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Tales from the Silent Service – A Tale of Two Bluefish

My service in the USN Submarine Service spanned 1969 to 1973. Upon my graduation from Basic Enlisted Submarine School at new London CT in December 1969 I had the distinct honor and privilege to be assigned to the Pre-commissioning crew of the Nuclear Attack submarine USS Bluefish SSN-675 still under construction at the Electric Boat shipyard in Groton CT situated just a couple of miles downriver from the SUBASE and that was later put into commission on 10 January 1970. Interestingly and unknown to me at that time, just 27 years prior during WWII her diesel-electric namesake USS Bluefish SS-222 was Commissioned on 24 May 1943 also in Groton CT and at the same site as SSN-675. Most Cold War Era Fast Attack submarines were named after sea life and also had WWII counterparts such as USS Skate SSN-578/SS-305, USS-Scorpion SSN-589/SS-278 and our sisterships USS-Trepang SSN-674/SS-412 and USS Billfish SSN-676/SS-286 to mention just a few.

Commissioning crew members of a Navy ship are recognized as “Plank Owners” and it’s considered quite an honor within the Naval community for one to have that designation bestowed upon them. It’s a tradition that harkens back to the days of sail when the commissioning crews in fact built the wooden ships that they would later stake their lives on at sea. And therefore, each crewman was said to own a plank of the ship, ergo “Plank Owner.” Of course, in our case although we didn’t take part in the actual construction of the submarine, we were assigned to it through its final construction phases in the shipyard and senior personnel did oversee many aspects of her construction. Likewise, this would have been the case for the crew of USS Bluefish SS-222. And we would also stake our very lives on our ship as we took her through her rigorous sea trials aka shakedown and tested out all of her systems culminating in the acceptance of the vessel on behalf of the U.S. Navy. Of course, the crew’s responsibilities in this undertaking would range from bringing the nuclear reactor critical and operating the propulsion plant for the first time, testing out the weapons, and sonar systems on special ranges sited in the Caribbean Sea, and testing out all electronic and mechanical systems including the high-pressure, air, hydraulic and emergency blow systems and much, much more. And that required not only that we operate the submarine during her maiden dive below the surface of the sea but too that we take her down to maximum designed operating depth or “test depth” for her first deep submergence dive in order to confirm the hull integrity of her pressure hull against the tremendous sea pressure and to exercise her emergency blow system for the initial time.
And the crew of SS-222 would have performed these same types of evolutions leading up to her commissioning. However, contrary to that of the crew of SSN-675 they took her directly into combat during a hot war rather than a Cold War as we did. But, that’s not to say that we weren’t up against huge risks also. As is evidenced by the losses with all hands of USS Thresher SSN-593 In 1969, and again USS Scorpion SSN-589 in 1968 barely two years prior to the commencement of our own sea trials. In their cases Scorpion was returning home after completing a Cold War patrol and was diverted by her squadron to a position in the Azores and ordered to observe the movement of a Soviet carrier task force. And Thresher was performing a deep submergence test dive during sea trials off the New England coast having just completed and extensive yard overhaul.
But regardless, taking a new submarine down on her initial dive is an exhilarating task for the crews. In fact, the overall experience from the sub’s launching down the wades through sea trials and on to the commissioning of the vessel into the United States Navy as a Man o’ War is unique and fraught with personal risk and challenge, excitement and pageantry. It has provided me with unique experiences that have enriched my life and I’m grateful to have lived them because they have provided me with cherished memories and a sense of accomplishment that has lasted my lifetime. SSN-675 will live on in my heart for eternity and I know that each and every one of my commissioning crew counterparts and those who followed us over a 26-year span has the same undying affection for “OL’ Blue” as we affectionately called her then re-nick-named by later crews as “Blue Thunder from Down Under.” Afterall, we nurtured and cared for her as we would our child, and she responded by returning us all back home safely from the depths of the seas each and every time over the course of a quarter century.
During my time aboard SSN-675 I participated in a 68-day submerged top-secret Cold War patrol into Soviet territorial waters. We sailed from Norfolk VA and dove the submarine off the Virginia coast on the Thursday prior to Thanksgiving and did not resurface from the frigid waters there again and return to our home port until the following January 29th. I also participated in numerous highly classified “short ops” whose durations lasted from two weeks to a couple of months. And our schedule was a demanding one being as we were the newest, fastest, and stealthiest submarine assigned to Submarine Squadron six (SUBRON 6) out of Norfolk VA. And although I left Bluefish and the Navy in May of 1973, she went on to serve America for a total of 26 years and eventually being decommissioned and scrapped just like so much junk, and that breaks my heart.
USS Bluefish SSN-675 was designed for stealth and surveillance and she was an integral part of the US Navy’s strategic defense during the height of the Cold War. And over the course of her career, she successfully circumnavigated the globe culminating on 4 May 1975 with her surfacing through the polar ice pack at the North Pole. Also, she may have been the only Sturgeon class submarine to circumnavigate the globe again during an extended patrol into the Indian Ocean in 1982. Other operations of note include four trips into the Arctic Circle earning her crews the designation of “Bluenose” of which I am one having participated in her very first Cold War patrol and venture into the Arctic Circle. And shortly after I had transferred off her, a six-month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea in 1974 in which she successfully completed two patrols. On one of those she was shaken by an errant Israeli missile that fell into the sea during the Fourth Arab-Israeli War, the warhead exploding close-by dictating the captain to take emergency evasive actions and calling the crew to battle stations. This incident was related to me first hand at our last SSN-675 reunion by one of my closest friends and shipmate who was there. In all Bluefish made five deployments to the Med over the course of her service life. In 1975 she surfaced trough the Arctic Ice Pack and in 1981 she went on a West Pac-Indian Ocean-Persian Gulf deployment, she crossed the Equator three times earning her crewmen the designation of “Shellback.” In 1994 she visited South America and transited the Panama Canal on her way to a Western Pacific (WES-PAC) run and ultimate transfer to her new home port at Pearl Harbor HI where she concluded her service to America.
Sadly, Bluefish was decommissioned with Commander Richard C. West in command on 31 May 1996 and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register the same day. Her scrapping via the Nuclear-Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program at Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington, was completed on 1 November 2003.
USS Bluefish SS-222 was a diesel-electric Gato-class submarine, and was the first ship of the United States Navy to be named for the Bluefish a marine pelagic fish found around the world in temperate and subtropical waters. Adult bluefish are strong and aggressive fast swimmers that prey on schools of forage fish attacking them in feeding frenzies.
Between 9 September 1943 and 29 July 1945, she completed nine war patrols. Her operating area extended from the Netherlands East Indies to the waters south of Honshū the largest and most populous main island of Japan. According to the Joint Army–Navy Assessment Committee (JANAC) a United States inter-service agency set up to analyze and assess Japanese naval and merchant marine shipping losses caused by U.S. and Allied forces during World War II. USS Bluefish SS-222 is credited with sinking 12 Japanese ships totaling 50,839 tons. She was a virtual wreaking crew.
On Her first war patrol Bluefish departed Brisbane Australia on 9 September 1943 to patrol the South China Sea for 25 days and on 25 September she torpedoed the 3228-ton Japanese merchantman Akashi Maru southeast of Celebes, Netherlands East Indies, in the Flores Sea. Subsequently, while tracking the previously damaged Akashi Maru, Bluefish encountered, torpedoed and sank the 595-ton torpedo boat Kasasagi on 27 September about 25 nmi south of Celebes. Then on 29 September Bluefish re-acquired and sank the damaged Akashi Maru north of the Indonesian island of Wetar.
Next, on her second war patrol SS-222 departed Fremantle Australia in October 1943 for a 32-day patrol of the South China Sea then on 8 November she torpedoed and sank the 10570-ton Japanese tanker Kyokuei Maru in the South China Sea and on 18 November Bluefish torpedoed and sank the escort destroyer IJN Sanae and damaged the Japanese 10570-ton fleet oiler Ondo in the Celebes Sea about 90 nmi south of Basilan Island.
On her third war patrol Bluefish again sailed from Fremantle in December 1943 for a 27-day patrol of the South China Sea where on 30 December, she sank the 5061-ton Japanese oiler Ichiyu Maru in the Java Sea. Then after laying mines off the eastern Malayan coast on 3 January 1944, Bluefish along with USS Rasher SS-269 attacked a Japanese convoy off Indo-China. Next Bluefish torpedoed and sank the 6046-ton Japanese tanker Hakko Maru on 4 January.
On her forth through ninth patrols SS-222, under the command of Charles M. Henderson, she torpedoed and sank the Japanese oiler Ominesan Maru in the Celebes Sea southwest of Tarakan, Borneo and sank the 1422-ton Japanese merchant Nanshin Maru in the Celebes Sea southwest of Tarakan, Borneo. Then operating out of Fremantle on 21 June, she sank the 3280-ton Japanese transport Kanan off the southern approaches to Makassar Strait and on 21 June, sank the 3280-ton Japanese transport Kanan Maru off the southern approaches to Makassar Strait.
Then on subsequent war patrols she sank the Japanese merchant 1422-ton Nanshin Maru in the Celebes Sea south-west of Tarakan, Borneo and On 21 June, the Japanese transport Kanan Maru off the southern approaches to Makassar Strait and On 14 August, the 5135 ton tanker Shinpo Maru initially damaged by USS Puffer (SS-268) on 12 August off Golo Island. Then on 19 August, Bluefish attacked convoy Hi-71, sinking the Japanese fleet tanker. She sank the 18300 ton carrier Hayasui some 80 nmi northwest of Cape Bolinao and damaged the Japanese transport Awa Maru. And on her ninth and final war Patrol USS Bluefish departed Fremantle in June 1945 for a 33-day patrol of the South China Sea and on 15 July, she sank the 2650 ton tanker/transport submarine I-351 about 100 nmi east-north-east of Natuna Besar, Borneo. Four days later, she sank a small Japanese submarine chaser by deck gunfire east of Sumatra, Netherlands East Indies.
With the cessation of war hostilities, Bluefish SS-222 returned to the United States, arriving at Philadelphia Navy Yard 9 October 1945. She was placed in the 16th Fleet and on 31 October moved to the Submarine Base, New London. She was later towed to Electric Boat Co., Groton, where she underwent needed repairs. Then on 12 June 1946 she returned to New London where she went out of commission in reserve on 12 February 1947.
Subsequently USS Bluefish SS-222 was recommissioned 7 January 1952 at the Submarine Base, New London, and reported to Submarine Division 82, Atlantic Fleet. On 7 April she proceeded to Key West, Florida, and reported to Submarine Division 41 on 11 April. She operated along the Florida coast and in the Caribbean, engaging in local operations and training exercises until May 1953.
On 7 June 1953 Bluefish arrived at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine and following pre-inactivation overhaul at the shipyard, she was placed out of commission in reserve at New London 20 November 1953, then Sold for scrap 8 June 1960. Bluefish was awarded ten battle stars for her World War II service.
USS Bluefish SSN-675’s awards and medals include the Navy Expeditionary medal (NEM) of which I have one, the Battle efficiency award of which was awarded during my time on board, and a Meritorious Unit Commendation. She may have been awarded more, or some of these multiple times as I know was the case with the Battle Efficiency “E”. However, it’s difficult to determine for Cold War era Attack boats because due to the secrecy of their missions many awards aren’t officially documented. For instance, I received my NEM two years after my separation from active duty and it arrived via U.S. mail in a plain brown DOD envelope and without any documentation. It wasn’t until years later at my first reunion that I was learned through discussions with crewmates why we awarded it, and that those who were still aboard Bluefish at the time had their medal unceremoniously handed to them without explanation or documentation. The NEM is a fairly significant decoration that qualifies for membership into the VFW. I also received a personal COMSUBLANT commendation two months after my separation from active duty. The term “Silent Service” is in deference to the secrecy and cloak and dagger nature of the Submarine Service rather than the stealthy nature of its submarines.