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  • Charleston Naval shipyard was a huge squalor of a city in itself. Mostly slums on the north side of the base along the stately Cooper river. Old marina graveyards crisscrossed by gravel and dirt roads that seemingly went on forever to nowhere. Attached to the Naval Base, but not really part of it, the shipyard appeared to be abandoned and forgotten. I drove to the appointed spot, at least I thought it was the right spot. There was a gravel parking lot with two non abandoned vehicles in it next to a large hanger like warehouse.

    I got out of the car and wound my way around the rusting anchors and piles of chains to the inside of the warehouse. As I approached the unmarked wooden door on the back wall, I notice that there were cameras watching me discreetly from behind the overhead girders. I had barely raised my hand to knock when the door opened and I was asked for my I.D. The unseen inquisitor quickly passed me through another door. Inside was a beehive of activity. Teletypes were clacking as paper was strewn on to the floor. This was my first visit to the highly classified Sonar Information Center. I had just finished my patrol and had been ordered to report for debriefing. Our tapes of the patrol had been delivered and analyzed.

    Now, there is little that happens in the oceans that is not recorded and analyzed for possible military intervention. Not only recorded by submarines, but by an array of hydrophones spaced miles apart off the american Atlantic seaboard that “hear” every noise in the Atlantic and analyze it in real time. Because the hydrophone array is so large it can pinpoint the location of the noise using triangulation.

    During my debriefing I was asked about several different tapes made during the patrol. If we came across an anomally or an unknown sound, we made extensive tapes of it for later analyzation. Of course we made up our own stories to explain what it probably was. For example, while in the Mediterranean Sea we were cruising along at a patrol speed of about 3 knots when we encountered a noise moving from bow to stern along our starboard side. I mean like a steel cable dragging across the hull. You could follow the sound with your eyes.

    We eased up to periscope depth thinking we had snagged a trawler’s net. Nothing! A beautiful sunny day with blue sky and nothing all the way to the horizon. We went back down puzzled. Twenty minutes later it happened again, this time down the port side. Another look with the same results.
    By this time we had the skipper as well as the XO in sonar demanding an explanation. My boss, Ratman gave them the more plausible of the explanations: We were either traveling through a forgotten minefield left over from some previous war or we had passed through some trawler nets that had broken loose and were drifting free.
    OR…I couldn’t help myself. My creative juices were flowing.
    OR, There is a giant sea creature sitting on the bottom and having fun running his claws down our sides. Kind of like petting us.

    I think the higher the rank you attain, the lower your tolerance for inane comments. They were not amused.

    We never really found out who or what caused those noises. Back at the Sonar Information Center I had finished my debriefing with much the same results as with the skipper and XO. Now I got to listen the the latest tapes from other boats.
    You’ll laugh now that every movie goer knows what whale song is, but back then it was another anomally with just a theory that it could come from deep sounding humpback whales. It had been recorded mostly in the Pacific near the breeding grounds of humpback whales.

    Suddenly we got to the chilling tape made by an American submarine colliding with another unknown submarine. They played the tape over and over as we listened to two sets of blow valves opening. Definitely two separate submarines. The American sub made it to the surface…alone. No one reported a boat “overdue” so we assumed it was a Russian boat. We were at the height of the Cold War and both sides played a dangerous cat and mouse shadowing game.
    The outcome was classified “burn before reading” which was way above my “need to know” secret clearance.

    When I left the Sonar Information Center that day I realized, probably for the first time, that this was not all fun and games. I had just listened to men dying. My fertile imagination saw the whole thing. Ear drums bursting as the pressure became too much to equalize. Icy black water forcing it’s way around me as I tried to feel my way to any air pocket. My mind going numb and finally winking out. Nothingness.

    Not yet 20 years old. Aged that day to old age. I had grown up.
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