SSG 282: The Proud Career of USS TUNNY
The USS Tunny (SS-282) served proudly as a fleet submarine during WWII (winning nine battle stars and two Presidential Unit Citations), and was modified in 1953 to carry the Regulus missile. It was the pioneer Regulus boat (SSG-282), and its crew not only proved the concept but developed all the procedures related to handling and launching the bird. After launching the very first Regulus to be fired by a submarine on July 15, 1953, Tunny would have an illustrious career — launching 100 missiles through 1964. In 1965 at the end of deterrent operations, Tunny was converted into a troop carrier (LPSS-282) for special operations. The old boat was eventually used as a target vessel and sunk in 1970.
Some of the most dedicated men in the Navy served aboard Tunny and its sister vessel, USS Barbero. The WWII-era submarines’ crew facilities were Spartan at best, and life aboard them was almost unimaginably difficult. The boats were slow, lacked air conditioning, and had to ration water. Crew members often had to share bunks — a practice known as “hot bunking” — and the boats would normally snorkel for days on end while on station. They often faced severe weather conditions, which made snorkeling much more difficult, and their situation in the event of a mechanical failure all that more perilous.
Thanks to the efforts of Jim LeVangie and other Tunny veterans, the story of the Tunny’s deterrent patrol era is presented, at least in part. From 1959-1962 Tunny performed nine deterrent patrols. During that time its crew demonstrated remarkable bravery and commitment, as these personal stories illustrate. For more information about the Tunny, visit the links page on this website.
One Dark and Stormy Night as told by Jim White FTG2 (SS) 63-65
Torpedoes were torpedoes. But the birds — the Regulus missiles — were awesome and beautiful. You can imagine my pride when I was assigned to the ‘ram out crew’. Wow! It was my job to help erect the tail, and unfold the wings, after I installed the little ‘tail’ antenna. Then we would all dash forward to the hanger. None of us wanted to go inside, but none of us wanted to fry from the jet and JATO bottles blast at takeoff, either. If I could only watch her lift off!! When the hanger door was shut and locked (with a locking ring) we could hear the engine being run up to full throttle, then nothing. When the JATO’s were ignited, the bird left instantly. No sound. Kind of a letdown, really. But, I still loved those birds!
On our last patrol, Captain Bob Malim decided to perform a complete missile launch maneuver, less the actual firing of the missile. We had been at Periscope Depth and sonar made a sweep and reported no contacts. We were ready; despite the fact, it was a dark and stormy night and the ship had been taking some heavy rolls. But this would test our ability under severe conditions. The ship was pointed toward the bottom and all main ballast tanks were blown. Under extremely positive buoyancy, we popped to the surface in the middle of a fierce snow storm.
We surfaced, stern high, into the night. Jim White had to crawl atop and between the darn missiles. The hangar door came open and it was snowing. The hinged track snapped into place and we rammed the bird out over the after deck to the launch rail; but, didn’t complete configuring it for flight because we got the word that an electronic signal had been detected!
Back in the Control Room the ECM reported initial contact on a radar at Echo-1 Signal Strength. The Skipper ordered the missile back to the hangar, as ECM reported “Signal Strength increasing to Echo-2 definite aircraft contact” as opposed to a slow moving surface contact.
After rushing to put the bird back in the hangar, we cleared the decks, ran forward to the hangar door and began the closure procedure. But, nope!! Despite cycling the closure valve the ‘hinged tracks’ would not move! If they didn’t, we’d never get the hangar door closed. Being air operated, Jim guessed that moisture had frozen inside of the lines. The ‘word’ came that “We HAD to dive, NOW!” Echo strength was up to FOUR!!! You can imagine what was going through everyone’s heads. In Jim’s, however, was “Not a chance that they would dive with that 13′ diameter door open. No way!!”
Jim didn’t remember being afraid, he only remembers urging all the MT’s on the ‘ram-out’ crew to think of something, FAST. Out from near the manifold appeared a hacksaw. In less than a billionth of a second, both track hoses were cut, and the tracks fell down away from the open door with a loud BANG. The door was shut, and Tunny dove beneath the waves. Waves could be heard splashing against the Hangar Door while it was still in the locking process.
After standing a sonar watch, Jim always had to check the hanger bulges. His first trip up there, after the incident, was not relished. But, the ‘birds’ were there, and they made it all right. He too was back in the bowels of the Tunny, warm, mostly dry and among friends, while outside it was still a howling, dark and stormy night.
Christmas 1961: Somewhere in the North Pacific by Commander Doug Stahl
The deterrent patrol over Christmas of 1961 was unforgettable. Those who were on board will remember that for over 2 weeks, we had sea states 6 and 7. The seas were so rough that we snorkeled between the surface and 90 feet, and flameouts were routine.
One of the officers had bought a miniature Christmas tree in Yokosuka, Japan and hung it from the overhead in the Wardroom. The officers were almost seasick from the swaying of the tree. Someone reached up and yanked it down. We finally went to 200-250 feet for Christmas dinner. We were still rolling several degrees. The cooks tried to prepare pies, but the rough seas caused the fillings to be hurled against the sides of the range. I think we ended up having cold cuts.
An auxiliaryman and I went out twice to cut off sections of loose deck. It was making so much noise we couldn’t use our sonar. Much of the safety track aft of the sail was gone, so we had to work without safety lines. The Commanding Officer turned the boat to run with the seas to make it as safe as possible. The auxiliaryman had to concentrate on burning off large pieces of metal and periodically a wave would catch up to us, douse him and put out the flame. Was I a little scared? You betcha. Much of the superstructure aft was gone when we left station. Looked like we had been depth charged.
We were ordered to make an undetected transit home. Instead of surfacing at Kaena Point, we continued submerged up the transit lanes and down the channel. A dark stain almost appeared on the front of my trousers, because I saw an LST was coming out the channel. A general courts martial flashed before my eyes. It was reassuring to see the skipper was nervous also, because his cigar was shaking a little. Never saw that before! The skipper ask for my suggestion and I recommended that we veer to the East. After what seemed like an eternity, the LST finally put over the rudder and started turning to the West. “Thank you God!!”
The skipper ordered me to head for the rendezvous point to meet the Commodore and the welcoming party. We were supposed to be at the rendezvous at 1200 and the Tunny was no where in sight. “Damn Tunny!! Why can’t she be on time??”. We came almost alongside the barge carrying the Commodore and emergency surfaced in the channel at high noon. The engines lit off and we enshrouded the barge with smoke. The Commodore and his party were more than a little surprised!
Tunny Becomes a Catamaran by Jim LeVangie Missile Guidance Officer ’63-65
The movie The Perfect Storm tells of a Nor’ Easter in the Atlantic; however, Tunny plied the monstrous seas of the North Pacific where even fishermen from Japan and Russia feared to tread in winter. Our sub was often caught in the troughs of waves that were mountainous. Down there we couldn’t have been seen by any person or radar. But on the top of a crest we would appear visible, at least momentarily, to anyone!
The Tunny entered into just such a storm one cold dark winter. We were tasked to sail north but, when we turned north, Tunny heeled over to port in excess of 50 degrees! It was hard to stand upright, or move around the submarine, and we thought that at any moment we might even capsize. But then we discovered that 50 degrees was like a wall — something we’d reached and couldn’t exceed. Thank God! The reason was that at 50 degrees the Regulus missile hangar had hit the water. It was acting like an outrigger and preventing further roll. But the water’s surface tension also held us in that position as long as we remained on the same course. That made it impossible to submerge, or do much of anything.
Tunny “can do” came through. We got used to living at 50 degrees. The hours passed and finally three days later the storm reduced and we turned northwest. As we righted ourselves, a big sigh of relief was heard throughout the ship. We finally dove and got our first good meal and decent sleep in over three days.
As you can see, compared to Tunny, nuclear-powered submarines are like luxury liners!
A Perfect Storm Met By Imperfect Men by Jim LeVangie Missile Guidance Officer
On the Tunny our first enemy was not man but nature’s attempts to find any weakness in our WW-II refurbished submarine or its human crew. It was during one of the longest periods of intense storms that this story begins.
One day, along with the pounding of waves came an ominous scream of metal and a resounding clang. Sonar reported that the anchor chain was banging up against the chain locker with each heavy roll. A conference was held and we could come to only one conclusion: the brow, a ramp used from the ship to pier while in port, had come loose under the forward deck. We had to band-it back to its mount or we’d lose the entire forward superstructure.
But that storm was unrelenting and dropping down to the deck from the sail seemed beyond acceptable risk. The Captain called for volunteers. I stepped forward because I was assistant engineer. Being the most junior officer onboard next to Bill (Jay) Donaldson, I figured I wouldn’t be much of a loss anyway.
We suited up and started up to the bridge. Winds were reasonable but the waves were gigantic. The ship was continuously submerging up to the sail watch platform, but she would shudder and stick her bow up again within about 45 seconds.
Confirming that all in our party could easily hold their breath for a minute, I designated two men to do nothing but watch the sea and alert us when the bow was about to penetrate another wave. We could use safety lines to the deck hatch but there were no safety tracks under the superstructure. The full impact of going under the teak open deck didn’t really hit home until the hatch was opened. It fell against the deck with a loud bang, and all hell seemed to rage on the other side. I alerted each man of the Navy rule as we left the safety of Tunny: one hand for yourself and one for the ship..
I had brought a heavy line with me to tie the anchor chain in four directions within the chain locker. As I passed the two lookouts, I told them to keep a sharp eye and scream as loud as they could to insure we heard them. So they’d let out a scream: “Wave, we’re going down!!” Then we’d hang on to Tunny for our very lives as the boat went under. White water changed to big bubbles then green water .and we held on. All the smaller bubbles drifted upwards and still we hung on. The first dunking seemed to last a long time and as the water subsided I counted bodies and then shouted “Everyone OK?” All nodded. We proceeded to get to work.
The men having the situation in hand with the brow, I crawled forward toward the chain locker. WAVE! came twice before I was able to get to the locker and wedge myself into it. WAVE! I could only hope the men were doing okay with strapping down the brow, while I worked the anchor chain. Damn it was heavy! WAVE!! Time went fast and I quickly had the chain secured. WAVE! A big grin came to my face as I saw that the men had silver band-it straps in every hole in the brow. I gave a thumbs up which was acknowledged by all and a shout of: WAVE!! As we all started back toward the open hatch the pace seemed slower and more confident. These were seasoned men, I humbly thought . . . my men, . . . . fellow submariners. At the Naval Academy they taught us officers that the most important tool of our trade was leadership. On that day I realized how motivated and brave my men really were – they were better than I’d ever imagined possible and I was proud to be an officer among them.
Nearly A Casualty by Jim LeVangie Missile Guidance Officer ’63-65
On the surface standing a Bridge Watch (outside on the sail), one of the greatest concerns was a course that produced “Pooping Seas.” On a sail boat this means sailing before the wind, to us it meant the waves would catch up to us from behind. Without warning, you would be swept off your feet as if the deck had suddenly sunk and you floated free. Since it was simply the passing of a wave that had caught up with us, the floating lasted for just a few seconds, followed by a sudden drop in water level and your being flushed down into the sail!
One stormy day we hid amongst the waves from the “enemy.” I was confident I could handle anything as I ducked under the Bubble and connected my safety line. (The Bubble was a large Plexiglas half-sphere which rotated up to form a transparent protected area for the Conning Officer). I had no sooner settled down to a relatively easy but anxious watch when a course change put us into a pooping sea condition. Despite cautions to the watch, the first wave hit us and lifted us all off our feet. I hung onto the edge of the sail while one of the two watches was knocked off his feet and ended up inside the sail. He had the wind knocked out of him and was bleeding so I sent him below and favored his side on my watch. I confirmed that the remaining watch was OK and willing to stay up a while longer. He was also a young man afraid of nothing and nobody.
As night approached, the waves increased in size and a number of wave passages had us hanging on for dear life. Then, one hit us without notice. I was torn away from the sail while my lookout was rattled around in the sail. I was concerned about his safety and sent him down below despite his protestations. I was alone. A few more wave passages and I realized the Bubble was just in the way and not prepared for diving should it be necessary. I released its bolts and rotated it into the down position within the forward part of the sail. Conn asked the Bridge if it would be better to stand a periscope watch than a Bridge watch. I said: Not Yet! I’d rather stand against this weather than man the periscope. I was a lean mean fighting machine.
I got hit by another wave that not only knocked me off my feet but tore my hands from the sail. I ended up being flushed down into the sail under the Bridge platform; but, enroute I met with the lower portion of the Bubble. It caught me in the head just above my eyes. Probably the safest place on my dumb body. Dazed, I struggled back to the Bridge platform and announced over the MC, “Set the periscope watch, leaving the Bridge”.
After waiting for the Quartermaster to undog the hatch, I dropped to the Conning Tower and announced “Last man down, Hatch Secured”. The cold had frozen the zipper on my Poopy Suit; and, as I struggled to release it, I looked up to see nothing but BIG EYES from everyone. Asking what was the matter? the Chief of the Watch simply wiped my wet face and showed me that it wasn’t water but blood. To this day I bear the scar as proof that I’m not immortal. Time has reinforced this lesson.
The Bubble of Annihilation by Jim LeVangie Missile Guidance Officer ’63-65
Once we were sitting around discussing the accuracy of the Regulus I, which was something constantly cited by the missile’s critics, and the Polaris submariners, as a weakness. Well, we decided to see what effect miss distance would have been given the size of the Regulus’ warhead’s destructive capability. The Regulus had the largest nuclear warhead in the entire U.S. Navy inventory. We realized that our two missiles on Tunny were equivalent in power to all the missiles in the Polaris Missile boats…PLUS TWO!!
So…the calculation of the bubble of complete annihilation of a Regulus I…to give you an appreciation of what would happen if one hit Honolulu, Hawaii…the explosion would completely envelope the island, both mountain chains and leave nothing but a hole in the ocean.
So could we do the job or was our mission a political maneuver, a lie or just a wish? You figure it out now that you know The Rest of the Story. Regulus was not only a viable weapon, it was a genuine power projection tool!