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Decommissioning News Article
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Navy Shuts Down A 'Boomer' With Thanks For A Job Well Done

July 4, 1993|By Mike Billington, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

The moon was three fingers off the dark waters of the Atlantic and dolphins played in her bow wake as the nuclear submarine USS John C. Calhoun headed for Fort Lauderdale. Seaman Brian Gold scanned the horizon from his lookout post on Calhoun's bridge. Cmdr. William Rogerson, Calhoun's skipper, stood below him. 

Off the port quarter, Venus rode high and bright in Thursday's pre-dawn sky. Overhead, the stars looked like diamonds scattered over black velvet.''There's no place I'd rather be,'' Gold said softly as his eyes swept the ocean in a constant search for trouble. ''It gets in your blood,'' Rogerson said quietly.''Aye, sir,'' Gold said.

A veteran of 77 patrols, each lasting at least 75 days, Calhoun's last mission took her to Port Everglades for her own deactivation ceremony on Saturday night.In Navy slang, she is a ''boomer,'' a submarine armed with ballistic missiles, each equipped with a nuclear warhead. Outside the submarine service, she is virtually unknown. Some Navy ships, like the battleship Missouri, have names that people recognize easily. But boomers usually are born, live and die in anonymity. So it was with Calhoun during her 28 years of service. Her missions were top secret; on patrol, her exact location was unknown even to the Atlantic submarine command. 

''We're assigned to patrol inside a large box on a map of the ocean, and we're submerged for the entire time. We receive messages but we don't send any, so no one knows exactly where we are,'' Rogerson said. ''It has to be that way; we lose our effectiveness if anyone knows exactly where we are.''

But Calhoun is no longer needed by a nation that is no longer threatened by the shattered Soviet Union. There are newer submarines to do what she did, and more, so she is being retired.

The final leg of her last cruise as an active Navy vessel began in a driving rain on Wednesday after she surfaced off Port Canaveral shortly before dawn.Assisted by two tugboats, the 425-foot-long, flat black submarine docked briefly to take on 16 passengers at Port Canaveral's Naval Ordnance Testing Facility.Most of them were retired submariners, men who had taken Calhoun on her first patrol.

Below decks, inside the chiefs quarters where Calhoun's senior enlisted men have their bunks and a tiny lounge, a lot of the morning's talk centered on the future: theirs and the Navy's.''It makes sense for the Navy to cut back now that the Cold War is over. A lot of boomers will be decommissioned,'' said Chief Petty Officer Terry Gulczynski, Calhoun's top enlisted man. ''But the Navy will always have submarines. We are, after all, the original stealth technology. We can't be found unless we want to be found.''

''Because there are still countries with weapons of mass destruction, we still need boomers to deter aggression. That's how we won the Cold War,'' Chief Petty Officer Tom Faunce said.Now that Calhoun has been deactivated, its officers and crewmen will be dispersed to other commands. Some will go to technical schools, others will be assigned to new submarines.All will remain submariners.''The submarine service is voluntary and very few people ever leave it for surface ships,'' Gulczynski said. ''There's a camaraderie and a feeling of pride aboard a submarine.''

Pride and camaraderie aside, if the submarine service is to continue to be an important part of the nation's defense, it cannot rest on past glories; not when politicians and the public are screaming for budget cuts.And that could pose a serious problem for the mysterious ''silent service.'' Relatively few people know that all submarines are not alike. Calhoun, for example, is very different from the greyhound-swift fast attack submarine whose mission is to prowl the ocean for targets. That dearth of knowledge could hurt the service in budget hearings. 

The submarine fleet is also seeking to expand its role as the nation's defense strategy changes. Submariners are confident that it can do so.Submarines are versatile. They can gather intelligence, carry soldiers behind the lines, lay mines, support land attacks, shoot down aircraft, and fight other ships.During her career, Calhoun went to sea and waited for the order to fire on enemy targets. There were many times when her crews wondered not if, but when, that order might come.

''What happens if we have to shoot has always been a topic of conversation,'' said Faunce. As Calhoun's chief missile technician, he's like a cop who hopes he never has to draw his gun.  ''Everyone has to handle the idea that we may have to shoot one day in his own special way. Like family separations, it's part of the job,'' he said.  The fact that Calhoun never fired her missiles is proof of her success as a deterrent, Faunce said.''If we'd ever had to shoot, I'd have regarded that as a failure,'' he said. ''We would have failed in our mission as a deterrent force.''

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