State of Watch: A Cryptologist’s Experience of the Cold War Submarine

Interview by Charlotte Thun-Hohenstein

“It didn’t happen. We were never there.”

Kevin Young agreed to speak with the Collaborative Research Center Vigilanzkulturen / Cultures of Vigilance about his experience on board US navy submarines as a cryptologist specializing in Russian. He enrolled in 1975, “at the height of the Cold War,” and served twenty years of active duty, rising to the rank of Senior Chief Petty Officer within twelve years.

It is difficult to imagine a more condensed yet multi-faceted exercise in vigilance than the Cold War submarine. Multiple layers of compression bore down upon the naval crew member, from the conceptual threat of nuclear confrontation to the mundane yet equally fatal danger of knocking into an exposed switch. To live on a submarine was to live in a state of meticulous attention to one’s surroundings with no personal boundaries. The confines of the space meant that watching one another was automatic, inescapable, and, ultimately, benign, while the vessel’s exposed infrastructure required default care to avoid the accidental catastrophe of bumping a switch or valve. Indeed, one wonders if the apparent risk of this built environment actually enhanced the crew’s effectiveness given the need for vigilance simply to move through the space.

The entire submarine operation was strategically animated by a perpetual watch over nuclear adversaries. As Mr. Young explains, grounded nuclear weapons were readily visible to satellite technology. Nuclear submarines, however, were underwater and in motion. Their neutralization required constant, physical following in order to be able to preemptively strike should the need arise. Typical annual service entailed one longer submarine cruise, perhaps two months, and several shorter deployments.

The following serves as a record based on memory, and testimony to an extraordinary dynamic intertwining the demands of statecraft, psychology, and natural environment.

Disclaimer: Mr. Young is an uncle of the interviewer.

Charlotte Thun-Hohenstein: What was your role in the navy? And your training?

Kevin Young: First of all, I was in a career field – cryptology – that consisted of five sub-specialties. Language was my area. I was chosen, I didn’t choose this. I joined the navy as a cook, to be a mess steward, because I thought that if I could feed 3000-4000 people three or four times a day [on an aircraft carrier] I could succeed in the restaurant business.

One day during basic training I was called to a cubicle where I was met by a man with a badge –“You’ve been chosen to go to language training but you need a security clearance.” I had no idea what that meant. “It says you’re a native Spanish speaker and conversant in German.” The options were Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian. We didn’t have a choice; I didn’t know which language I would be taking until I received orders to Monterey, California, and was enrolled in a forty-seven week Russian basic course.

None of us knew where we would go after language school. Those who did not meet security criteria were sent to the fleet in general ratings. I was cleared for primary technical training in Texas  and then sent to submarine school for six weeks in New London, Connecticut to be trained on  “electronic support measures,” (‘CESM’, pronounced “sees ‘em”).

I thought at the time I’d be assigned as a regular crewmember on a submarine. I was trained as a ‘communications specialist’. What am I gonna do? Meet Russians in port? I still hadn’t put it all together. The Russian that I’d be interpreting was just… communications. We were on submarines… presumably that included sailing around wherever we might encounter Russians?. Our role was referred to as Direct Support, providing tactical and strategic information to commanders at sea and ashore. In the 1970s even the existence of Signals Intelligence was highly classified; by now it has become common knowledge as a component of Information Warfare.

Why did the labels matter?

Exactly. It was so obvious. Anyone who heard that I had studied Russian and rode submarines asked, “Who are you spying on?” Our operative phrase was to “neither confirm nor deny.”

Submarine USS William H. Bates (SSN-680), photo from 11 December 1971. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

My first submarine out of [New London] was the USS William H. Bates. We went out on several training cruises for a week at a time for tactical proficiency exercises. You go down and you go deep, and you don’t come up until it’s over. My first trip was 65-70 days.

How did you understand your mission?

We were practicing combat proficiency. The mission of a US submarine was to neutralize the maritime nuclear threat and protect US and allied forces. Army and Air Force legs of the [nuclear] strategic triad were vulnerable given the visibility of their nuclear assets. The idea of the nuclear submarine is that it was in constant motion, and very difficult to track. The job of the fast attack submarine was to locate and track hostile ballistic missile submarines so that if during the time we were deployed nuclear war broke out, we could neutralize Russian subs before they could launch their missiles. We just toodled around looking for targets and provided live intelligence to the combat team of the submarine. Once our team identified the target and what it was doing, the combat operations would take over with tracking, practicing counter measures, and so forth.

This was absolutely covert. If a submarine commander was detected on station, while operating in Soviet or international waters, it was a career ender for the captain. A mark of his proficiency was to be able to operate undetected. Other nations also conducted similar operations; sometimes they would be detected but they didn’t care. For them it was part of the cost of doing business, or it was a deliberate move to assess reactions, response times, etc.

So there were different cultures of naval monitoring?

Different warfighting cultures entirely. The US was like, “We’re not there.”

Where did you fit into the submarine’s chain of command? 

I was part of a temporary division. We were integrated into the combat support division or operations department. We weren’t involved in running reactors, shooting torpedoes, or any of the other tasks carried out by permanent crewmen. We sat in a small space. The radio room. Wide enough for one person to sit down between two racks of equipment. If you wanted to get past someone you would literally climb over them.

Working in small spaces: Systems operators work aboard the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS PARGO (SSN 650). The PARGO is underway north of the Arctic Circle, 06/04/1991. Source: picryl.com.

I was deep in the space, so to get up and go to the bathroom or get coffee or do anything I’d have to climb over three or four people. I suspect it’s why I’ve gotten claustrophobic in recent years.

Did the navy’s preliminary psychiatric evaluation of recruits involve evaluating attention span?

No. It involved unresolved issues, hostility, anxiety, depression. Mainly social skills to be able to function with absolutely zero privacy, and no expectation of privacy. On the loo, in the shower. There was no privacy anywhere. My first trip we didn’t have a bunk. We had a makeshift metal rack with a mattress in the torpedo room. My first bunkmate was a rocket-powered submarine-launched depth bomb.

Submarine interior with beds and torpedo bomb. Source: wallpaperflare.com.

We worked from the moment we got on board until the moment we got off, in twelve-hour shifts. Two linguists would be on board, with one always on duty. We shared the same bed – when I was sleeping, he was on watch, and vice versa, and it’s gross. It was always a problem having enough hot water. It makes noise, so you’re encouraged not to shower. People became highly fragrant, odiferous. But you don’t notice it after a while.

What did you spend your 12h shift doing?

That’s what I can’t say. I was sitting in the radio room, trained in communication, and we were operating in the Arctic. If I come right out and say 2+2 = 4, then it’s a violation of classified information.

Did you struggle with focus?

For one thing, it’s easy to focus when there’s absolutely nothing else to do. There was nowhere to go. But different people had different skill levels. One of the things that drives people in my family crazy is that I can listen and process simultaneous conversations in a crowded area. That comes with years of experience. If you have five conversations taking place, you have to identify the content, people, and activity involved, and based on intelligence collection priorities, you decide which one you’re going to monitor fully, all the while keeping tabs on others while performing associated analysis and clerical-type functions, always as a member of a close-knit team. Only team players were selected for these missions.

Listening closely: Missile Technician 1st Class (Submarines) (MTI) (SS) at a control room console, 01/11/1981, Source: nara.getarchive.net.

It sounds like training prepared you well.

Absolutely. And the training was never over. You were never ‘trained’, you were always training. Basic competence levels were re-assessed annually by mandatory exams.

I’m still shocked by the 12h stint. Did you ever fall asleep on the job?

No. If you did, someone was sitting two inches from you. You were almost touching people next to you. They had to allow people to sleep 4-6h a day. To this day I cannot sleep more than 6h. You got enough to function. But keep in mind you’re not walking. You never walk more than 50 ft anywhere, you’re not exactly physically exhausted. It’s an almost sedentary lifestyle.

How often did you take breaks?

There were no breaks. If you had to use the bathroom, or get a cup of coffee, that was it. And we had three meals a day. Good food too. Sub service has the best food in the navy. And when you got off watch you had to clean. Submarines are immaculate. When you’re not working you’re cleaning or training, maybe with the occasional film night. There’s virtually no time off.

So you never trained your attention span per se?

No. You had to show the aptitude. It was not unusual for someone to go through one year and a half in school, be deployed one time, and be deemed unfit.

What was the biggest danger on a submarine?

Everybody on a sub is trained to do two things: stop flooding, and fight fires. When you have a fire on board all of the O2 is consumed and you all suffocate, even if there’s no explosion. Flooding needs no explanation.

Did you default trust all your crew mates?

Absolutely 100%. Everybody knew that you might be the person that saves their life, and they might be the person who saves your life. Rarely, other problems would arise: a torpedo that would start running – a ‘hot fish’– or a radiation leak. Nothing is hidden. Everything is valves and switches – if you bump into something by accident you could create something catastrophic in an instant.

Valves and switches in a submarine. Source: wallpaperflare.com.

Focus was never an issue. Even whilst deployed, you were constantly training damage control, for example, simulating fires in the control room, or declaring combat stations where you wear oxygen masks. You had to be ready any time day or night, whether you’re on watch or off watch. And you became able to sleep through almost anything. There’s always noise, the lights are always on.

Who had the best attention span on board?

Usually the person with the most experience. Most people knew if you were deployed again, you were deemed OK.

Are people constantly watching each other?

You couldn’t miss each other. There was no question of ignoring people. If you tried to be standoffish or self-isolating you weren’t a team player. It was essential to work as one. There were people who were exceptionally gifted, but not wanted at sea because they weren’t trusted.

I’m struck by the phrase ‘on watch’– was this official language?

Lookout boy aloft by Harrison Weir. Image Appears in: Pictures and Prattle for the Nursery, Date Image Published: 1880 (?). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Yes. On watch meant on duty. You’re either on watch or off watch, that’s duty status. Being assigned to submarines is your duty status. When you’re aboard, you stand watch. The correct term was ‘on watch’. ‘The watch section’. It goes back to the days of sail when you had lookouts.

Whereas underwater ‘watch’ now really means listening…

Right. Monitoring. The slogan for the NSA which you could get on T-shirts and mugs was “In God We Trust. All others, we monitor.” This was used by Reagan in detente negotiations – “trust but verify.”

Do you think the act of gathering intelligence is innately confrontational?

It’s confrontational, but it’s also dangerous because it exposes one’s ‘sources and methods’—”How did they get their intel?” If an adversary finds out what our people are trained to do, what we’re exploiting for intelligence, then the enemy closes that avenue of intelligence. There are often very inexpensive fixes to very expensive methods. There’s a huge investment in manpower and training.

A case in point: John Walker spied for the KGB. For years, the US navy knew there was a leak in the sub community. I was polygraphed twice. It was coming from Norfolk, Virginia – not a cryppie, but someone who ran the communications center, and provided all the information to the Russians. Billion-dollar systems can be defeated and thwarted by ridiculously cheap methods. The US became aware of a leak because Soviet subs were waiting for us everywhere we went. But even knowing where our general location was meant to be, they couldn’t locate the sub itself, because we were quiet, and had superior tactics.

‘Patrol quiet’ was crucial – if someone drops a hammer or tool on metal on a sub, you can hear it for miles. Sonar technicians monitor sound waves in the ocean. You learn to listen all the time.

Did exhaustion ever undermine your work?

Nope but we were always burned out. It didn’t compromise your work unless you became suicidal, depressed, alcoholic, or went AWOL [“absent without leave”]. “You can rest when you’re dead” was a saying for the surface navy. That was then. Attitudes have changed.

Was suicide an issue on subs?

Everywhere in the Navy. People were so repressed – you could never say anything. You couldn’t meet people from other countries, you had to get permission to get married. Being at sea for three months or six months, you either became depressed, or lonely, or alcoholic. Which was not uncommon. There were lots of cases of people going AWOL. Suicide prevention and other initiatives like addiction counseling were in place in the 70s. And by the 1980s, suicide prevention and awareness training was made mandatory for all supervisors and managers on an annual basis. Unstable marriages were another serious problem.

Did the initiatives help?

Absolutely. We [the navy] had to interview people. We were responsible for providing a trained, motivated crew ready to do their job. If someone went missing that compromised your operational ability. You had to have a crew that was willing to be there. And they had to be willing to fight.

One of the ways that they controlled people, however, was by keeping them broke. If you couldn’t afford to do anything, you couldn’t afford to get in trouble. When I was newly married with two young children we received state-subsidized food through the WIC program. That kind of frugality made for great friends and camaraderie though through the trials. Some of my best friends are from those periods of shared struggles. Whoever had money in port bought the beer and we got together and drank it.

Beers. Source: pxhere.com.

Ultimately, despite these hardships, I loved my job. I went into it whole hog. I didn’t care what was going on with personality conflicts, getting the good job, etc.

Is there anything you are still vigilant about?

“Transmit and die” was a slogan for communications security, rather like the old “loose lips sink ships.” Today it’s common knowledge that anything you say or write on your phone can be read and will be should the need arise. Also electromagnetic radiation, for example, when you’re holding a cellphone to your ear, and its danger of brain cancer and hearing loss etc.

A view of the Ballast Control Panel on board the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine USS PENNSYLVANIA (SSBN-735), 01/11/1995. Source: nara.getarchive.net.

When I was on duty, I always wore a pair of headphones. One navy buddy is deaf. Probably half the people I was stationed with wear hearing aids. Hearing loss was a very real lasting physical disability. And PTSD. When I retired in 1995, I had panic attacks for the first time in my life and was diagnosed with PTSD. As long as you’re maintaining that level of stress on the job, your body and mind adjust and you can keep going. It was a very close-knit community, and everyone was going through the same thing. And that was strengthening. But when you stop doing it, your body is like “Wait what happened? Where’s the stress?” The change in lifestyle was such a shock, that I couldn’t do it. I came down hard. I had a soft crash – not suicidal, but full of anxiety and panic disorder. And then I missed the navy terribly. For ten years. I kept dreaming about it. All the symbols in my dreams, people in my dreams – long empty corridors of locked doors where people were working and I couldn’t access them any more. After several years of therapy, I managed to leave those corridors behind and move forward with my life.

Charlotte Thun-Hohenstein is a PhD Candidate in Stanford’s History Department (Early Modern Europe) where she works on her thesis “Symbolic Medicine: The Vigilant Hearts of Jeremias Drexel, S.J. (1581–1638)”. From March to August 2021, she was a Visiting Fellow at the Collaborative Research Center 1369 “Cultures of Vigilance”.


Cover image: United States Navy attack submarine USS William H. Bates (SSN-680), between 1973 and 2000 , circa 1990s, Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Cite this article as: Charlotte Thun-Hohenstein, State of Watch: A Cryptologist’s Experience of the Cold War Submarine. Interview with Kevin Young, in: Vigilanzkulturen, 30/06/2023, https://vigilanz.hypotheses.org/4229.



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Blogredaktion (2023, 30. Juni). State of Watch: A Cryptologist’s Experience of the Cold War Submarine. Vigilanzkulturen. Abgerufen am 29. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/v7n3

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