Reliving The Past

I cried for the crew of the Kursk. I cried because I know how horrible it is to suffocate in a submarine. I almost died that way 43 years ago.

In 1957, I was a sonar man on the U.S.S. Gudgeon, an American sub spying on the Soviets in the Pacific Ocean near their naval base at Vladivostok. We were two weeks into a top-secret Cold War mission, with several spooks onboard, when the Soviets caught us in their waters.

Diesel-electric subs like the Gudgeon couldn't create their own fresh air, so as the enemy hovered above us, we tried--without success--to get a snorkel to the surface. They repeatedly dropped depth charges and kept "pinging" our sub with their radar. It took 64 long hours for the Gudgeon to slip out of the Soviets' chokehold.

We didn't conserve our air for the first 15 or 20 hours, because we thought we would be able to grab a breath soon. But even when we realized we were pinned down, the atmosphere stayed businesslike. There was no conversation about anything except the task at hand. I stayed at my station almost the whole time, and nearly everybody remained calm and focused--except for the spies, who were completely unprepared for this adventure.

Later on, we did everything we could to preserve oxygen. If you didn't have to work, you were lying down. During those tense days, I was a regular smoker, but I could barely keep a cigarette lit in the oxygen-deprived environment. When I did get one lit, it tasted terrible. For smokers and non-smokers alike, each breath was a giant heave to suck in as much oxygen as possible. I felt like I had emphysema. When the oxygen level drops and the carbon dioxide rises, all you can think is that your next breath might be your last.

Other submariners have talked about the terrific headaches they got from lack of oxygen, but if I had a headache, I sure didn't notice. I was more worried about breathing. This kind of death is nothing like a plane crash. There's no sudden end. You have days to ponder your fate. We thought we were 10 feet tall and bulletproof, but that stale air and labored breathing made even a cocky young submariner feel his mortality. We never gave up all hope, but I thought about my pregnant wife back in port and realized that I might never see my child. "I'm going to die," I thought. "Am I ready to take it?"

Luckily, I didn't have to find out. After two-and-a-half days we made a run for it. The Soviets tried to ram us but failed. We shot up a few flares and took off as fast as possible. When I heard the whoosh of air fill our diesel engine, I knew it would only be minutes before fresh air rushed into the Gudgeon. As we raced away from the Soviet ships, I gulped in my first lungful. It's a feeling I'll never forget.