Recalling Life on the Experimental Submarine Albacore

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Disaster Averted after Engine Room Fire Starts 500 Feet Below Surface

By Jennifer Feals

[The following article is courtesy of the Seacoast Sunday, Sunday, May 16, 2010]

Albacore submarine veterans, Jack Hunter, left, and Norm Bower, pose in front of the museum in Portsmouth as they prepare for an upcoming reunion.
[Deb Cram Photo]

Inside USS Albacore's control room this past Tuesday, chief Norman Bower stood watch behind diving officer Jack Hunter, just as they did during their years of service together on the submarine — only more than 40 years later.

As members of Friends of the Albacore and the Port of Portsmouth Maritime Museum Association, Hunter, 73, of Middletown, R.I. and Bower, 74, of Kingston, have continued their ties to the historic submarine that often brings them back. But next weekend, the surviving alumni of the Albacore will have that same opportunity during the USS Albacore Shipmate Reunion.

"It's a big draw. Not everybody has a submarine that they can come back to," Hunter said. "It's a place we can all remember and rally around. We are fortunate."

The reunion is Friday, May 21, to Sunday, May 23, with events at Albacore Park off Market Street, group dinners, and a tour of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Approximately 50 shipmates and their families travelling from around the country — including Oregon, California and Florida — are expected to gather.

"Some of them probably haven't been to any reunion for a while," he said. "They may not have even seen the boat sitting there since 1985."

Albacore moved to its current resting place in 1985 and is now a part of Albacore Park, which includes a visitor's center, opportunities to tour the submarine and a Memorial Garden — a tribute to all crew and officers who have been lost in the submarine service.

Friends of the Albacore has organized a reunion of the sub's crewmates every few years. The last was in 2004. But with the youngest crewmates being in their late 50s, it's unclear how long the tradition can continue. There are approximately 300 known shipmates of Albacore, many of whom have passed away, Bower said.

Albacore was an experimental vessel that led the way for today's submarines. Because of the experimental nature, the Navy sought dedicated and educated men to serve on Abacore because they wanted them to stay with it. Officers, like Hunter, who served on the vessel from 1966-68, rotated every two years, but many crewmembers, like Bower, who served on the Albacore for nearly 10 years, remained with the vessel for some time.

"If they did their job, they wanted to keep them on the Albacore," Bower said. "They did some risky things and they didn't want to rotate the crew. They wanted stability and experience. They didn't want to retrain the crew every year."

As they sat in the control room, Bower and Hunter discussed how Albacore began to rely more on technology than manpower. In a sub before her time, there would have been at least nine crewmen in the control room alone operating the vessel, but Albacore needed about three men.

"We had one guy here and two guys here and we could drive the sub," Bower said. "It was a big step forward."

Their respective years on the boat are filled with memories that were not without instances of struggle and fear.

After losing fellow submarine USS Thresher at sea in 1963, Bower said Albacore's emergency blow system, used to surface the vessel, was tested. The captain submerged the sub to 100 feet, blew the system and Albacore came to the surface with no problem. When the captain tried again from 300 feet, Bower said the sub took "a wicked, wicked angle." "There were things flying everywhere," he said. "That was scary."

The crew found that because the boat was resting, with no forward motion, it took on the tilted angle when trying to come to the surface.

Albacore had a fire in the engine room in 1967, which caused the boat to lose all propulsion, Hunter said, while 500 feet below sea level.

"There was a puff of smoke out of the cubicle. The captain reaches over, grabs the mic and says to the crew, 'There's a fire in the cubicle,' which causes all the doors to slam shut, isolated," he said. "A few minutes later he comes back on and says the fire is out, which is good, but the boat is slowing down and has no propulsion. There was no way to propel forward or to the surface if we needed to."

The crew activated the emergency blow system, causing Albacore to shake violently, Hunter said, but getting it on its way.

Hunter recalled encountering a hurricane while Albacore was en route back from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. While he often stood as the officer on deck while running on the surface, he remembers being brought down into the vessel due to high seas. The sub, which often ran at 18 feet deep while running on the surface, was running 6 to 8 feet during this storm, Hunter said.

"We ran that way for a day. The seas were monstrous, we just could not get away from it," he said. "Engines were failing, the battery was flat, and we were taking on more water than air in the boat at some points."

While he doesn't remember feeling a "premonition of disaster," Hunter said he looks back on the experience now and says "Gee, that was close," adding, "It was an adventure. We all survived it."

USS Albacore veterans Jack Hunter, left, and Norman Bower take the positions they maintained in the submarine's control room years ago.
[Deb Cram Photo]
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