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Radio Amateurs and America’s Secret Submarine

Brian F. Wruble, W3BW

Two hams were among the small crew of a super-secret Cold War era submarine.

Groton Connecticut, 1966: The keel was laid for a radically new US Navy nuclear submarine. She was to be small, dive deeper than any other, and roll along on the very bottom of the ocean using large tandem sand tires. Propelled by the world's smallest naval nuclear reactor, she would have extraordinary mission duration. She was to be built and to be operated in great secrecy. This was "Submarine NR-1," also known as “Admiral Rickover's Deep Thing.” When she began her sea trials in 1969, NR-1 was manned by a crew of 12 hand-selected officers and men of the US Navy, joined by three highly trained civilian engineers. Not unlike the Astronaut Corps, these explorers of “inner space” included two Amateur Radio operators. I was one of the lucky civilians (then W4BIE). My shipmate and good friend to this day was ET1 Robert T. Lunt, WA8LBY (now N3IFF and a retired Lieutenant Commander).

In the following 33 years, NR-1 has carried out operations that were at times so secret even many of the Navy's senior officers were only dimly aware of her existence and capabilities. Following declassification of some aspects of the small sub a few years ago (for example, a depth capability of 3000 feet), an exciting new book has been published: Dark Waters (An Insider's Account of the NR-1, the Cold War's Undercover Nuclear Sub). The book is co-authored by Lee H. Vyborny, another of the original Navy crew, and Don Davis. It is published by Penguin Putnam, Inc.

Dark Waters does a fine job of capturing the excitement and intrigue, the challenges and dangers of those Cold War times aboard NR-1. However, it doesn’t go into some of the fun Bob Lunt and I had trying to mix our hobby in with our responsibilities. Despite having the most advanced nuclear technology, NR-1 was equipped with a relatively low-tech (by today's standards) 100 W MF/HF SSB transceiver. Bob and I always drew the short straw when it came to making emergency repairs on the balky and bulky transceiver in a heaving sea.

While operation on the ham bands would have been strictly forbidden at sea, Bob and I made repeated attempts to establish outside contact while dockside. NR-1’s whip antenna just wasn't making the grade. At one point, we strung a not-so-stealthy long-wire between NR-1’s sail and her rudder. This required both ingenuity and subterfuge. “The Old Man,” our 33-year-old captain, would surely have disapproved of our activities. The wire had to go up when he left the boat (subs are “boats,” not ships) late at night and be taken down by dawn. Plagued by the static of shipyard arc-welders, we had minimal success on the ham bands. However, our design for the antenna eventually replaced the whip and remains a part of the sub’s equipment suite.

The tradition of hams on NR-1 continued over the decades, culminating with the assignment of Commander Charles A. Richard, W4HFZ, as skipper from 1996-1999. “Chas,” who is well-known in the AMSAT and APRS community, is currently the commanding officer of USS Parche (SSN 683). In 1999, he took me aboard NR-1 for a “ship down memory lane” 3 days under the sea in the North Atlantic, nearly 30 years after my last voyage. As I traveled to meet the boat, ham radio was used for talk-in purposes. After all those years, I couldn’t remember how to find the New London Submarine Base!

Dark Waters is peopled with legendary characters like Admiral Hyman G. Rickover and Robert Ballard, the undersea explorer who found the gravesites of Titanic, Bismarck, and PT-109. Now, should you read it, you'll know there is also some ham radio tradition riding along with her.




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