Navy Nuclear Weapons Association

"Keepers of the Dragon"©™



Keepers of the Dragon

(Title plagiarized from T. H. Best)

Henry B. Smith, Lt. Cmdr., USN (Ret), 16 Sachuest Drive, Middletown, RI 02842 • 401-846-5406

My sincere thanks to those quoted here, who so graciously and eagerly responded to my inquiries through phone conversations and correspondence. Others preferred not being quoted. [The author’s personal comments arc enclosed in brackets.]

Terminology is that of the 1947—59 era, much of it obsolete.

Some research, as well as technical citations, are taken from U.S. Nuclear Weapons by Chuck Hansen (Orion Books) and US Naval Weapons by Norman Friedman (Naval Institute Press), both recommended for further reading.

This article was composed on a Macintosh Quadra 630 in QuarkXPrcss.

Any errors of fact are solely those of the author, who would appreciate corrections, additional anecdotes, or experiences from the 1947—1959 era. Significant submissions can be incorpo­rated into future editions of this brief history.

for Lt. Cmdr. Joseph H. Cu pp, one of the all-time greats, R.I.P.

The 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.

Simply 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 services.”

Retired Capt. Harry B. Hahn,

1st CO, NSWU 1233

 After 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.

The new carrier United States was designed specifically to support them, and was often advertised as the Navy’s hope for its future.

Indeed, 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 Naval Weapons

One 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.

Headquartered 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.

Retired 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 Army-impaired.)

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 (“twelve thirty-third”).

The 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.”

Early 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.

Thus, 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.

Retired 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.” 













Navy Delivery A/C

Notes (also see footers)

Mk 3






1st production model of Fat Man

Mk 4






refined Mk 3 Fat Man; 1st Navy deployment

Mk 5






Bru4bury; 1st “small” bomb; 1st AIR







improved Mk4FaLMan

Mk 7





AJ, AD, A2D, A4D

Thor; 1st linear AIR; long-time use

Mk 8





AJ, AD, A2D, A4D

Elsie; refined Little 8oy gun type; later Mk 91

Mk 12





AJ, AD, A2D, A4D

Brok; last “non-wooden” Navy bomb

  Little Boy and Fat Man did not carry mark numbers. However, virtually every essential device in those and later weapons above had a nickname. Mk 5 Bradbury was named for Dr. Norris E. Bradbury, a Manhattan Project engineer.

  The AJ’s bomb bay was designed for a “mystery” bomb described only as “about 60” diameter and 10,000 pounds weight,” much too large to position under an AJ. The larger weapons were placed in a pit ashore or on an elevator afloat. The AJ would then be towed over the weapon and loading commenced. Awkward? You betcha.

  Warhead Mk 5 was used briefly in Regulus I.

  Warhead Mk 7 was used in Mk I BOAR, which gave a safe standoff for the AD (Spad); and in Mk 90 Alias Betty, an ASW depth charge for the S2 and P5.

  Bombs Mk 3 through Mk 12 were pure fission weapons using separable nuclear core units resulting in superb nuclear safety since the core unit was not to be inserted until just before delivery. The worst that could happen in a severe accident would be a high-order detonation of the conventional explosives used to start assembly of the fission system.

 Data are from U.S. Nuclear Weapons, © 1988 by Chuck Hansen, Orion Books.

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 born.

Early 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.”

Originally, 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.

In 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.

By 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 selection.

“We asked for ordnance and electronics backgrounds... and for senior ranks,” says Rear Adm. Shaffer.

Vice Adm. Vannoy says, “I suspect the requirements were a clear record and excellent professional qualifications.”

Capt. Hahn writes, “The criteria were developed by the Navy in conjunction with AFSWP.”

“(They) were selected primarily from recommendations by officers . . .already assigned,” writes Cmdr. Hayes.

Incredible, considering that such stringent screening was established several years later by the Navy’s Personnel Reliability Program.

[One 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 tray.

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.

 Naturally, 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 the point.)

While 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.

[The 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.]

These 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.

 A 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 drinking coffee.”

Thinly-disguised 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.

After 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.

Ultimately, a three-week Course ABM (assembly, basic, mechanical) covered mechanical and high explosives assembly, disassembly, and testing.

A 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.

Other 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 enlisted course.

Although 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.”]

An 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.

[The 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.]

The 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 off.

It 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.

Capt. 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.”

Technology 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?

The “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.

Although 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).

When 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.

Training 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 refining U235.

Day 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.

A 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.

Introduction 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 test.)

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.”

Incongruity/Reality Check: An ordinary wood-cased No. 2 lead pencil (brand name not specified) was the primary H-tool for checking detonators.

The Two-Man (sometimes Three-Man, or Four-Man) Rule was scrupulously observed.

[It is the author’s best recollection that the Rule was not formally codified until OpNavlnst 5510.83 was published several years later. Reader’s comments?]

A 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.

And 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.

Special 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.

 At 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.

Sometimes 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.

 Inside 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.

 Teams 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.

Cmdr. 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 Gunnery Department.

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 the program.

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 and authentic.

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 Zulu.

 (IMAC = 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.]

In 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.

The 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.]

Weapons 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 tapped holes.

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.

 In 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 overseas.

 “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 joints.

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.

Two 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.

On 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 liberty.

 After offloading 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.

One 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.

A 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.

ETs and ATs were declared ineligible for the NW rating. That didn’t deter ETC Jack Murray; he made a case and became NWC Murray.

An 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.

Upon 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.

 “Wooden 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.

Although 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 assembly plant.

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.

 Thus 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.

For nearly five decades, DETERRENCE was the name of the game for the Keepers of the Dragon.








August 25, 2014


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