Chapter 1: Going To Sea
About fifty officers, chiefs, and senior petty officers filled the seats in the three rows of dining tables in the crew’s mess of the USS Nebraska. They were the third of the crew who supervised the rest of the men. The crew’s mess, on the sub’s third level, was one of the more spacious rooms in the submarine. The plastic, red-checkered tablecloths had now been taken off the thirteen fake-wood-topped tables bolted to the deck. Along the starboard and aft bulkheads were mounted a large-screen television set and VCR, plaques, glass boxes with University of Nebraska footballs, and posters, plus lockers with the some six hundred movie videotapes kept on board for the crew to watch. “Cornhusker Cafe” was engraved on a wooden sign hanging over the galley forward of the dining area, where the food was prepared and served. A salad bar stretched down the middle of the galley’s serving area, and to the right was a soft-drink dispenser and coffeemaker.
David Weller now ran this meeting. He was a master chief petty officer whose title was chief of the boat, or COB. He was almost always called “Cob,” rather than by his last name. Weller hardly fit the caricature of a beer-bellied chief with an anchor tattooed on his arm. Tall and lanky, with a blond mustache and thick glasses, Weller spoke softly and was an astute manager. He wielded enormous power on the submarine. He was part of the Nebraska’s senior management. Officers thought twice about challenging him. He was nearly equal in status to the sub’s executive officer. Weller was the man who commanded for the most part the enlisted ranks and represented their interests before the captain.
Just twenty-four hours earlier, the COB had been in a foul mood. Senior officers and chiefs from the Nebraska’s parent squadron were coming aboard to inspect the vessel during the first week of its patrol, and the sub looked like a teenager’s room. Instead of working together to complete the final repairs and get under way, the departments and divisions “were acting like eighteen fucking unions,” he had growled. To top it off, two brand-new red T-shirts had been snitched from one of the ship’s lockers.
Thursday morning, however, everything had finally come together. It always did, Weller knew. Tools and gear had finally been stowed, and for hours the day before, the entire crew had stooped to its hands and knees to scrub passageways and ladders. Instead of mops, they had used sponges and towels on the floor, because mops retain water and in the sub’s enclosed environment the stale smell is hard to bear.
Now the COB had one last item on his checklist: the muster. Submariners live by many important rules — among them, surface as many times as you dive and don’t leave port with any of your men standing on the pier. A submarine like the Trident has no fat in its roster, not like an aircraft carrier, which is a small city of five thousand seamen.
Because the Nebraska was so complex and the crew numbered only 162, each man had multiple duties and chores. A storekeeper on one shift could serve as a helmsman on another. A reactor operator might also serve as a diving officer. Everybody did windows, and absences were painfully felt. Weller wanted to make damn sure his chiefs and petty officers had accurately counted all their men present before the Nebraska cast off its lines.
The supervisors assured him everyone was accounted for. “All right, let’s go kick ’em in the ass,” the COB finally said.
The submariners broke out of their seats, laughing and joking, ready to do just that. The crew was in a good mood this morning. Spirits always seemed to brighten the day they were supposed to get under way. But Chad Thorson remained in his chair for a few moments longer. He had sat quiet and sullen through the entire meeting. Thorson couldn’t think of anything to be cheery about. He was leaving his beloved Kyung, disappearing from her life for almost three months.
“Stick” felt miserable. That was the nickname the other officers had pinned on Lieutenant Junior Grade Chad Thorson. He had delicate features and a shy, soft voice. He wore glasses and was brainy and skinny as a rail — five feet eleven inches and 140 pounds. His weight was all the more remarkable for the fact that he ate like a horse when he was on patrol. He never gained so much as an ounce. Thorson filled his tray to capacity at each meal, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the midnight rations called “midrats” and wolfed it all down. As an officer he was charged $500 for the meals he ate on patrol, so he intended to get his money’s worth. He considered the eighty-six-day cruise an all-you-can-eat buffet.
When he came aboard the Nebraska a year and a half ago as a timid ensign, Thorson and the bull ensign who reported with him had first been nicknamed “thing one and thing two.” But the Nebraska’s other officers were convinced that a tiger stirred inside the heart of twenty-five-year-old Chad Leif Thorson, just waiting to get out. Thing two, Thorson’s unofficial rank, could be a vaudevillian during crew skits. He could scare his shipmates to death by standing up to the biggest bully in a bar.
His grandparents, who along with his divorced mother had reared him, had pressured Chad to follow the family tradition and become a Lutheran minister. But he could never see himself as a man of the cloth, although through most of high school he had played the good grandson and promised to follow the family tradition. When he turned seventeen, Chad had persuaded his mother to sign the permission papers that allowed him to join the Navy.