Cavalla Crew Interview

George H. Johnson

The following took place in the approximate 8 month period that I was aboard Cavalla. I transferred from Cavalla to the USS Hardhead SS365 (SSK), a snorkel boat.

I went aboard Cavalla right out of Sub School (May of 63) in New London (that was her home port). I was a radioman (RMSN) and just barely 18 years old. As did most new arrivals, I spent the first few months on the "Seaman Gang". The Seaman Gang did most of the grunt work (basic exterior maintenance supervised by the COB--Chief Of the Boat). We stood maneuvering watches topside, throwing lines to the pier and hauling the mooring lines to the boat. At sea we stood lookouts, manned the bow and stern planes and the helm. While on the surface at sea there was usually one officer along with two lookouts on the bridge. When we would dive, one lookout would scramble down to man the bow planes while the other took the stern planes. The bow planes were used to maintain or effect changes in depth while the stern planes maintained the proper angle (bubble). When surfacing, the planes were usually set to full rise, bow buoyancy tank was blown with 3,000 lb air, and the main ballast tanks with 600 lb air. Once on the surface a low pressure electric blower would be activated to expel the remaining water from the tanks.

Later, I started standing watches in the radio shack. Cavalla still had the original primary radio ancient beast with giant coils that smelled of ozone while transmitting. Since Cavalla had become a research boat we soon received a modern transceiver with single side band capabilities. Although voice transmissions were possible, the primary means of communications while at sea was Morse code. I would sit for hours at a typewriter, with headphones on, copying fleet Morse code (FOX) broadcasts. When a message was specifically for us I would type it up on a message blank and route it to the appropriate officers. Classified material was sent encrypted in a series of 5 letter groups. The communications officer would then sit down and decipher these messages with a crypto machine (a weird looking thing with a series of wheels). Pretty archaic stuff. Pretty much exactly the way it was done in the war. When we had outgoing traffic I would contact the nearest Naval Communications center by Morse code(CW-unmodulated Carrier Wave) and tap out the message. The average radioman could send and receive between 20 and 30 words per minute.

As an AGSS (Ostensibly Oceanographic Research) Cavalla's role (while I was aboard) appeared to be one of guinea pig and test boat for new equipment and procedures. There were so many holes punched through the pressure hull that her operating depth limit was raised more than 100 ft above her original test depth. For example, we had, just aft of the sail, a buoy antenna (BRA-10). We would go down to 100 -150 ft or so, raise the antenna to the surface and transmit (or receive) then haul the thing back down. This meant that it's cable was running out through a hole in the pressure hull. Sometimes there was significant leakage in the After Torpedo room where the cable apparatus was located.

That passive sonar which made the bow so huge was really awesome, not only in detecting ships and other submarines but in its ability to hear the creatures of the sea. I spent many hours listening to everything from whales to shrimp. Sometimes when whales were close you could hear them through the pressure hull. On one occasion, while submerged, a whale (either amorous or angry) butted us or slapped us with it's tail... noticeable noise and movement of the boat. On another occasion we collided with a whale on the surface. The whale was unfortunately cut in half and the boat suffered no damage.

During the time I was aboard, Cavalla spent quite a bit of time at sea, often in a hunter killer mode. We participated in fleet exercises where the objective was to "sink" the carrier. It is my understanding that, just prior to my arrival, Cavalla had been part of the blockade of Cuba. There were a bunch of sea stories floating around about that. One strategy utilized was to load up a torpedo tube with empty beer cans then blow them out at intervals so that on the surface they would look like numerous periscope blips to radar or the naked eye. We were successful in penetrating the destroyer screen and camouflaging ourselves in the wake of the carrier which of course then led to a couple of theoretical "fish" up the rear end of the beast.

Whenever a hurricane threatened to roar up the coast we would put out to sea and steam around on the surface to wait it out. Now, I don't remember exactly when Hurricane Ginny came along but we, along with another boat, went to sea to ride her out. I was in the Seaman Gang so was standing lookouts. Sure enough, she came along full force so we had to blow every tank we could for added bouyancy...and man what a ride that was! Diesel boats didn't have enough air to stay down much past 17 hours and surfacing in really rough seas is extremely hazardous so, standard procedure was to ride em' out on the surface. You know how low that bridge is on Cavalla. Imagine standing lookout in a hurricane strapped in on that bridge and looking at 70 foot seas. I have to tell you, those lookouts during that hurricane were some of the most exciting moments of my life...just awesome. In rough seas there would be one officer and one lookout on the Bridge with one lookout on a scope in the Conning Tower. We would switch off halfway through a watch. On the bridge you couldn't see past the next wave but in the conning tower through a raised periscope you could see a bit more. Then you'd time it just right, pop open the conning tower hatch, get out, then close it quick before the con got flooded (more than once we took serious water through that hatch). Then strap in and hang on. On more than one occasion the bridge was completely submerged for a brief time. One time (during Ginny) a rogue wave hit us broadside, submerged the bridge (Lt Sullivan and I were holding our breath under water) and hit with such force that it somehow caused the horn to blow continuously. Scared the hell out of everybody. Just had to turn off the air valve to it. Nobody dared open the conning tower hatch but the Old Man called up on the intercom to see if we were ok. Sleeping in seas like this was an interesting exercise. If you were lucky enough to be long and lanky you could hook an arm and a foot in the rack chains and keep from falling out. Most everyone was seasick to some degree. After a few days of this we pulled into Boston for a break, spent two nights there then headed for Halifax and more good liberty.

On other occasions standing lookout was just pure joy. Sometimes the sea was so glassy smooth...the nights so dark...billions of stars...diesels humming...phosphorescent glow of the wake as far back as you could see...Dolphins leaping alongside...shooting stars overhead...absolutely magic.

The Cavalla's armament consisted of Mk14, Mk16 (both alcohol/steam powered) and Mk37(battery powered active/passive sonar guided) torpedoes. During exercises torpedoes with dummy warheads would be fired and instead of blowing up would blow up with air and float. We would follow along the torpedo's bearing until it was spotted bobbing in the water then a designated individual would leap in with a line, hook it to the torpedo, and we'd hoist it back aboard and slide it down the loading skid back into the boat.

For some reason, those 8 months (which were packed with experiences) and the Cavalla have really stuck with me. I served aboard 3 other seagoing commands in my 4 years, 6 months but the memories of Cavalla are the strongest. In fact, I can clearly remember a couple of songs we made up about about Cavalla and one about Cavalla's Garbage Disposal Unit (GDU).

In 1963 Allan King actually had a hit song called Camp Grenada. In order to get the tune and the inflections right you would have to dig up a copy and listen to it. His went like this:

Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda
Here I am at Camp Grenada etc. etc.

Ours went like this: Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda
Here I am, aboard Cavalla
Seams are seeping
Valves are leaking
And there's 14 inches of water where I'm sleeping

We're at two hundred, feet and sinking
You can't imagine, what I'm thinking
And the Drain Pump, won't take a suction
Oh my God someone just opened the Main Induction

Take me up, oh Captain please take me up
I don't wanna die
I want to see the Sun again
I want to see the sky

That's it for that one. My friend Jimmy Schomer and I found ourselves shining the brass GDU during field days with Nev-R-Dull. When at sea we would put our garbage in weighted metal (brass I believe) mesh bags, sew the ends closed with fine wire and, when appropriate, get the Captain's permission, load the bags into the GDU and flush them out to sea. The hope was that it would all go to the bottom with no surface traces. The GDU was something like a torpedo tube. Hopefully it is still there. If I ever get down there I can give it a little shine. Anyway, Jimmy and I wrote a little ditty about it to the tune of a song by the Beach Boys called "Little GTO".
It goes like this:

Little GDU gonna look real fine
When I break out my Nev-R-Dull and I start to shine
Get the Captain's permission to flush it to sea
Gonna load it in, flood it up, flush it out GDU

We were just a bunch of kids living on a submarine.

March 1997

Return to Cavalla Crews
Return to the Deep Domain