|Navy Nuclear Weapons
"Keepers of the Dragon"©™
Keepers of the Dragon
plagiarized from T. H. Best)
Henry B. Smith, Lt. Cmdr., USN (Ret), 16 Sachuest Drive, Middletown, RI 02842 • 401-846-5406
Navy’s special weapons pioneers were an extraordinary group, led largely
by 0-6 and 0-5 academy graduates—both line and aviation—bolstered by
numerous mustangs, warrant officers, and the most senior enlisted men. All
were very intelligent and possessed of great humor, imagination,
dedication, pride, and an almost-sense of awe at having been selected. SPECIAL WEAPONS duty
was indeed SPECIAL and conferred
an exclusive kinship upon those who were chosen.
put, they were
the best available.
“It was significant, morale boosting, and an indication of our status
that each of the Navy SWUs was a commissioned command. As such we had a
strong incentive to be the best....
The Navy’s….were the highest performing units among the three
Retired Capt. Harry B. Hahn,
1st CO, NSWU 1233
the stunning successes of Little Boy at Hiroshima and Fat Man at Nagasaki,
the only two nuclear weapons ever used in anger, the U.S. Navy was eager
to attain a delivery capability. Originally, of course, on the Army—in its Air Force
component—had such a capability.
The Navy of 1945 was seeking a new mission. Nuclear weapons seemed the ultimate weapon, and the ultimate justification for the existence of the service. However, the Army Air Force was becoming the U.S. Air Force, and the Navy must have feared that it would gain a nuclear monopoly....(BuAer was placing stress on) developing a new class of long-range carrier bombers capable of delivering 10,000lb weapons.
new carrier United States was
designed specifically to support them, and was often advertised as the
Navy’s hope for its future.
these projects appear to have enraged the nascent Air Force, which did
succeed in having the new carrier canceled. However, the Navy retained
authority to deliver nuclear weapons and with it a toehold in the coming
form of warfare, strategic attack. At Key West in 1948 it had to agree
not to form its own strategic air force, but it was able to retain for
itself the right to attack inland targets... which might threaten fleet
operations... .Most importantly, the Navy explicitly retained its right to
nuclear weapons—if it could develop a means to employ them.
—Norman Friedman, US
of the results of Adm. Ernest J.
King’s reorganization of the Office of CNO during WWII was DCNO for
Special (nuclear) Weapons, Op-O6. However, little progress was evident
until the immense DOD reorganization of 1947, most notably creation of the
Armed Forces Special Weapons Project.
in Washington, D.C., with its Field Command at Sandia Base, Albuquerque,
N.M., AFSWP supplanted the Manhattan Project of WWII fame. FC AFSWP was a
tri-service command with flag and general officers rotating as its
commander, but always operated under Army procedures, customs, and
language—which became more than a little confusing for the seagoing.
Cmdr. Jack Murray recalls his instructions for reporting to the 802nd as
an ETI in 1952: ‘Pass the HQ building, pass through the sally port, go
across the quadrangle, past the day room, past the squad room to the
orderly room and report to the CQ.” (Charge of Quarters for the
Navy’s nuclear weapons program achieved considerable impetus through
Rear Adm. William “Deke” Parsons, the Little Boy’s weaponeer in Enola
Gay as a captain. It was he—as Op-36, which replaced Op-06—who
proposed the Naval Administrative Unit at Sandia Base. Cmdr. Horatio
Rivera did the organization and staffing. NAU became part of the
Operations Section of FC AFSWP and supervised the training and
administration of three Navy Special Weapons Units, designated 471 (spoken
as “four seventh-first”), 802 (“eight oh second”), and 1233
derivation of those numbers had been the subject of much conjecture and
debate until retired Rear Adm. J. N. Shaffer explained the mystery at the
first NSWU reunion, held in October 1983— appropriately—at
Albuquerque. Cmdr. Shaffer arrived at Sandia Base in July 1947 as the
first CO of NAU and Assistant Operations Officer, FC AFSWP, commanded by
Brig. Gen. Robert Montague, USA.
Only three national military special weapons units existed, all being Army or Air Force. Thus the fourth national unit became the Navy’s first and a “lucky seven” as the middle digit seemed to add a little panache. Three Air Force national units intervened. Following the established pattern, the eighth national unit became the Navy’s second, and a “big fat zero” in the middle finished it off. Army and Air Force units nine through 11 resulted in the Navy numerals 12 and three, with another three in the middle “as a filler.”
nuclear weapons were limited to the gravity bomb configuration. Rocket,
missile, 16” gun, depth charge, and torpedo delivery systems were to
come eventually, but were thwarted by then-existing warhead sizes and
weights. A specifications review of early weapons usable by the Navy makes
this obvious. (See box below.) For comparison, a modern Mk 61 bomb is only
13.4” in diameter and weighs about 700 pounds.
aircraft carriers were the only afloat units capable of delivery and even
they required extensive conversion for proper safety, security, storage,
and handling, the “CVBs” (Midway class) being given the lead. (Essex class CVA conversions ensued in the 50s.) While awaiting ship
conversions, the NSWUs supported the Army and Air Force (they were after
all, National Units), wearing
Army fatigues with no rank insignia and working out of Palmer huts (prefab
20’ x 120’ units with power and air conditioning) in the field.
Cmdr. Jack Hayes, who was a very young Radio Electrician in the 1233rd,
recalls that on one of these exercises, 19 naval officers were dutifully
digging a latrine as ordered by an army sergeant when a lieutenant colonel
informed them that the trench wasn’t deep enough and ordered up another
couple of feet. A lieutenant commander came storming out of the pit and
informed the colonel in precise Naval terminology how the Army could
“dig their own damned latrines.” He then identified himself and the
other 18 officers. “I do believe that was the last time Naval officers
did not wear... identification,” Jack added.
Capt. Hahn recalls retrieving a training weapon from a simulated accident in a desolately remote location. “Selected personnel... with heavy earth-moving equipment, dollies, trucks, etc. made like SeaBees to retrieve (it). We returned it to Sandia with appropriate and discreet security—plus some sore backs and much sweat.”
Although weapons development and
production were proceeding apace, there simply were not enough bombs and
nuclear core units to arm every carrier. The logistics procedure
envisioned was to onload bombs and cores only in carriers preparing for
deployment—sometimes just a few days before getting underway—offload
the weapons after deployment, return them to the nearest stockpile site
where they would undergo any necessary modifications, alterations, or
repairs, then reload them on the carrier next due for deployment. There
was no pressing ‘need to retain highly-trained personnel aboard the
carrier during its time in CONUS. Thus the team deployment concept was
deployments with the sister services were simple: Little or no warning,
they just went. Everyone kept a fully-packed sea bag in the squad room,
ready for any extended exercise on a 30- to 90-minute warning. The first
deployments in the CVBs were merely to check out the converted spaces for
suitability and security.
Capt. Hahn describes an early-day OST (operational suitability test; a war reserve weapon sans nuclear core unit). “…and all our gear were flown from Kirtland (AFB) to (a location outside CONUS)…we embarked, prepared the weapons, loaded, tested and prayed all was perfect. The AJs made a simulated mission bombing run and, as a climax, launched one of the bombs in sight of the ship to test how well we had done our job. The detonation was spectacular. I gave a sigh of relief and wished I’d had some Aňejo on hand to relax with.”
NSWU 471 was composed entirely of officers. “Our typist was a nuclear
supervisor!” recalls retired Vice Adm. Frank Vannoy, the 471st’s first
executive officer in the summer of 1948. All the NSWUs initially consisted
of only one team of about 77 personnel. Rationale? The Mk 3 Mod 0 (“the
3 OH”) required upwards of 50 men and a phenomenal 80 hours to
completely assemble. Each of the original Unit-Teams was designated to
support one of the three CVBs.
Although the CVBs were converted for the Mk 3 Mod 0 and again for Mk 3 Mod 1 (“the 3 One”), that weapon was never deployed by the Navy. A 10-month’s faster-than-anticipated development of the Mk 4 resulted in re-conversion of the CVBs and the splitting of the units into two teams, each of which could assemble the new bomb in a shorter time.
1950, “…a drill was held,” says Cmdr. Hayes, but no one was informed
that it was a drill until arrival at a stockpile site. “We thought we
were being deployed for real and yes, some of us were scared stiff. Our
three C-54s from the 509th (USAF bomb wing of Roswell, N.M.) arrived and
at 3 A.M. both the “C” and “D” Teams deployed with full battle
gear—heavily armed with all the test and handling equipment to assemble
(the required number of bombs).” All were dropped (less core units) by
B-50s and detonated as designed.
Later on, with the introduction of “simpler” “small” weapons such as the Mk 5 and Mk 7, team composition was adjusted to roughly 25; five or six officers and 18 to 20 enlisted men.
1949 a few enlisted men began
to be assigned to the NSWUs directly by the Bureau of Naval Personnel at a
time when most enlisted orders were handled by the Naval Districts. There
was no established rating for these men, therefore no NEC for guidance in
asked for ordnance and electronics backgrounds... and for senior ranks,”
says Rear Adm. Shaffer.
Adm. Vannoy says, “I suspect the requirements were a clear record and
excellent professional qualifications.”
Hahn writes, “The criteria were developed by the Navy in conjunction
were selected primarily from recommendations by officers . . .already
assigned,” writes Cmdr. Hayes.
considering that such stringent screening was established several years
later by the Navy’s Personnel Reliability Program.
of the primary aims of this history—so far fruitless—was to research
and disclose the selection criteria. Anyone with positive information on
this is requested to communicate with the author.]
Army barracks were considered palatial
by Navy enlisted standards; large air-conditioned two-man rooms, large
closets, large windows, large heads. On the other hand, Army mess was
aptly described. Expired WWII K-rations were often the Sunday dinner entrée.
It’s disconcerting to hear one’s meal go “clank!” on the mess
In addition, E-6s and below awaiting clearances were compelled to perform the same menial chores as Army and Air Force E-2s and E-3s. E-6s were assigned as “head counters” in the mess line, E-5s and the few E-4s as KPs; i.e., mess cooks. Even more insulting was the BX laundry’s practice of leaving enlisted whites right-side-out during washing, starching, and pressing. The collar became unrecognizable. They never learned.
security was very tight. Top secret clearances based on National Agency
Checks and Background Investigations were required, none of which overly
impressed the Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC insisted that its own
“Q” clearance procedures be satisfied before a trainee could receive
any bomb information. Security was based on the axiom that the only risks
came from those with “Q”
clearances; those without simply
couldn’t get any critical information. (The Dr. Klaus Fuchs case proved
awaiting the clearance process, the personnel spent many boring hours
restricted to barracks, mess hall, clubs, exchange, or library. By the 50s
the “smart pills” must have kicked in because selectees were directed
to delay in reporting, giving enough time for the investigations
beforehand. Even that procedure failed at times.
author received delayed orders, in addition being told to take all leave
to which entitled. Upon reporting to the 802nd, there was no clearance. My
roommate, SKI Dick Kenly, couldn’t tell me what he did or what I was
going to be doing. It was library time every day for nearly two months
with the exception of a nap in the barracks one afternoon.. .bad decision.
The XO, Lt. Cmdr. W. W. Jones, making a tour and more than mildly
interested in the gold-bricking, instituted an immediate and massive
inquisition of the YN’s files. The investigative reports had actually
arrived before the author but had been misfiled.]
personnel were not allowed to tell their wives, sweethearts, children, or
other old shipmates and friends outside the program what they were doing.
They alone knew and appreciated the importance of their jobs.
GMI’s young daughter, appearing on a local TV show for children, was
asked what her father did. “He’s in the Navy.” What does he do in
the Navy? She spilled all to the host: “He just sits around all day
cryptonyms were used extravagantly. Words such as “atomic” and
“nuclear” were simply not used; an NSWU member could face serious
disciplinary charges for merely uttering them outside the “Q” Area. As
an example, one night in a barracks an ET was explaining 1FF
(identification friend or foe) aircraft equipment to a few shipmates.
Someone passing down the hall thought
he heard “IFI” rather than 1FF and placed the ET on report for a
security violation. IFI stood for in-flight insertion, whereby the pilot
or bombardier could remotely drive a nuclear component into a warhead with
an electric motor.
the clearance process, individuals attended intensive courses of formal
instruction, usually conducted by Army or Air Force officers, many of the
latter wearing Naval Academy class rings. The courses gradually evolved
into specific sections of classroom academics—heavy on theoretical
physics—and laboratory or shop practical training.
a three-week Course ABM (assembly, basic, mechanical) covered mechanical
and high explosives assembly, disassembly, and testing.
four-week Course ABE covered the electrical fuzing, firing, and battery
components. There was also a longer, more specialized course for ABE
graduates analyzing the fuzing and firing radars in greater detail.
ABE graduates attended the six-week Research Course, “research”
equating to “nuclear.” Research courses alternated, first one composed
of all officers, followed by one of all enlisted (almost universally ETs),
although the curricula were identical. Under “Army Rules,” a Navy W-I
was not considered to be an officer, and thus was compelled to attend the
the Navy insisted on very senior enlisted for the RT course, the Air Force
was sending E-2s and E-3s. [One of these was assigned to the author who
was told to allow the E-3 to copy his lab paper. An ethical objection
resulted in the explanation that, “He’s only an airman. He can’t be
expected to know all this stuff the way you do.”]
additional training cycle was introduced in the early 50s. RO and RT
graduates were sent TAD to Boulder, CO, where they worked for three weeks
at the Rocky Flats assembly plant being “certified” (cryptonyrn for
“doing their work for them”) by the AEC as capable of handling nuclear
components. While there, they resided in a long-term-lease hotel occupied
only by students and tended by a cleaning lady with a top secret clearance
(just in case the students talked shop). They were provided with unmarked
civilian automobiles for commuting to Rocky Flats and were required to
wear civilian clothes. Despite this elaborate subterfuge, the local
newspaper managed to print the names of each new reporting class.
author’s sole barroom brawl in 25 years of service occurred at The
Friendly Tavern (a bit of irony) in downtown Boulder. A cowgirl swilling
beer with three cowboy friends mistook five RTs as U of Col students (very
old students) and loudly accused
us of being draft dodgers while her brother was killed in Korea. A proper
introduction was taken as a “filthy lie” and an insult. One thing led
to another. Use some imagination here.]
training courses—like most military courses, it seems—relied heavily
on memorization of facts that satisfied a passing grade on the frequent
exams but would never again be used in one’s lifetime— except for the
obligatory precise jargon. The trainee had to know each bomb’s yields,
weight, diameter, length, delivery aircraft, fuzing sequence, T&H
gear, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. There
was no homework
Following formal training
each man was assigned to a team in his NSWU. Each team of each unit
carried a single letter designation, such as “H” Team. At their peak
in 1953, with the smaller 25-man teams, the designators went as high as
“J.” The emphasis was on TEAM in each of these semi-independent
entities. The team underwent rigorous training in the special top secret
“Q” Area, double-fenced with several photo-ID badge checks and
exchanges to special ID badges for increasingly secure subareas. Guard
dogs were used in the early days, but desert critters tended to set them
is said that one enlisted man folded a fried egg in a flapjack from the
mess hall, flipped it open like a card case to the sentry, and said,
“FBI.” The humor was not appreciated.
Hahn describes the most ultra-secret aspect of the “Q” Area: “…in
our Quonset hut in the restricted area we had a slot machine—the only
one! We actually sent one talented man to a course in Albuquerque to learn
how to maintain and set-check the machine. We never advertised our
one-armed bandit—the word got around.... The take from this
highly-technical and secret machine paid for all the 1233’s parties. One
of (our) most popular events was roller skating parties in the only roller
rink in Albuquerque.”
was in its infancy. Miniaturization was unknown. Early weapons, mockups of
which are displayed at the National Atomic Museum (Wyoming Blvd.,
Albuquerque; free admission, photos permitted), appear today as having
been designed by ironmongers, household electricians, and plumbers. Many
of the smaller hardware items such as double-pole, double-throw switches
could be identified as “right off the shelf.”
Specially designed items were usually large, heavy, and redundant,
requiring much “mule hauling.” Radars used vacuum tubes requiring large amounts of battery
power to operate. Lead acid batteries were used in the Mk 4, requiring
frequent replacement. Later on, the nickel-cadmium (“NiCad”) battery
provided longer shelf life and a near-infinite number of
charging-recharging cycles. [Can anyone say definitely
that NiCd batteries were invented solely for the weapons?
“wooden bomb” concept wherein indefinite shelf life and virtual 100%
reliability were incorporated into the design and manufacture was but a
concept for future development.
SAFETY and SECURITY were paramount, a RELIABLE WEAPON
was the Holy Grail. It is counterproductive as well as economically
infeasible to ask a Naval aviator to risk his life delivering anything
other than a 100% reliable weapon. The best way—at the time-to ensure
maximum reliability was to completely disassemble the bomb, test and
inspect each of its systems and components in a nondestructive manner,
reassemble the systems— sometimes with additional tests at each stage of
reassembly—and conduct a FAT, or final assembly test. Upon conclusion of
a successful FAT the bomb was returned to stockpile storage (SS)
configuration until its next storage inspection due date or need for CAS
(completely assembled for strike).
the BOAR (BuOrd atomic rocket or bombardment aircraft rocket, depending on
whom you choose to believe) was introduced, a witty ET nicknamed the BOAR
FAT as the Lard Test.
weapons, identical in every respect to the WR version except for omission
of high and live detonators, were used during the training cycle. Training
core units were made of depleted uranium U238, the residue of
after day the team would go though storage inspections and weapon assembly
time after time, working from check sheets condensed from numerous
governing manuals written by Sandia Corporation engineers and English
literature majors. Unfortunately, the SC manuals seldom contained every
important step or procedure. Manuals were slow to be rewritten and
reprinted. Thus for expediency, Special Weapons Regulations (SWR) and
Special Weapons Bulletins (SWB) were copiously issued for reasons of
safety, security, and reliability. The
provisions of SWRs and SWBs also had to be incorporated into the check
sheets at correct locations.
There was no room for ambiguity, interpretation, or initiative. The words “shall,” “will,” and “must” were frequent. WARNINGS, CAUTIONS, and NOTICES were placed at strategic points. Explicit torques in pound-feet or pound-inches were specified for nearly every fastener. Exact tolerances of electrical voltage and current were specified. Precise go-no go gauges were provided for certain mechanical components.
specific tool was named for each individual operation. In some cases,
common hand tools wrought of 100% non-sparking beryllium were used when
nearing the high explosive sphere. [Now it has been determined that
beryllium is a health hazard!] Special tools, those other than ordinary
hand tools, carried a numerical T- (for test) or H- (for handling)
designation; substitution was not allowed.
of the Mk 4 was greatly appreciated because it required only
61 pieces of H-gear and 141 pieces of T-gear; the Mk 3 had needed an
astonishing 115 H-gear and 270 T-gear. (Modern bombs have most of the
field-testable circuitry built in, requiring only opening a panel,
spinning a knob, and observing a number of lamps being lighted: End of
One piece of H-gear for the Mk 8 was nothing more than a steel bar about ½” x 2” x 5’, affectionately named “The Stupid Stick.”
Check: An ordinary wood-cased No. 2 lead pencil (brand name not specified)
was the primary H-tool for checking detonators.
Two-Man (sometimes Three-Man, or Four-Man) Rule was scrupulously observed.
is the author’s best recollection that the Rule was not formally
codified until OpNavlnst 5510.83 was published several years later.
senior team member read a step from the check sheet, then two or more
technicians would perform the step, closely observing each other in its
correct performance, with one responding “Check!” at the step’s
completion. The check sheet reader would make a grease pencil mark
adjacent to the step performed on the plastic-clad check sheet and read
the next step. Superfluous conversation was not permitted.
so it went. Step by observed and double-checked step until a team could
perform their tasks by rote, anticipating the next move, the next tool,
the next step. They could have, but
they were never allowed to until the current step was checked off and the
next step read. In this manner the most reliable weapon was assembled in
the shortest time.
white coveralls were worn. The hip pockets were composed of web strapping
so that no tool could be held within—only wiping rags were permitted.
All personnel wore steel-toed safety shoes; those in the mechanical
section with conductive soles, those in the electrical section with
non-conductive soles. The Tech Monitor often had to travel from mechanical
to electrical. The standard joke question was: What shoes does the Tech
Monitor wear? Ans: One of each.
the completion of a training cycle
the team underwent a TPI, or technical proficiency inspection. Another
team further along in its training and already certified would act as
inspectors, looking over shoulders, listening, observing, and writing
deviations from prescribed procedures. Each of these discrepancies or
deviations (a.k.a. “gigs”) would provide a precise reference from one
of the numerous governing reference documents; their total and severity
would determine a SAT or UNSAT grade. An unreliable weapon was an
automatic UNSAT regardless of other superior performances.
a reference could not be handily supplied, necessitating ingenuity on the
part of the inspector. During one TPI, excess cabling attaching the test
equipment to the weapon did not appear neatly made up in a seamanlike
manner. All the SC manuals were moot. The reference cited was The
Bluejackets’ Manual. The word “chicken” (and worse) as a
descriptive adjective was applied to inspectors quite frequently.
joke: “I don’t think we deserve an UNSAT on this TPI.” “Neither do
I, but it’s the lowest grade I’m permitted to assign.”
After a successful TPI, the team was
eligible for deployment to its assigned ship.
were deployed by air from Kirtland AFB, completely outfitted with all
necessary documentation, training weapons, T&H gear, spare major
components, and supplies, the last including a quart of 190° medicinal
grain alcohol and an earthen crock of pure mercury~ (A use for the mercury
was never discovered.) The deployment was TAD which, at the time,
precluded reimbursement for transportation of dependents and household effects.
Hayes recalls his first deployment in 1951, “…ship’s company had
been told not to associate with us and…not to even talk to us. Can you
imagine nine Radio Electricians
in this small unit whereas the ship had only one assigned? (For six
months) some 30-odd souls spent a considerable amount of time in their
bunks, eating, or (practicing on the new Mk 7 trainer)…just to have
something to do.”
By the mid-50s, one of the 25-man teams
was being deployed to an Essex-class
CVA, two to a Midway-class, the
larger carriers by then having duplicate SASS (special aircraft service
stores) spaces fore and aft. The team became “W” Division in the
The Team Commander/Technical Supervisor (said as “Tech Soop”) was usually a lieutenant commander, more often than not a mustang.
A lieutenant Research Officer had
collateral duties as Assistant Team Commander, Supply Officer, and SWAPO
(special weapons accountable property officer).
Two lieutenants junior grade, sometimes
the youngest members of the team, acted as Mechanical Officer and
Electrical Officer. A warrant Electrician or Radio Electrician was
Assistant Electrical Officer and Technical Monitor. Tech Monitor was
another code phrase; he acted as safety observer and advisor during
practice aircraft loadings done by a ship’s company or squadron loading
team. Sometimes a warrant Gunner was included as Assistant Mechanical
Officer. Five or six officers to oversee 18 enlisted men…no compromise
of quality supervision in those days.
The mechanical section was composed of
about seven enlisted, sometimes a BM (for his knowledge of rigging and
cargo handling) plus ratings such as GMs, TMs, and AOs. About seven EMs,
ETs, and ICs composed the electrical section, and two ETs the research
section. Other ratings that served with distinction in NSWUs were MRs, FCs,
RDs, SOs, and ATs.
Each had a specialty, such as radars,
batteries, or detonators. However, all—including one YN and one
SK—were cross-trained in every job, but only the RTs could handle WR
nuclear components. The SK and YN would often have more time logged on a
Mk 8 than anyone in the mechanical section. If the word “nuclear”
could have been uttered, the initial letters of the three sections would
have spelled M-E-N. There were few women in the Navy and none at all in
Nearly all were E-7s (pre-E-9/8) and
E-6s, with a rare very senior E-5 and an even rarer E-4, usually the YN.
Three to five hash marks, more often gold than not, were much in evidence
on dress blues.
Manpower choices for menial tasks such
as cleaning, painting, and emptying trash are automatic when only E-7s and
E-6s are available. Security precluded humiliation while performing most
chores within the spaces, but there was always a scurry when in port to
empty trash cans on the pier before the uniform shifted to undress blues
so that the E-6s would not have to display their rank. (Rating badges were
not worn on dungarees, which was a blessing for the “junior” enlisted
men.) On the other hand, the comment, “Those are the oldest damned
seamen I’ve ever seen,” was overheard on more than one occasion.
Inert training detonators, in a special
aluminum, padded carrying case labeled DUMMY, being carried aboard by a
team member was cause for a ship’s company sailor to exclaim, “Look,
that new guy’s got his name stenciled on his suitcase.”
[The following yarns have nothing to do
with nukes, but with Lt. Cmdr. Joe Cupp, a former Turret Captain during
WWII in the old USS Texas. Joe
was legendary. Ask any old timer.
Joe forgot his medals on the day of a
personnel inspection. NWI A. A. “Curly” Corder said, “Here, Boss,
take some of mine.” There were enough for both of them to appear proper
The ship’s very senior W-4 Chief
Boatswain was obligated to do a flying moor in a busy Asiatic harbor and
didn’t know how to do it from the enclosed forecastle. Joe Cupp, having
been First Lieutenant in USS Wasp, was
the only person aboard who had done the evolution. The Bosun got a Bravo
= Is my ass covered?) The author was assigned as check sight observer on a
5”/38 mount and, as a freshly-caught W-1 ELECTECH, knew less about guns
than the Bosun knew about flying moors. Joe Cupp gave a detailed tour of
the mount, instruction on the duties of the gun crew, and one important
word…SILENCE. The magic word was used the very next day when the trainer
cranked in a correction that would have taken the next round up the cable
toward the towing tug.]
1953, the NSWUs were decommissioned and their personnel transferred to
Special Weapons Units Atlantic (Norfolk) and Pacific (San Diego) under
command of the Naval Air Forces Atlantic and Pacific. The 25-man teams
continued to be deployed TAD from the two locations.
SASS spaces in the Essex class
were entered— with the approval and blessing of 24-hour-a-day Marine
sentries—on the third deck amidships, just below the wardroom. A small
foyer contained a convenient head and a ladder leading forward and
downward to an athwartships passageway. Off that passageway, fore and aft,
were the SWU Office, the “I” (for instrument) Shop, the “N” (for
nuclear; yes, it could be said down there) Shop, the Battery Locker, two
storerooms, and another ladder downward to the magazine. The “I” Shop
may have been used for instrument repair at one time, but it’s more
likely that the nomenclature was another cryptonym for “Coffee Shop.”
A scuttle on the starboard side led
upward to the Third Deck Transfer Passage where a weapon could be moved
via an elevator from the flight deck or hangar deck, via another elevator
to the magazine, or through a door onto the third deck.
[The author made prior arrangements
with the curator of museum ship Yorktown
(former CVA-l0 the Old One-Nothing), Mount Pleasant, S.C., and visited
the now totally-empty SASS spaces. Unfortunately, power was not available,
and the tour was by flashlights.]
were hoisted aboard to the flight deck in roadable containers that could
be towed at very slow speeds by trucks or “mules.” There they were
stuck below to the Transfer Passage, where the outer coverings of the
container were removed. The wheeled portion of the container was moved aft
and slightly inboard to the magazine elevator. Once in the magazine, the
roadable container was precisely positioned under a hydraulically- or
pneumatically-driven hoist on rails that circuited the entire space. The
hoist was aligned over the weapon and a transfer from the roadable
container to the hoist was effected. After two-blocking the weapon in the
hoist it could be moved to any of several preset positions in the magazine
and the roadable container returned to the transfer passage for reassembly
of its outer coverings and return to the storage site.
Weapons such as the Mk 5s and Mk 7s
were stored in positioners that offered multi-directional movement for
adjustment to any weapon’s storage lugs. Lowering the hoist while
simultaneously adjusting the arms of the positioner was a painstaking
evolution. All four of the specially-wrought bolts securing the weapon’s
storage lugs to the eyes of the positioner’s arms must always enter
freely without any force being applied. The old adage of “Don’t force
it, get a bigger hammer,” simply did not apply.
Mk 8 containers were bolted directly to
leveled, raised deck plates through precisely positioned drilled and
The magazine surrounded a trunk (from
the 3rd deck down to DC Central) as one large space, the exception being
the Detonator Locker in the forward starboard corner where detonators were
stored, tested, and inspected. Weapons were stored in the area aft of the
trunk. There were assembly stations adjacent to the trunk, with the
electrical section doing its work on the port side and forward end. Test
equipment, usually still in specially-designed, shock-mitigating carrying
cases was secured to benches. After the mechanical section removed a
weapon’s fuzing assembly (cartridge), it was moved via the overhead
hoist to the electrical section where further disassembly and testing
could be performed. Certain components were removed, tested, replaced if
faulty (if that operation was authorized and a replacement was on hand),
and reassembled, being tested again at each stage.
Batteries were taken up one deck to the
Battery Locker for charging or testing.
Separable nuclear components were
stored in a special compartment far aft and far down, from where they were
handled (in their birdcages) via a manual dumbwaiter, across the mess deck
forward to another dumbwaiter serving the SASS spaces.
Perhaps the diciest evolution
ever conceived by those intent on readiness was the SORASSL (special
ordnance replenishment at sea—sample load). A cargo-configured COD,
usually an S2, would be recovered on the flight deck. Inside would be a
training weapon in a special positioner bolted to a large, sturdy metal
plate. Logic and reason argued that the metal plate was too large to be
removed through the COD’s doorway. At this point if one pronounces
SORASSL just as it looks with an extra “0” in the final syllable, an
indication of the exertion involved becomes apparent.
Extricating the bomb-on-a-platter gave new meanings to the words mulehaul and jury-rigged. But with extensive pulling, pushing, backing, and filling, out it would come so that it could be transferred to a standard bomb dolly and struck below.
the 1950s, only the wardroom and the SASS spaces were air conditioned in
an Essex class. This bit of
luxury was a valuable perk for the men of “W” Division. Although
probably neither ethically nor technically correct—though no reference,
not even The Bluejackets’ Manual, was
ever found—several of the more heat-sensitive men purchased air
mattresses, inflated with the compressed air lines passing through the
spaces, to use on bench tops as bunks once warmer seas were entered.
Electric cigarette lighters were
hard-wired into receptacles in the SWU Office, “I” Shop, and Supply
Office, the only spaces where smoking was permitted. A chain-smoking SK
was once observed with three cigarettes burning in three different spaces
as he scurried port and starboard along the passageway.
Non-working hours were occupied with
double-deck pinochle, hearts, acey-duecey, model building, and leather
tooling, usually in the “I” Shop or large storeroom. (Tandy stores
must have shown a healthy mail order profit during deployments.)
[Joe Cupp was one of several brothers
who grew up on a mid-West farm, spending the snowed-in winter playing
cards. Name a card game and he would beat you at it.]
The Third Deck Transfer passage was
often home to a set of barbells for weight-lifting and provided elegant
transportation storage for large items, such as furniture, bought
“Outsiders” weren’t well
tolerated. A Sandia Corp. rep was flown to a ship, properly preceded by
all his clearance and qualification data. He carried an exotic new piece
of T-gear that was supposed to detect some hitherto-unknown problems in
the Mk ?‘s fuzing section. It rejected every fuze on board, one TR and
all the WRs.
The Tech Supe was aghast at the
possibility of declaring nearly half the load as “red-lined.” The Tech
Monitor was unwilling to believe it.
He asked the SC rep if the T-gear had a
self-check mode. Didn’t know. He asked if there was any documentation
for the T-gear. There was.
The T-gear’s paperwork
did—indeed—disclose a self-check...which failed.
The Tech Monitor opened the T-gear’s
case and started “Easter-egging.” Several of the electrical
connections appeared to the Mk I Mod 0 naked eyeball as having cold-solder
The SC rep was a little reluctant and
uncertain (his orders didn’t cover this eventuality), but the Tech
Monitor was adamant. He fired up a soldering gun and began resoldering
every joint in the set. Upon completion of a 30-minute job, the T-gear
passed its self check and put all the Mk ?s back in “green” status.
The SC rep was flown to the next ship
in line to benefit from his expertise.
Practical jokes were common. One
Team Commander’s wife didn’t write often enough to suit him—he was
always extra-eager for mail call. Failure to receive a letter invariably
resulted in his return to the spaces shouting, “Field day, field day!”
CM1 Bill Hissong once offered to write the Tech Supe a letter in exchange
for forgoing the field day. Then ET1 Eric Ceertz produced a new musical
instrument made from a funnel and a hose connecting a Mk 5’s baro switch
to its sensing port. He used his “barophone” to sound MAIL CALL in the
3OMC installed throughout the SASS spaces. Since the 3OMC speaker was very
near the 1MC speaker, the Tech Supe went charging to the wardroom—where
he found no mail and proceeded to chew out the entire steward’s mate
population for not going to the ship’s post office.
ETs built a Tesla coil from commonly available electronic components. One
remained inside the entrance to the SASS spaces tending the T-coil, while
the other stood in the door opening to the Marine sentry station. As the
ET at the door conversed with the Marine about the hazards of radiation, a
40-watt fluorescent tube in his hands would occasionally illuminate. After
the agape Marine expressed a satisfactory display of awe, the ET handed
over the fluorescent tube, whereupon it extinguished. The ET assured the
Marine that he was probably not sterile and safe for his sweetie.
another occasion, a ship got underway on emergency notice about midnight
from a liberty port to cover the evacuation of Chiang Kai-Shek’s troops
from the Tachen Islands. The “W” Division SK, one of those utilizing
an air mattress in the air conditioned spaces, had somehow slept through
all the 1MC announcements. He arose the next morning, shaved in the small
head at the entrance, pressed his whites and spit-shined his shoes in the
“I” Shop, and dressed sharply for a day of photography and
sightseeing—all of which was studiously and wordlessly observed and
ignored by other team members. When the SK surfaced on the hangar deck he
saw nothing but vast ocean around him; no after brow, no boats, no
weapons upon return to CONUS, the team returned to Sandia (or SWULANT/PAC)
to begin a new training and inspection cycle.
Most of the men
appreciated the importance and gravity of their jobs, even though they may
have humorously made comments about being proxies for highly-trained apes.
cause for dissatisfaction with the program was that all the men retained
their original ratings but were not being employed in their specialties.
Examinations for promotion still had to be passed with reliance only on
study guides, correspondence courses, and one’s memory of “what it
used to be like in the fleet in a real rating.” Finally—in 1957—the
Nuclear Weaponsman (later Gunner’s Mate Technician, later Weapons
Technician) rating was established, satisfying an overdue need.
GM1, wanting to get back to his guns, took a discharge, went home, waited
until his optional time was about to expire, and reenlisted. One look at
his past service and BuPers ordered him to the nearest stockpile site.
and ATs were declared ineligible for the NW rating. That didn’t deter
ETC Jack Murray; he made a case and became NWC Murray.
impressively large percentage of the early NWSU enlisted men rose to
warrant officer and limited duty only status, becoming the leaders of
later teams, as well as serving at NADs, NMDs, NWSs, AUW shops, national
stockpile sites, and on major staffs.
retirement those men went into fields as diverse as the weapons they had
maintained; big-rig driving, ranching, offset printing, forestry, marina
managing, computer science, and—yes— even square-dance calling. Some
used the GI Bill to obtain college degrees.
bombs” were entering stockpile by the late 50s, thereby reducing or
eliminating the need for extensive disassembly and testing. So many
delivery systems were being introduced that practically everything larger
than an admiral’s barge became nuclear capable.
safety and security remained paramount, emphasis was shifting from
craftsmanship to administration. No longer could the weapons techs install
a new baro or radar or timer to produce a reliable weapon; that was
determined at weapon birth by civilian workers at some remote inland
The last TAD team returned from
deployment in early 1959, went through refresher training at the new
Nuclear Weapons Training Center Pacific, and was transferred to a CVA as
permanent ship’s company “W” Division.
the team deployment concept ended…as did a significant era. In the
current times of arms reduction, those pioneers can bask in their own,
private satisfaction of a job well done, though largely unknown and
unacknowledged at the time.
nearly five decades, DETERRENCE was the name of the game for the Keepers
of the Dragon.
August 25, 2014
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