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