US Navy Nuclear Sub Gives A New Meaning to the Phrase “Threading the Needle”

There is a line in one of the Scottish poet Robert Burns’s poems that has become a part of the vernacular. It goes this way in the Scottish dialect: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley…” Or in modern English, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Well, this story is an example of this idea, but with, thankfully, a humorous twist and a bit of unimaginable irony. The story is told by a former United States Navy nuclear submarine officer by the name of John Hartzog.

While on patrol in the Mediterranean in the early 1990s, Hartzog tells of an event that took place when the submarine he was serving on was making a routine surface to periscope depth to get a satellite fix and to get their radio traffic. As he tells it, the day was a beautiful sunny summer day. The crew undertook the routine duties for surfacing to periscope depth, including clearing baffles.

Photo: GetArchive/The U.S. National Archives

As the sub was being driven up to the proper depth, the periscope was raised. Now, at this point, the Officer of the Deck (OOD) trained the periscope upward to begin looking at the underside of the sea’s surface. What he was doing was looking for any “shapes or shadows.” This is done to see if anything might be in the nearby area on the surface that needs to be avoided, and in order to prevent being detected by a surface vessel. As he was doing this, he was continuously saying, “No shapes or shadows.”

As the boat approached the depth where the periscope would break the surface, the OOD shouted, “Emergency Deep!” The whole process of surfacing with the purpose of stealth, whether in a routine practice event or in a combat setting, is one we can imagine is replete with a certain level of tension in any case. But when you hear that sudden, shouted command, “Emergency Deep,” we can also imagine that the whole crew got that sudden freezing sensation around the heart that comes with any sudden surprise of fright.

Photo: Picryl/The U.S. National Archives

You see, the periscope is, in essence, the “eye” of a submarine, and sonar is the “ear” of a submarine. Sonar had heard nothing. But passive sonar has its limitations. For example, a sailboat under full sail, without either its engine or its generator running, is almost impossible to hear. According to Hartzog, when that periscope broke the surface on that ostensibly perfect sunny summer’s day, the OOD said that it suddenly went black dark. Hence his shouted command, “Emergency Deep!”

Being a well-trained United States Navy submarine crew, they immediately conducted the emergency dive, taking the boat to a depth that would put them below the draft of even the largest ships afloat with some room to spare. They then circled around to the area where they had originally attempted to attain periscope depth. They drove the boat toward the surface again, and again the periscope broke the surface.

Photo: Picryl/Defense Visual Information Distribution Service

And here is the stunningly impossible and humorous part of the story. Imagine a Navy submarine built and designed for maximum and deadly stealth coming up to periscope depth in the middle of the vastness of the Mediterranean Sea on a sunny day when the sea is as calm as a bathtub. Now imagine the irony of a single large cardboard box floating upside down on the surface and that periscope of that submarine breaking the surface only to come up inside of that singular piece of floating flotsam! Black dark! Holy S#!t! Emergency deep indeed.

Hartzog tells this part of the story with a sublime sense of humor. He says of this nigh on to impossible event, “Apparently, the scope came up inside the box. Not so much a needle in a haystack, more like threading a needle in a haystack.” Well, that says it better that I could have said it. What are the odds? But, hey, it makes for a great story.

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