BREMERTON — USS Bremerton has been commissioned longer than any submarine in the Navy — but don’t call it old.
“We’re a classic, like a 1967 Mustang,” said Cmdr. Wes Bringham, the fast attack sub’s affable commanding officer. “We’re the most classic and the most classy.”
Pearl Harbor-based USS Bremerton, commissioned 34 years ago, arrived Wednesday morning at its namesake city for a weeklong visit. It was last here in May 2012. Several of its current crew members were aboard and remember being embraced by the city and Navy League chapter that adopted the boat in January 2011. “We really value the relationship we have,” Bringham said. “When we come here, it’s almost like coming to a second homeport.”
This week, the sub’s sailors will participate in a community relations project at Hal’s Corner, attend a crew function at McCloud’s Grill House, play a baseball game against Bangor-based USS Nebraska crew members, and go to a mayor’s reception at City Hall.
The 360-foot-long sub, nicknamed Bad Fish, is carrying a crew of 14 officers and 134 enlisted men. Two hundred feet shorter than the area’s Ohio-class submarines, it’s designed to seek and destroy enemy subs and ships, deliver Tomahawk cruise missiles and special operations forces ashore, engage in mine warfare, and carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. There’s not much room for all those guys to perform all that work. Or eat.
The crew’s mess seats a maximum of 24, uncomfortably. Chief Earnest Rouse Jr., the leading culinary specialist, tries to shuffle up to 130 sailors through the four tables in an hour. For lunch Wednesday, about 75 sat down for bratwurst, sauerkraut, macaroni and cheese, and accouterments. The meal looked incredible, and smelled even better. “Some of the finest food in the fleet comes out of the submarine corps,” said Rouse.
The heart of the ship is the control room. Two periscopes, which can magnify up to 24 times by turning a handle like a motorcycle throttle, sit in the middle. Around the outside are a variety of computer screens and two navigator stations. Sailors here control several methods of orienting the boat, including moving water and air around, and a wing called a fairwater plane.
An emergency ballast blow rockets the ship to the surface, launching it out of the water like in the movies. “Every once in a while we get to do that,” said Chief of the Boat Wade Tandberg. “It’s fun.”
It wouldn’t be enjoyable if a boat was in the way of the 6,000-ton sub. Fire control chief Darrien Brown’s job, among other things, is to make sure that doesn’t happen. “We’re going to the top and they’re going to go to the bottom,” he said of the results of such a scenario.
Branching off the control room is the “sonar shack,” with four seats in front of sonar stacks, where sailors wearing headphones in the dark get a visual picture of sounds in the water. The screens can show a vessel’s range, course and much more. “There are so many layers to the system, it’s kind of like Photoshop,” said Sonar Technician Shane Madak.“Sonar is trigonometry and geometry,” Madak said. “And physics and oceanography and a lot of magic, as well,” added Bringham.
The sonar shack can also pick up sounds of whales, like noisy humpbacks off Maui in January. “All the sonar techs were in here saying, ‘Please, make it stop,’” Bringham said. “Actually, it was pretty cool.”
In the machinery room, skinny paths snake through crowded gadgets like an oxygen machine and carbon dioxide scrubber. It’s anchored by a huge red diesel engine designed in 1938 for locomotives. It can’t propel the boat if the nuclear reactor goes down, but can keep the lights on and systems running. Nothing here is very high-tech, which is just how Machinist Mate Bechett Simonis likes it. “I wanted to go to the boat that was the most mechanically inclined,” he said. “The choice I made was probably the best one.”
USS Bremerton can carry up to 26 Mark 48 ADCAP (advanced capability) torpedoes. It has four tubes from which to fire them, or Tomahawk cruise missiles. Loading and unloading them is a production. “I’ve never been able to offload them the easy way,” Nathan Horalik, a torpedoman for 8 1/2 years, said of firing a torpedo.
He has fired a lot of water, though. That’s how they test, by flooding the tubes with water for an air-powered piston to blast out. Sailors call them water slugs.
There’s not much living space. Bringham and executive officer Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Fassbender have their own small staterooms. Junior officers and top enlisted sleep in nine-man berths. Other sailors squeeze into 21-man bunkrooms stacked three high with racks. Under their mattress is a couple-inch-deep space for clothes, and each man gets a small foot locker for toiletries. Some sleep with the torpedoes to get more room.
Though the boat might be classic, the crew isn’t. Bringham is 43 just years old. Ninety percent of his sailors were born after the Los Angeles-class sub was commissioned on March 28, 1981. Their average age is 27, and 70 are younger than 25. “But these guys know their jobs,” Bringham said. “They go through years of technical training and really are the experts.”
USS Bremerton has local ties beyond its name. When it was launched in July 1978 by sponsor Helen Jackson, wife of U.S. Sen. Henry Jackson, it was under the command of Thomas Anderson, a current Poulsbo resident. Capt. Thomas Zwolfer, Naval Base Kitsap commander, skippered the boat from December 2005 to March 2008.
The sub left the shipyard six weeks ago and been conducting shakedown and predeployment cruises. It’s scheduled to deploy at the end of the year. It’ll return to Bremerton at least one more time. Bad Fish will be decommissioned here in late 2017 or 2018.