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Aboard a nuclear sub

By Jim BencivengaStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 14, 1982



San Diego

For six months a year the rumbling of his stomach, not the movement of the sun, is Frank Calvin's clock.

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''If they serve eggs and toast instead of hamburgers and French fries, I know it's morning,'' says the sonar technician assigned to the ballistic-missile submarine USS George Washington Carver. ''It's the only way you can tell,'' he chuckles. ''You can't pull back the curtains to see what time of day it is or what the weather is like.''

Both he and 130 mates not only go down to the sea in ships, they go under it - three months at sea, three months on shore. And if any of us topside wonder what the ''climate'' is like 200 to 750 feet below the ocean's surface on one of the US Navy's 123 nuclear submarines, it's not like in the movies.

Cinema images of horns blasting, enemy ships in the cross hairs of periscopes , orders barked to ''fire torpedo No. 1,'' the strained faces of men listening for depth charges just don't fit.

Looking through the other end of the periscope into a nuclear sub shows a far less glamorous, a tediously routine, and a decidedly more technical picture than the movies suggest. It is a world of computers vectoring (positioning) the ship toward a target; men who live, sleep, and eat applied physics, electronics, and mechanical engineering; sonar bleeps; silence and stealth.

Submariners are at ease living on auditory scraps of information. Their environment is a sonar puzzle constantly changing, constantly being put together. Acoustic soundings, not the sun or stars, provide the information to determine where their ship is, where it is going - and who else is out there.

Submariners are elitist and make no bones about their contention that the wave of the Navy's future is under, not on, the water. Talk to one and he will tell you the dominant and technologically superior seaborne weapon system of World War I was the battleship; of World War II, the aircraft carrier. Today, the naval torch has passed to them.

It wasn't a carrier pilot who said, ''There are two kinds of ships: submarines and targets.''

All nuclear submarines are capable of operating independently of the earth's atmosphere for long periods of time.

Usually, the reason a nuclear sub has to surface is to get more food for its crew. It produces its own oxygen, and up to 8,000 gallons of fresh water a day. The reactor propels the ship and drives auxiliary generators for light and electricity.

The pressurized water reactor and associated steam plant need no oxygen. Neither is there any gaseous exhaust. In fact, not only does a nuclear sub make its own oxygen from seawater, it also ''scrubs'' stale air (removes carbon dioxide) then burns the waste gas in a catalytic converter at 600 degrees F. so that no bubbles are released to give away the sub's position.

''We know that our ships are quieter and can 'hear' better,'' that is, have better radar ''than the other guys,'' says Capt. David H. Boyd, an instructor at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I. ''These are the two most important factors for a submarine.''

There is no shyness among submariners in advertising that their academic records and the rank and technical competence of their enlisted men are among the highest in the Navy.

Those in the US submarine force point out that although the submarine community of 33,000 men makes up little more than 7 percent of the Navy's 480, 000 uniformed personnel, they sail more than 35 percent of its combat ships. Standards are tougher here, too: One drug offense and you're off the sub.