Officers and men of the Lafayette, your wives, and all our honored guests.
During my Naval career, I served as a crew member of three surface ships, two diesel and three nuclear submarines. This has been my first ship reunion and it has been a wonderful experience for me. No doubt all of you are here tonight because you have good memories about your time on Lafayette . We had a great crew and a front line submarine. We were part of an elite force---all volunteers, specially selected and trained, and constantly challenged. Nuclear power plant, guided missiles with nuclear warheads, sophisticated navigation, sonar and communication systems. We had tremendous responsibilities, especially considering our age. We were young. On one of my patrols we did a little survey and found that the average enlisted man was 23 years old and the average officer 25. In looking at some of the pictures taken aboard Lafayette at that time I was amazed to find that my grandson was in command---it certainly couldn't have been me!
Yes, it was a great time for all of us. But perhaps at times like this we need to ask the question: It was a great experience, and very satisfying, but did we really accomplish anything? Was what we did really important in the grand scheme of things? Did we truly do anything important for our country? To answer that kind of question, we need to look briefly at the military history of the United States .
Throughout most all of our history we have been considered as a peaceful nation. And we are. We want peace. But in reality we have been at war almost always, beginning with the Revolution. After we declared our Independence from Great Britain in 1776, we fought a long and bloody war with Britain until the British under General Cornwallis were defeated in October of 1781. By the way, that battle was made possible because a young Frenchman pursued Cornwallis south until he was trapped on the Yorktown peninsula; the Frenchman's name was the Marquis de LaFayette. General Washington rushed his troops south to join Lafayette , bombarded the English for three weeks, until they finally surrendered.
Since we gained our Independence , the Congress has declared war five times against major countries. There have also been 13 other times that Congress has passed resolutions and/or supported wars financially, including Korea and Vietnam . And there have been many occasions during which the President unilaterally has ordered our military forces into action, such as recently done in Grenada and Panama .
Most of our wars have lasted only a few years, but our longest war was against the Apache Indian Nation. It began in 1840, continued throughout the Civil War, and did not end until 1885, 45 years after it began.
We on Lafayette , and those on the other 40 Polaris submarines, were involved in a unique war---the Cold War with the Soviet Union. (It was unique in two ways: it lasted longer even than the war against the Apaches, from 1947 until 1993, a total of 46 years, and there were no battlefield casualties.) In every war all deaths are counted from whatever causes, including illness, accidents, starvation, etc. And while we did not have any battlefield deaths, we did have casualties from other causes and we need to remember those when we look at the Cold War.
Our Nuclear forces consisted of three branches: the B-52 bombers and fixed ICBM missiles of the air Force and the submarine missile force of the Navy supported by our attack submarines. There were several deaths in an explosion and fire inside an ICBM silo and a number of crewmen who died as a result of B-52 aircraft accidents.
But the most dramatic Cold War casualties were those that resulted from the sinking of the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion. Thresher went down on April 10, 1963, with the loss of 129 Officers, Enlisted Men, and shipyard civilians. Scorpion was lost five years later, on May 22, 1968, taking 99 Officers and Men to their deaths.
The loss of the Scorpion was particularly sad. No one knew that she had sunk. Five days later, on May 27th, the wives, other family members and friends had gathered at Pier 22 at the Norfolk Naval Base awaiting her arrival. As the appointed hour came and went, and there was no word from Scorpion, it gradually began to become apparent that she was never going to come home. One by one the shocked relatives and friends began to turn away, and go back home. It was a devastating and heartbreaking end to another Cold War patrol.
But there were other, less dramatic, losses as well. In my own experience, several shipmates died or suffered illnesses that forced their retirement. I was the Weapons Officer during the building of John Marshall. A young TM2, who had reported to the ship a few months earlier, was working one of those 12-14 hours days that we often had. When it came time to go home, it was late at night. He dropped his leading Chief off at the chief's house and resumed his trip home, about a mile away. Apparently he fell asleep at the wheel of his car, drove off the road, hit a tree, and was killed instantly. The Skipper, CDR Bob Stecher, and I had the sad duty to wake up the Petty Officer's wife the next morning at 7:00 AM and tell her what had happened. She had a very young child, 1 or 2 as I recall, and was 6-7 months pregnant with their second child. She had come to Newport News to be with her husband just a couple of weeks earlier, did not know anyone in the area, and had not even unpacked many of their boxes. The crew helped her repack and sent her on her way back to Kentucky to be with her family.
Then there was an MM2 on on Sam Houston when I was exec on that ship. He suffered a brain hemorrhage while doing the required quarterly physical fitness tests. In the North Atlantic at the time, we rendezvoused with a helicopter which flew him to a military hospital in Germany . He survived, but would never be able to perform any sort of physical labor again and was medically discharged.
On Lafayette , near the end of our first overhaul, we lost Lt. Steve Hodge. Steve was a wonderful officer, one of the very finest I have ever known. The overhaul had been unusally difficult on the Engineering Department as we were the very first ship to get the advanced, long life reactor plant S3G core 3 installation. Steve was a thoroughly dedicated and professional officer who supervised the installation and testing of the new equipment and the training and requalification of the Engineering personnel. He drove himself to exhaustion and had a nervous breakdown right at the end of the overhaul. He was transferred to a hospital and given a medical discharge. He was a great loss to the Navy and the submarine force.
On our first or second Blue Crew patrol after the overhaul, Jimmy (Red) Surrette, our Chief of the Boat, lost his wife. We were about a week from the end of the patrol when I received a message that Surrette's wife had suffered a brain hemorrhage and was in critical condition. I called the COB in and told him what had happened. I asked him if he would like to be relieved of all duties. He refused, saying he wanted to remain as a complete part of the crew. During the next several days I got 1-2 messages a day indicating that Mrs. Surrette's condition had stabilized, and then improved. The news was encouraging. But as we were approaching our homeport, Rota , Spain , on the surface, Commodore Walt Dedrick came aboard, got me off to the side, and told me that the COB's wife had died the night before. They had gotten tickets on a commercial airplane leaving in a few hours that would take Chief Surrette back to his home in Tennessee . Shipmates helped him gather all of his gear together and he left the ship moments later. Surrette had been a wonderful Chief of the Boat, and I am terribly sorry that I never saw him again.
And we had another kind of casualty among the nuclear submarine crews during the Cold War. We in the Submarine Service had the highest divorce rate of any branch of the Armed Forces. It is not hard to understand why. We would go off for 2-3 months at a time, during which our wives could not get any messages from us at all. In fact, they didn't even know whether we were alive or not, or whether we had sunk like the USS Scorpion. They had to be Mommy and Daddy, make all the decisions, operate completely independently. Then we would come home, expecting to resume our place as husband and father. It was a difficult adjustment, hard on the wives, hard on the children, hard on the marriages. Many of them could not sustain this added strain, and they ended in divorce, including my own.
So we are back to the earlier question: Was it all worthwhile? Were the deaths, separations, and divorces in vain or did we accomplish something truly important? I am in an almost unique position to answer those questions.
Three years after leaving command of Lafayette , I was greatly surprised to find myself assigned as Chief of the Strategic Negotiations Division of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In that position, I had Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine officers working for me. Our job, and my responsibility, was to analyze various options being considered for our negotiations with the Soviet Union to limit Nuclear Weapons. I worked with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with senior officials of the State Department, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the CIA, and with the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Generally I had one or even two meetings a week in the White House with members of the National Security Council. I can tell you absolutely that they all realized that our submarine missile force was the most important one we had to fend off any Soviet attack.
Our nuclear aircraft were the old, subsonic B-52's. The Soviets had extensive, modern air defense systems along its Northern, Eastern, and Western borders; it was not clear that many B-52's could get through to their targets in the event of war. The Air Force ICBMs were the Minuteman I and III missiles and they were good. But the Soviets might very well believe that they could knock them out of action before they could be fired. Only the submarines, with their missiles, were immune and almost certainly could be guaranteed to hit their targets if needed. We had submarines patrolling in the North Atlantic, in the Mediterranean , and in the western Pacific---we literally had them surrounded. And the Russians knew that.
But if I had any doubts about the value of our Submarines in the Cold War, they were blown away by a discussion I had with a senior Russian General shortly after I joined the Salt delegation in Geneva .
I was the "new kid" on the block and the 9-10 Soviet delegates no doubt were trying to learn what my thinking was about the issues under discussion. After one of my first meetings with them, this Soviet General asked me (through our interpreters) whether or not I thought nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the U.S. could ever occur. When I told him that I did not think it could ever happen, he asked me why I believed that. I responded that each of us had such powerful nuclear arsenals that, even if only a few nuclear weapons hit their designated targets, it would cause millions of casualties. Therefore, no leader would launch such weapons knowing that his own country would suffer millions of deaths.
To my astonishment, the Soviet General disagreed. He noted that, in World War II, Russia had a population of about 120 million people. They lost 20 million, i in every 6. Yet, he pointed out, they had emerged as one of the two super powers in the world, much stronger and more influential than at the beginning of the war. He then said that the Soviet Union now had 200 million people. If they could become the lone super power of the world, they would be willing to accept the loss of 40 or even 50 million people.
Think of that! According to this General, who was a member of their SALT delegation, they would trade 40 or 50 million of their own people to knock out the United states and take over world domination. We saw the result when the Twin Towers in New York were destroyed. Can you imagine what might have happened to our country had the Soviets launched a nuclear strike against us and were able to destroy many entire cities - New York, Boston, Washington, Baltimore, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Chicago.
To this day I do not know whether the Soviet General was trying to "pull my chain", but he seemed deadly serious. I reported the discussion I had up the line and heard that similar discussions had occurred at other times with other U.S. Delegation members.
So why didn't the Soviets ever attack us? I think the answer is clear. They knew that our missile submarines could overwhelm them, and that their casualties would be far greater than they were prepared to accept.
Did what we do prevent the Soviets from launching nuclear weapons against us? You bet! Did we hold the line during the Cold War and preserve our freedom and independence? You bet! Can we take pride in the role we played and our accomplishments during all those years? You bet!!
Note: I then led three cheers for all the Officers and Men who sailed aboard the good ship Lafayette and their wives who took care of our homes and children while we were away on patrols, wherever they might be.
Captain Charles D Pollak, Oct 27, 2007