Submarines’ Secret History Surfaces
Some of the most important U.S. weapons of the Cold War were developed at Point Mugu, but the stories of the crews and systems remain largely untold.
by David Kelly, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
It was 1963 and the U.S. submarine Growler lay silent and deep beneath the black waters of the North Pacific, trying desperately to remain invisible as a Soviet sub prowled nearby.
No one made a sound in the cramped confines of the American vessel. An errant rattle or ping could tip off the Soviets, who could send the Growler, its 100 crew members and four nuclear missiles to the bottom of the sea.
“Khrushchev had vowed to sink us if he found us,” recalled Robert Harmuth of Oxnard, who was aboard the Growler, one of America’s first nuclear-armed submarines. “The sub tracked us for 30 minutes, but we don’t think he knew what he had on his hands.”
The Growler, which was just 500 miles off the Kamchatka Peninsula on the far eastern coast of the Soviet Union, dove deep, went under the Soviet sub and escaped.
“It was pretty hairy, we put our lives on the line every day,” said Harmuth, 66. “It’s been overlooked for years because everyone was so hush-hush about the program.”
The history of America’s first nuclear-armed submarines and the missiles they carried remains largely untold.
The weapons, tested and developed chiefly at Point Mugu in Ventura County, were among the most secret projects of the Cold War.
Using World War II German missile technology, more than a dozen ex-Nazi scientists and a small army of dedicated pilots and submariners, the military devised a primitive but effective sea- based nuclear deterrent that kept the Soviets off balance for years.
Black-and-white pictures of the German scientists still adorn the office wall of Max White, former pilot and base historian at Point Mugu.
There is Theodor Sterm, Wilfried Hell and Herbert Wagner. The latter designed a missile that sunk an American ship during World War II, killing 2,000 soldiers.”Wagner was actually a very sweet man,” said White, 86. “My wife was his secretary.”
There were accidents and close calls. Missiles exploded on launch pads, planes crashed at test sites on the Channel Islands and submarines cruising close to the Soviet coast were chased by enemy ships or entangled in fishing nets.
“Almost everything we did was classified, how everything worked was classified,” said 68-year-old Al Thayer of Camarillo, a former fighter pilot assigned to the Regulus program in 1955. “I went at it tooth and nail for seven years. Our tests were trying to prove a submarine could control nuclear weapons to their target and stay submerged.
Unlike the underwater-launched Polaris missiles that would follow, the Regulus was a subsonic nuclear cruise missile. It was fired from the decks of ships and submarines, then steered by remote control. The first successful flight was in 1951.
Their limited range meant submarines had to be within 500 miles of the target. Many submariners doubted they would survive long after the first launch because of their exposure on the surface for the 15 minutes it took to fire the missile.
“We didn’t like to think about it, but we knew we were toast,” Harmuth said. “It would have only taken minutes for them to be on top of us.”
The prospective targets were coastal Soviet navy and submarine bases. Though lacking pinpoint accuracy, the missiles’ nuclear payload meant they could vaporize installations even if they were a few miles off course.
“There were people in the Navy who realized that if you put an atomic weapon on a submarine, you would have the Cold War’s ultimate weapon. If you could do that, your opponent would fear making a first strike against you,” said Nick Spark, who recently finished a documentary entitled “Regulus: The First Nuclear Missile Submarines.”
Spark said the five Regulus submarine crews have been almost totally forgotten. “From 1958 to 1964, these subs patrolled off the coast of the Soviet Union,” he said. “During the Cuban Missile Crisis, they sat off the Soviet coast on full alert.”
He said the process of interviewing Regulus alumni for the film proved rewarding for all involved.
“Many said they couldn’t wait to get the film in the mail so they could finally tell their kids what they had done,” he said.
Before Regulus there was the Loon, an updated copy of the German V-1 rocket lobbed at England during World War II. The first Loon was fired in 1946 from a beach at Point Mugu and crashed just a mile offshore.
“In the time I was there, we discovered a new guidance system based on radar,” said Pat Murphy, 82, a former sub commander from Santa Barbara who helped direct the Loon project. “Then the Regulus came along, which was a pilotless aircraft that flew at 30,000 feet with a range of 400 or so miles.”
To minimize expenses, the 33-foot Regulus missile could be landed and reused. Pilots flying beside it would land it via remote control on San Nicolas Island or Edwards Air Force Base.
“We had to keep visual contact at all times, even in the clouds,” Thayer said. “It was extremely difficult, but when it was operating correctly it was the smoothest thing going. It would go from zero to 240 mph in two seconds.”
While Thayer flew overhead, life in the submarines below was claustrophobic, hot and dirty.
Harmuth, who wrote a book about life on the Regulus submarines, said it wasn’t uncommon to go seven weeks without a shower. Patrols, often in rough seas, lasted up to four months and the crew couldn’t even see the missiles take off.
“You couldn’t watch a launch from the submarine because the boosters would suck all the air out of the area and you would suffocate,” Harmuth said. “You’d hear this giant ‘swoosh.’ It was like being in a hot sauna, you’d be drenched in sweat.”
The Regulus patrols ended in 1964, replaced by subs that carried 16 Polaris missiles with multiple nuclear warheads. It was a quantum leap in technology, solid-state electronics trumping vacuum tubes.
David Stumpf, author of “Regulus: The Forgotten Weapon,” said the missile laid the groundwork for today’s Tomahawk cruise missiles and modern submarines.
“I am so glad these guys were alive and could do what they did,” he said. “I would like to think I had that kind of right stuff. Everyone I talked to was extremely proud of what they did and I have no doubt they would have taken a missile to the target if ordered to do so.”