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It was a hot time on the high seas

By MARIETTA ATWATER,

NUWC Keyport, Keynotes Editor

May 21, 11:30 p.m.— “I was laying in my rack, shoulders hitting each side of the compartment as the submarine rolled with the rough seas. I heard commotion and someone saying there was flooding. Things got more frantic as crewmembers tried to find the source of the water leak and were doing things to stop the flooding.”

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Jim LaMont, a NUWC Keyport electronics engineer, recalls the first moments of what would soon become a nightmare for some and an incredible story for all of those aboard the diesel submarine USS Dolphin recently off San Diego.

With LaMont was the only other civilian, Matt Lavoie, from NUWC Newport, R.I.

The Dolphin was approximately 100 miles off San Diego to collect data from three days of torpedo testing. Day one had just ended, when the fire and flooding began

“They put Matt and I in the room where we had been working – where all of my equipment was. I didn’t have any apprehension at that point. I knew it was serious but the crew was dealing with it,” LaMont said.

The situation improved when the ventilators cleared the air so they could take the breathing equipment off long enough to put flotation coats on in case things got worse.

The decision had already been made to evacuate LaMont and Lavoie and they were ushered to the bridge where they got drenched with waves from rough water. They expected to wait on the bridge for the rescue boat.

The Oceanographic Research Motor Vessel William A. McGaw, had been supporting the torpedo tests and was about an hour away when first contacted by radio. LaMont estimated they were about 10 minutes away by the time he and Lavoie reached the bridge. The frigate USS Thach was en route 40 minutes away. Lavoie and LaMont were told, “… If the fire gets bad, people will be coming up the hatch in a hurry and you might have to go over the side.”

The McGaw arrived on scene and attempted to launch their Zodiac rescue boat but the seas were too rough. They would have to wait for the Thatch. In the meantime, the fire was getting worse, the Thatch arrived but hadn’t had time to launch her rescue boat when the order came to get to the deck. Lavoie and the crewman went first, Lamont followed. He later explained,

“When we got to the deck, the waves were hitting us in the chest. I wanted to verify the order but we were told to stay together no matter what,” LaMont said.

Lavoie and another crewmen jumped in the Pacific Ocean and LaMont soon joined them.

“The whole world changed when I hit the water,” LaMont said. “There was only one person to get me to the McGaw — me! I’m not a great swimmer. You can’t see when you are in the trough of the wave. I was less than half way and I was out of gas. I remember thinking, ‘is this the way it’s gonna be?’” Jim said he knew he wouldn’t sink because of the floatation gear.

“I got on top of a wave and could see I was still 60 feet out. Then the next wave launched me probably 40 feet and put me just 20 feet away. I knew they could get a life ring to me from there. I kept thinking — ‘throw the life ring!’”

They threw it, but Jim had little energy. His legs were in pretty good shape from officiating basketball, but his arms were so heavy he could hardly lift them. He says he doesn’t know if he swam to the life ring or if it drifted to him, but they were finally able to drag him to the boat and lift him aboard.

Lavoie was already on board the McGaw. Lavoie had told Jim shortly after Jim got on board, “I’m never going to smoke again.” After he caught his breath, his next words were, “Anyone got a cigarette?”

Other USS Dolphin crewman were washed overboard by the strong waves alongside the sub. Some jumped and started swimming. The high seas made it unsafe to transfer crew directly from the deck of the sub for fear of crushing people between the hulls. The Thach’s rescue craft started plucking crewman from the sea, ferrying them close to the McGaw, where they had to jump back into the water and swim the remaining distance so the McGaw crew could pull them on board. Two Coast Guard Helicopters also arrived on the scene and pulled two of the crewman from the water.

Dick Boedecker, an electronics technician at Keyport, was aboard the McGaw as an observer for tests.

“It was something to see the McGaw’s spotlights shine on bodies in the water,” Boedecker said. I grabbed the guys as they were brought on board, helped them to the galley, get blankets, and find a place to sit or lay down. Most of them were sick or were about to get sick from taking on salt water and from the exertion

Boedecker said with the five crew members, himself, and eight other riders from Newport on the McGaw, plus the 41 Dolphin crewman and Matt and Jim, the McGaw had 57 people spread over every room and covering most of the floor space for the 12-hour trip back to San Diego. It was plenty of time to reflect on the four-hour ordeal and be thankful. The cook on the McGaw kept the food coming for those able to eat.

“A class act,” LaMont said of the crew of the Dolphin and McGaw. “Those guys just did their job — no one showed signs of stress dealing with the problem. For some of the Dolphin crew, this was their first under way, but you wouldn’t have known it the way they operated under duress.”

Matt Lavoie has been a Newport employee for two years. This was his sixth time on a submarine. He is going out to sea again in about six weeks.

LaMont is retirement eligible with 33 years service, but he says he isn’t done yet. He’ll go back to sea.

“I’d still like to be on a ‘hit boat’ (the target craft that is hit with an unarmed-torpedo),” LaMont said.

His wife may have something to say about that.

(Writer’s note: The USS Dolphin, the Navy’s oldest operating diesel submarine was eventually towed to San Diego. The cause of the flooding and fire is under investigation.)

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