When crew members of the USS Nebraska were told that they needed to stay on their mission an extra few days, they were bummed. But Time magazine correspondent Douglas C. Wallerthe first reporter ever granted an extended stay on an American nuclear subwas psyched. “I was totally on adrenaline,” he recalls. “Anytime they had to rotate me off the sub, they had to drag me off.”
In Big Red: Three Months on Board a Trident Nuclear Submarine, Waller recounts a 1999 mission of the Nebraska, a Washington Monument-sized sub with a stash of weapons capable of pulverizing about two dozen major cities. After six months of cajoling Navy higher-ups into letting him do the project, Waller spent five weeks meeting the crew and training alongside them at the King’s Bay Naval Base in Georgia. He then spent three weeks aboard the suball on his vacation time. (He reconstructed the other nine weeks from interviews.)
For Waller, 51, it was just another unusual military experience. During the ’90s, he wrote one book on fighter pilots and another about Special-Forces commandos. Waller says the sub mission was far less physically taxing than the others; he didn’t have to spend hours traipsing through forests or risk losing his lunch in steep fighter-jet dives. But, mentally, he says, sub life was the most difficult of all.
“This was a very lonely patrol,” he says. “Unlike modern warship and carrier dutywhere you can phone and e-mail homesub crews are cut off from their families. Your only communications with home are ‘familygrams’: Eight times during your patrol, your wife can send you a 40-word message.
“Even more of a problem,” he continues, “is that the Navy reviews every message. [It] does that because it does not want an upset Trident submariner with 120 nuclear weapons at his disposal. But when I interviewed the wives to see how they were coping, [they said] the lack of contact drove them nuts.”
Though crew members mined Waller for the latest major news items, submariners actually get more news today than they used toworld headlines, sports scores, market reports, and more, via the sub’s communications system with headquarters. “The Navy doesn’t want submariners living in the dark,” he says. “If, by some freak accident, the sub captain gets an order to fire his nuclear weapons, they don’t want him to do it blindly without questioning whether it’s real.”
The safeguards against accidental launch are impressive, Waller concluded. Not only does a launch require the pulling of three keys and one triggerin different parts of the shipbut a number of other buttons have to be set correctly. Additionally, one of the necessary keys is locked in a safe whose combination is provided to the crew only when the launch instructions are sent. “There are at least a few dozen people who would have to be involved,” Waller says. “For a rogue launch, you would have to have an entire crew go berserkand they screen these guys very closely for psychological problems.”
Though Waller considers cinematic portrayals of intrasub power strugglesthe centerpiece of the movie Crimson Tideto be a bit exaggerated, he says that most cinematic depictions of sub life (including Crimson Tide, U-571, and The Hunt for Red October) are largely accurate. Fortunately for Waller, life aboard the Nebraska was mostly pleasant; he found the grub to be good, the bathrooms spotless, and the sleeping quartersthough crampedhighly sleep-conducive. He even made it through the “angles and dangles,” a drill in which a series of steep rises and falls make crew members hang on to wall grips just to avoid tumbling around the sub. Still, Waller isn’t signing up for full-time duty anytime soon. “It was fascinating to be on board, but it takes an awful toll because of the time away from your family,” he says. “I’ll be keeping my day job.” Louis Jacobson