHAL. Although their reality was different than ours their presence affirmed the universal bond that unites submariners of all eras. The gathered group also included engineers and navy veterans who had never even served on the ship herself but had merely participated in the design or served at the reactor prototype site in the Idaho desert. How can a piece of machinery motivate the reorganizing of priorities, expense, and the inconvenience of travel from widespread locales just to mark the fact that that piece of machinery is being retired from service?

The bulk of the group was made up of NARWHAL crew members, an exclusive club whose rolls, open for thirty years to only a select few to begin with, are now closed. The number of us present was unprecedented for a decommissioning event, especially the presence of ten of the eleven former Commanding Officers. There will be no new members of this club. The active duty members of the present NARWHAL crew are the last entrants into this unique brotherhood, now closed. Preoccupied with the demands of hospitality and of seeing to the diminished but continuing needs of our ship, they are not yet aware of their special status in this the final chapter of a long and illustrious saga.

Sadly they must witness the dismantling, the violation of the physical ship NARWHAL by a callously indifferent industrial facility. The creation of this physical ship called our brotherhood into existence in the first place. The ship nurtured our ranks for more than thirty years, a dependable machine that carried us into harms way to perform arduous duty, our systems awash with adrenaline and caffeine for weeks at a time. The ship brought us safely home again.

This physical NARWHAL was brought into being to evaluate, on one platform, the technology of making the submarine power plant more quiet. NARWHAL's designers strove to make a quieter ship by eliminating both of the major noise sources of previous designs; large pumps which circulated coolant, and the large reduction gear which reduced the high turbine revolutions to the slower revolutions of the ships propeller. Coolant in NARWHAL's plant would circulate by the natural tendency of heated water to rise and of cooled water to descend. Her propeller would be driven by a turbine with no intervening reduction gear. They succeeded, beyond their expectations, in achieving the technological goals. But there is much more to NARWHAL than technology.

The original commissioning crew was personally selected by Admiral Rickover from an already elite submarine force to man this special one-of-a-kind ship. This unique group of men, unique in the U.S. Navy,unique among the Submarine Force, exceeded their charter as talented technocrats. Under the leadership of Captain Willis Matson they ably oversaw the birth pangs of the physical ship NARWHAL. But at the same time they imbued the NARWHAL with its initial soul, its identity and spirit establishing it as an almost personal entity transcending the physical ship. They created well.

What they created enters now into a new phase of its existence, a soul without a body. This is the NARWHAL that 800 people gathered at Pier 11 to honor. This is the NARWHAL that went into active service in July of 1969 under Captain Matson's leadership and served with distinction under the stewardship of ten succeeding commanding officers and almost 1,500 officers and men in an unbroken chain, man to man, watch to watch, until closure of the roster in January of 1999. This is the NARWHAL that will continue beyond the passing of the physical ship, as painful as that may be for those who must witness that process. This is the NARWHAL that we will never forget as long as there is one surviving NARWHAL crew member.

The spirit of the times at NARWHAL's birth was characterized by the tensions of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Mindful of Hitler's spectacular success with a force of only fifty or so U-Boats, the Soviet Union had created a submarine force of some 300 ships and was developing a naval power of global capabilities. The United States could not possibly counter this submarine threat with superior or even equivalent numbers, but instead pursued a tightly guarded effort to achieve and maintain tactical ascendancy through technological superiority. Words easy here to write but a daunting challenge to the submariners who made it happen.

Inherent to knowing whether or not one is superior is to know exactly the capabilities of one's opponent. To meet this need the submarine force carried on a highly secret and deadly serious campaign of covert intelligence gathering the details of which have only now begun to be revealed in books such as Blind's Man Bluff.

In addition, this small force developed, evaluated, and maintained proficiency with the weapons and tactics produced in response to the threat defined by their own intelligence gathering. In their spare time, they pursued a process of continuing development in joint operations and tactics with U.S. and allied forces as the art of naval warfare evolved through the latter half of this century.

NARWHAL was at the forefront of these efforts. All of us gathered for the inactivation ceremony have passed through the crucible of these years. Though separated in time by ten, twenty, or even thirty years, our sea stories are similar, the experiences as if personally shared. This continuum of shared experience is the essence of NARWHAL, collectively, built upon the foundation laid by Captain Matson and his plank owners.

The technological superiority, the knowledge, the skills, the capabilities did not come without cost. They were dearly bought by time at sea that averaged over 200 days a year; by long overhauls and repair periods where the newness of the technology precluded easy execution and required long hours of effort to bring to fruition. They were dearly bought by young families whose fathers were gone more than half the time; by young wives who coped with birth, with death, finances, medical emergencies, household and automobile repairs without the support and counsel of their spouses and who showed up at the pier to greet us with joy and love upon our return from hostile waters. This too is part of the fabric of NARWHAL's soul.

All of this would be nothing more than wistful nostalgia if not for the unstinting and generous efforts of the NARWHAL Reunion Committee led by two former crew members, Steve Stone and Mark Codding. Their current database of present and former NARWHAL officers and crew members is the neural network over which information efficiently flows. Sites on the Internet and a large percentage of NARWHAL folks communicating on-line continue the NARWHAL tradition of using the latest technology to accomplish the mission. With this functioning information network, only occupancy in an ICU qualified as a valid excuse to be absent from last weeks proceedings.

We all: High level commanders to whom NARWHAL was an "asset", Commanding Officers, officers of the wardroom, chief petty officers, crew members, plank owners, members of the decommissioning crew, parents, wives, children, heroes and villains, rogues and saints... all of us have an individual and collective awareness of NARWHAL that will remain with us until the day that we die. God bless us one and all until we meet again. We know who we are. We know what we did. In some future time the country will again have need for men such as we. We can only hope that they will be forthcoming when the need arises. We can do our small part to tell our story, support our shipmates and keep the spirit personified by the NARWHAL alive.