Big Red: Three Months on Board a Trident Nuclear Submarine

Big Red: Three Months on Board a Trident Nuclear Submarine

by Douglas C. Waller

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Big Red: Three Months on Board a Trident Nuclear Submarine by Douglas C. Waller

The Trident submarine is one of the most remarkable feats of engineering in human history: a sleek metal tube powered by a nuclear reactor, breathtakingly silent, yet strong enough to resist intense pressure deep under the surface of the ocean. But the human experience inside—as crews spend months crammed together beneath the sea, manning 24 nuclear-tipped missiles, and always listening for the stealthy enemy—is even more remarkable.

For Big Red, veteran Time correspondent Douglas C. Waller was granted unprecedented access by the Navy to take readers inside this silent, secretive world. Here is the gripping story of a three-month cruise on the U.S.S. Nebraska: the rituals of the closed society of submariners, the top-secret plans for a nuclear holocaust, the elaborate fail-safe mechanisms, and the extraordinary security measures designed to protect the world's deadliest weapons—even from the men who handle them. Even in the post-Cold War world, our nations' defenses ultimately rest on these men and their vessel; Waller's account brings both vividly to life.

About the Author:
A former congressional aide and Newsweek correspondent, Douglas C. Waller joined Time in 1994. His books include The Commando: The Inside Story of America's Secret Soldiers and Air Warriors: the Inside Story of the Making of a Navy Pilot. He lives in Annandale, VA.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060194840
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/28/2001
Edition description: 1ST HARPER
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.49(w) x 9.47(h) x 1.17(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Going to Sea

About fifty officers, chiefs, and senior petty officers filled the seats in the three rows of dining tables in the crew's mess of the USS Nebraska. They were the third of the crew who supervised the rest of the men. The crew's mess, on the sub's third level, was one of the more spacious rooms in the submarine. The plastic, red-checkered tablecloths had now been taken off the thirteen fake-wood-topped tables bolted to the deck. Along the starboard and aft bulkheads were mounted a large-screen television set and VCR, plaques, glass boxes with University of Nebraska footballs, and posters, plus lockers with the some six hundred movie videotapes kept on board for the crew to watch. "Cornhusker Cafe" was engraved on a wooden sign hanging over the galley forward of the dining area, where the food was prepared and served. A salad bar stretched down the middle of the galley's serving area, and to the right was a soft-drink dispenser and coffeemaker.

David Weller now ran this meeting. He was a master chief petty officer whose title was chief of the boat, or COB. He was almost always called "Cob," rather than by his last name. Weller hardly fit the caricature of a beer-bellied chief with an anchor tattooed on his arm. Tall and lanky, with a blond mustache and thick glasses, Weller spoke softly and was an astute manager. He wielded enormous power on the submarine. He was part of the Nebraska's senior management. Officers thought twice about challenging him. He was nearly equal in status to the sub's executive officer. Weller was the man who commanded for the most part the enlisted ranks andrepresented their interests before the captain.

Just twenty-four hours earlier, the COB had been in a foul mood.Senior officers and chiefs from the Nebraska's parent squadron werecoming aboard to inspect the vessel during the first week of its patrol,and the sub looked like a teenager's room. Instead of working togetherto complete the final repairs and get under way, the departments anddivisions "were acting like eighteen fucking unions' " he had growled.To top it off, two brand-new red T-shirts had been snitched from oneof the ship's lockers.

Thursday morning, however, everything had finally come together. It always did, Weller knew. Tools and gear had finally been stowed, and for hours the day before, the entire crew had stooped to its hands and knees to scrub passageways and ladders. Instead of mops, they had used sponges and towels on the floor, because mops retain water and in the sub's enclosed environment the stale smell is hard to bear.

Now the COB had one last item on his checklist: the muster. Submariners live by many important rules -- among them, surface as many times as you dive and don't leave port with any of your men standing on the pier. A submarine like the Trident has no fat in its roster, not like an aircraft carrier, which is a small city of five thousand seamen. Because the Nebraska was so complex and the crew numbered only 162, each man had multiple duties and chores. A storekeeper on one shift could serve as a helmsman on another. A reactor operator might also serve as a diving officer. Everybody did windows, and absences were painfully felt. Weller wanted to make damn sure his chiefs and petty officers had accurately counted all their men present before the Nebraska cast off its lines.

The supervisors assured him everyone was accounted for. "All right, let's go kick 'em in the ass," the COB finally said.

The submariners broke out of their seats, laughing and joking, ready to do just that. The crew was in a good mood this morning. Spirits always seemed to brighten the day they were supposed to get under way. But Chad Thorson remained in his chair for a few moments longer. He had sat quiet and sullen through the entire meeting. Thorson couldn't think of anything to be cheery about. He was leaving his beloved Kyung, disappearing from her life for almost three months.

"Stick" felt miserable. That was the nickname the other officers had pinned on Lieutenant Junior Grade Chad Thorson. He had delicate features and a shy, soft voice. He wore glasses and was brainy and skinny as a rail -- five feet eleven inches and 140 pounds. His weight was all the more remarkable for the fact that he ate like a horse when he was on patrol. He never gained so much as an ounce. Thorson filled his tray to capacity at each meal, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the midnight rations called "midrats" and wolfed it all down. As an officer he was charged $500 for the meals he ate on patrol, so he intended to get his money's worth. He considered the eighty-six-day cruise an all-you-can-eat buffet.

When he came aboard the Nebraska a year and a half ago as a timid ensign, Thorson and the bull ensign who reported with him had first been nicknamed "thing one and thing two." But the Nebraska's other officers were convinced that a tiger stirred inside the heart of twenty-five-year-old Chad Leif Thorson, just waiting to get out. Thing two, Thorson's unofficial rank, could be a vaudevillian during crew skits. He could scare his shipmates to death by standing up to the biggest bully in a bar.

His grandparents, who along with his divorced mother had reared him, had pressured Chad to follow the family tradition and become a Lutheran minister. But he could never see himself as a man of the cloth, although through most of high school he had played the good grandson and promised to follow the family tradition. When he turned seventeen, Chad had persuaded his mother to sign the permission papers that allowed him to join the Navy.

Big Red. Copyright � by Douglas Waller. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Nebraska Submariners Cited in This Bookxi
Part IThe First Week
1.Going to Sea15
2.The Channel41
3.A New Life56
4."Dive, Dive"71
5.The "Cob"87
8.Rabbit and Wolf135
9.The Wardroom153
10.Looking Outside163
11.The Hostage178
12.Sounds of Silence188
14.Cookies and Cream Them203
15.Angles and Dangles238
Part IIThe Next Two Months
16.Free at Last247
17.On Guard255
18.Halfway Night264
20.Love and Hate283
Part IIIGoing Home
21."Hard to Describe"293
Source Notes319
AppendixThe Rest of the USS Nebraska Crew329

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Big Red: Three Months on Board a Trident Nuclear Submarine 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read hundreds of non-fiction books on submarines. This is the most in depth and interesting account of the men who live in them that I have ever encountered. The author takes you on Big Red and helps you meet the crew. Well worth the time and investment!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book gives a very good detail on how a war would be fought in a ohio class sub. I do give credit to Douglas C Waller for this great book. I was a former officer of Naval Intelligence
Guest More than 1 year ago
I did a tour of duty in Kings Bay, GA (the submarine base where 'Big Red,' aka USS NEBRASKA SSBN-739, is homeported) during the early '90s, which coincided with the arrival of the first five Trident II (D-5) FBMs (Fleet Ballistic Submarines): the TENNESSEE, PENNSYLVANIA, WEST VIRGINIA, KENTUCKY, and, finally, the NEBRASKA. Although I was technically on shore duty, assigned to the staff of Submarine Squadron TWENTY (NEBRASKA's original Squadron -- now, she belongs to SUBRON SIXTEEN), I have plenty of memories of these boats, and 'BIG RED' sure takes me back some. For technophiles, there are details galore -- from an itemized inventory of the equipment to be found in the sonar shack, to the rigorous 'drilling and killing' aboard ship, to the operational concerns of the submarine commander as he prepares to set sail on a grueling three-month journey beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. But, just like in the actual Silent Service, you may be initally seduced by the technology, but you stay for the camaraderie. The personal challenges and circumstances of the 'bubbleheads' who comprise the modern submarine force are recounted in detail, from their difficulties maintaining a 'normal' relationship to their daily interactions with the 139 other shipmates they put to sea with. This book is a must-read not only for fans of the Silent Service, but also for anybody who's ever known a modern submariner. My only criticism would be the nagging typos and other minor errors which frequently crop up; it's obvious that 'BIG RED' was inconsistently edited. But as a former bubblehead, I must say -- when the author describes NEBRASKA's egress from Kings Bay and its path along the JAXSUBTRANSITLANE into the Atlantic, I can feel the spray of the sea on my face, taste the anticipation, and that feeling never abates in the two hundred-plus captivating pages to follow. My heart pounds just thinking about it; it makes me wish I was still a 'boomer fag'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Veteran stage and screen actor Len Cariou is studied perfection in this reading of 'Big Red,' a spellbinding recount of 90 days on board a Trident nuclear submarine. A Tony Award-winner for his performance in Broadway's 'Sweeney Todd,' Cariou masters both inflection and emphasis in this true-to-life tale. Author Douglas C. Waller who penned The Commandos was granted access to one of our military's best kept secrets - a Trident nuclear submarine equipped with 24 strategic missiles and over 120 nuclear warheads. He was on board the USS Nebraska for a three month patrol through the Atlantic Ocean. While we are at peace, Tridents are primed to launch a nuclear apocalypse should the President order them to do so. Waller reveals the protocol for starting World War III, and enters the lives of those who man the world's deadliest weapons. The diplomatic correspondent for Time magazine, Waller tells an amazing story, and Len Cariou reads it to a T.