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Shipmates and well-wishers gather on
USS Narwhal (SSN-671) for a tour
prior to her inactivation ceremony.


Shipmates Bid Farewell
to USS Narwhal


by LT Richard Dubnansky


Every ship has a history, and each of them is unique. But after attending the inactivation ceremony of my old ship, USS Narwhal (SSN-671), I soon realized that she was more unique than most.

The design of the ship was certainly ahead of its time. Among the more significant features were a natural circulation reactor plant, scoop seawater injection, and a single, enormous, directly-coupled main turbine. Although she was one-of-a-kind, many of her innovations found their way into later ships. Meeting with those who served on her at the start, I realized something that I never appreciated when I served onboard – that her design was so revolutionary that it made her the Seawolf or Virginia of her time.

Over 600 people, including several of our brothers from the World War II Narwhal (SS-167), attended the inactivation ceremonies in Norfolk on 11 January 1999. This huge turnout was a testament to the bond that submarine Sailors share. It was incredible to hear all the ship’s accomplishments recounted that day. Listening to the stories of the deployments she made, the awards she won, and the many challenges she faced over her 30-year plus career made me feel that I was part of some very significant history.

Even though there was a feeling of loss knowing that the ship that drew us together was going away, the overall spirit of the event was more a celebration of the excellence of the Submarine Force and one of its historic platforms. The highlight of several days of observances was the memorable speech of CAPT W.A. Matson, USN (ret.), Narwhal’s first skipper, which is excerpted here.

Long live the Narwhal!

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The official party mans the dias for Narwhal's inactivation.


Remarks by CAPT William A. Matson, USN (ret.)

How wonderful it is to be in the presence of so many friends and shipmates of Narwhal as she comes to the end of her illustrious career. It is a signal honor to be asked to speak to you this evening. Before I address the early days of Narwhal, I wish to extend my thanks and congratulations to all those who have made this week possible. I am an alumnus of several ships and submarines that have permanent organizations, but there is nothing to compare with Narwhal’s group … the continued support of active duty Narwhal is truly incomparable. BRAVO ZULU!

The purpose of Narwhal was simple – to build the world’s quietest submarine using two unique features: a natural circulation reactor and a direct drive turbine.... My indoctrination period at Naval Reactors was interrupted by a quick “Go-to-Idaho” order to observe the S5G prototype in operation.... It was clear to me from my first glimpse of the prototype system that could test a natural circulation reactor in a simulated seaway, that this was a unique submarine program. Narwhal clearly had the personal attention of Rickover and his top engineers. The number 671, a hundred numbers after Nautilus, was not an accident.

The design and engineering that went into creating a quiet engineering plant had the fortuitous effect of developing marvelously accessible and maintainable systems and equipment. Also, I was blessed with an extraordinary combination of officers, chief petty officers, and men who had been top performers in previous duty stations. We were all there very early in the construction process, but by 9 September 1967 she was ready to be launched … the champagne bottle broke perfectly, and Narwhal’s life in the water began.

As it turned out, we had 22 months of further construction and testing before we would be commissioned. During 1968, the Electric Boat design engineers went on strike, and almost all work came to a halt. I elected to use this delay as an opportunity to resolve a problem that was inherent in the division of responsibility between Naval Reactors and BuShips. The advanced technology in the engineering plant was not necessarily carried into the forward part of the ship, because Naval Reactors had no responsibility for the non-nuclear aspects. We assigned all of the forward systems and components to one or more people to analyze and had meetings with everyone in the crew to encourage any reasonable idea.

In a month, we had come up with about a dozen really good ideas and composed a detailed letter to BuShips, via the Supervisor of Shipbuilding and the normal chain of command. Now you can appreciate the small probability of getting design changes approved and instituted in a submarine under contruction. However, if you send a copy of the letter to Admiral Rickover as a part of your weekly report and plant the seed that his quiet engineering plant was attached to the equivalent of a noisy lawn mower – things happen! Rickover started calling BuShips about what they were doing with our design changes before our letter even arrived. Not surprisingly, we got most of what we wanted. Besides doing many things, Admiral Rickover was a great practical engineer and helped me to realize that most engineering problems have very simple causes.

That whole experience really brought us all together, because it was a total ship effort, and the crew saw something happen that supported our purpose and mission.

Finally in April 1969 the ship was through testing and getting ready for fast cruise. The potential day for initial sea trials – which of course had to be a Sunday – was Easter Sunday. There was considerable reluctance from the naval support forces to get underway on Easter Sunday, and I remember a fascinating conversation with the Admiral that went like this, with no preamble: “Matson, are you religious?” I elected to say, “Yes.” “Do you have any objection to getting underway on Easter Sunday?” “No, Sir – I’ve been waiting for two years.” “All right Matson – you do the services, and I’ll read the Bible for the crew.”

Our trials went 21/2 days because of having to test both a natural circulation mode and a pressurized mode of reactor operation. In addition, we had a direct-drive turbine, which was somewhat of an unknown quantity, particularly during submerged emergency reversals.

In later life, I rode initial sea trials on many submarines with Admiral Rickover, and without fail, every one had a story. Our own story occurred during the watch section Reactor Scram drills. The first two reactor shutdowns and recoveries went like clockwork. I was with the Admiral in Maneuvering. The Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW) would announce “Reactor Scram” to Control. The OOD would order “Rig ship for reduced electric power,” various components would be turned off, and an orderly start up of the reactor and restoration of power would be made. On the third drill, the Admiral pointed to the EOOW and said, “You’re dead.” The Electric Panel operator said “I’m in charge. I am now the EOOW,” and then said to Control, “The EOOW is dead.” Control said, “Very well – Rig ship for reduced electric power.” Rickover looked at me and said, “What is this? – some kind of memorial? Go forward and find out what’s going on.” Well, I was perfectly happy to go forward at the time – and we got it sorted out and finished our trials very successfully. When presenting the traditional box of cigars to the crew, the Admiral couldn’t resist commenting on our memorial to the dead EOOW.

The next two years of elaborate testing and preparing the ship for real-world operations were extremely rewarding. Narwhal was indeed the world’s quietest submarine, and the Submarine Force allowed her to exploit her capabilities at the height of the Cold War.

In the summer of 1970, Narwhal was assigned a support role to the ballistic missile submarine force at our base in Holy Loch, Scotland … in the spring of 1971 we embarked on our first Special Operations.

We now live in an age of Discovery Channel revelations and books like Blind Man’s Bluff – but it is still forbidden to speak of these matters. Let me just say that Narwhal went in harm’s way and measured up!

After leaving Narwhal, I continued to follow her exploits, and even after retirement, I always inquired about her well-being, particularly at our annual Submarine League Meetings in Washington. The answer has always been the same – she continues to have a great crew and performs well.

During Narwhal’s career, the Cold War was won, and the Soviet Union disintegrated. I think when Gorbachev realized he would have to rebuild the entire Soviet submarine force to overcome their inferiority to ours, it was a dominant factor in his decision to come to terms with the West.

I know that listening to me talk about Narwhal may be like trying to drink from a fire hydrant, but it gives me great pleasure to be able to tell you of Narwhal’s early career. I salute all of you who came after us and sailed her well.

Thank you.

LT Richard Dubnansky is on the staff of the Submarine Warfare Division (N87).