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And the first shall be last

Crewmen of the Trident submarine USS Ohio hold its name and ship numbers taken off the “sail” prior to submerging in Hood Canal on Monday. - Photo by Rogerick Anas
Crewmen of the Trident submarine USS Ohio hold its name and ship numbers taken off the “sail” prior to submerging in Hood Canal on Monday.
— image credit: Photo by Rogerick Anas

After 65 patrols projecting the United State’s nuclear might silently and invisibly, the USS Ohio (SSBN-726) slid into a berth Monday at Subase Bangor’s Explosive Handling Wharf to prepare for a new chapter in its career.

In mid-November, the 23-year-old boat — the first of its kind — will lose its 24, C4 ballistic missiles and head to drydock at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton.

There it will be refueled and redesigned to become a guided missile submarine, where alongside the USS Michigan, USS Florida and USS Georgia, they will form the backbone of the new class of submarines, called guided missile submarines, or SSGN, scheduled to rejoin the fleet in 2007-08.

“It really puts a lump in the throat,” said Don Hill, who was on the Ohio’s Blue crew when she arrived at Subase Bangor in 1981 and was on the wharf entertaining children as a clown with Caring Clowns International after retiring from the base in 1995. “I’ve seen a lot of changes here, the pace has changed.”

Being on the first Trident can be difficult at times, especially when the ship itself is older than most of its crew.

“She has her own personality and she shares it with everybody,” said ETCM (SS) Brian “Bo” Bofinger, who will be Chief of the Boat while in drydock.

Despite these challenges, morale aboard the final cruise ran high.

“Morale here is fantastic, even with the idea of having to go spend a three-year, arduous shore tour in the shipyards,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jim Christie, executive officer of the Gold crew. “Guys are begging to come to this boat. There’s a couple of reasons for that. The obvious one is they get to go in the Shipyard — they don’t have to go to sea. But the other not-so obvious one is the command structure here. The captain (Cmdr. Brian Mcilvaine) and the COB (Bofinger) are fantastic and they’ve done such a good job at mentoring the crew that it has a good reputation throughout the waterfront. People want to come here.”

That proved the case among the crewmen on board as they went through one last missile drill in Dabob Bay south of Subase Bangor.

“A lot of the guys, whether they’re having a hard day, well, it’s the last run. They keep that in mind and they’ll get through it,” said Machinist’s Mate, 2nd class Kevin Madden, whose wife is expecting their first child in five months. “You gotta say to yourself ‘I’m not going to do that again.’ On this run there were a lot of finals. This is the last time I’m ever going to do this evolution or put up with this kind of procedure because we’re going to the shipyard. Sea time keeps going but we’re staying put and that’s a good thing.

“When most people join the Navy they expect to go to sea, but when you get a chance to stay home, you can’t argue with that.”

But not all the crew will get to do shipyard duty. Approximately 60 men from the Blue and Gold crews (which have merged into a single group) have been reassigned for duty elsewhere.

“I’ve been here two years and I’m just getting a feel for the whole thing,” said Missile Technician 3rd Class Adam Stein. Stein is being reassigned to another Trident boat since his job of manning the missile control room will no longer exist after the conversion. “I’ll miss it, but I’ll be ready for another one.”

The SSGN-class boats will be reconfigured from carrying nuclear ballistic missiles to transporting up to 154 conventional Tomahawk cruise missiles as well as providing transport and a mobile base of operations for up to 102 special operation forces personnel.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg for what these boats will be able to do,” said Paul Taylor, Subase Bangor public affairs spokesman. “They provide a remarkable platform for the Tomahawk missile.”

Using the Ohio platform instead of creating a submarine from scratch is a cost-saving measure.

When the Ohio was launched in April 1979, it cost $1.2 billion. In comparison, the USS Virginia, a smaller attack submarine now being built in Connecticut costs $1.65 billion, and the USS Jimmy Carter, a modified Seawolf-class research boat scheduled to arrive at Subase Bangor in 2004, is rumored to cost nearly $3 billion.

Outfitting the four Trident boats to SSGNs and refuel them for another 20-plus years of service is budgeted at $900 million each — a bargain compared to building new submarines.

“We’re getting a good return on the taxpayers’ money,” Taylor said.

Costs also will be saved by converting some of the Navy’s current stock of torpedo tube-launched Tomahawks ($1 million each) for vertical launch.

The geographic fate of the Ohio and its sister SSGNs is still undecided.

“It’s not yet been firmly decided which ship will go to which place,” said Subase Bangor commander Capt. James Baker. “The expectation is that we’ll have two of the SSGNs homeported here at Subase Bangor.”

If two boats and their four crews return to Subase Bangor in 2007, they’ll join the USS Henry M. Jackson, USS Alabama, USS Alaska, USS Nevada, USS Pennsylvania, USS Kentucky and USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23.)

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