Undersea Warfare The Official Magazine of the U.S. Submarine Force Fall 2003 U.S. Submarines… Because Stealth Matters Cover of Fall 2003 Issue
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USS Hawkbill's Sail Surfaces in the IDAHO DESERT
by LTJG Penny Cockerell, USNR

Photo of USS Hawkbill's Sail with speaker in front of it. Further explained in article.Folks passing through a rural Idaho town of mountains and sagebrush have been asking for months, “What the heck is a submarine sail doing in the middle of the desert?”

On 19 July, the answer became clear, when after more than two years of preparation, the sail, or conning tower, of USS Hawkbill (SSN-666) was officially dedicated as a monument during the town of Arco’s “Atomic Days” celebration. On hand were some two dozen reservists from the Pocatello Naval Reserve Center, many of whom had spent the last 18 months laying the foundation, laying down conduits for lighting, and welding the sail in place.

It was no small task transforming Hawkbill’s sail into the only known “Submarine in the Desert,” but because of Arco’s associations with the development of naval nuclear power, the town’s boosters latched onto the idea when the ship was decommissioned in 2001. And they arranged for this most prominent part of the ship to be donated to their community.

Arco – population 1,023 – was one of the key sites where nuclear propulsion for submarines was pioneered, and during the Cold War, much of southeast Idaho was a hotbed of nuclear-power development and testing. Unfortunately, because much of this work was classified, nobody knew about it.

Over the last several decades, some 40,000 sailors have been trained in nuclear operations at three prototype nuclear power plants in the Arco region. “The very first submarine reactor prototype was in Idaho, so southeast Idaho has a very big connection to nuclear power,” said LT Robert D. Boston, a reserve engineering officer who helped install Hawkbill’s sail in Arco, where the future Idaho Science Center will be built.

Once the sail was donated, the next step was moving it some 1,000 miles from the sea to the high desert. Although the move was a major challenge, it became a lot easier when a group of truck drivers agreed to transport the sail in three parts for just the cost of gasoline. The project hit a snag when local state troopers spotted the massive tonnage moving down the highway on three separate trucks and deemed it too dangerous to continue. Undaunted, Hawkbill supporters contacted U.S. Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) to “pull some strings” so the sail could, well, sail through. And as it rolled into town, Arco’s mayor, Jacques Marcotte, was on top, saluting onlookers.

Photo of 4 sailors salutingThe Department of Energy and Idaho’s tourism office had donated $6,000 to hire a crane for a day to put the sail in place, and some 15 volunteers, including six welders – many of them reservists – scrambled to get the job done in such a short time. LT Boston toted up the cost of their labor and figured the reservists saved about $50,000 by devoting their drill weekends to installing the sail in its permanent location. “This has cost the town nothing,” Boston said.

But their efforts have already paid dividends in bringing a symbol of pride to the region. Hawkbill’s illustrious history was recounted at the dedication of the monument by the ship’s last commanding officer, CAPT Robert Perry who told of her 29 years of service with visible emotion. To one side stood an American flag that once flew from the decommissioned submarine.

Hawkbill deployed 10 times to the Pacific and six times to the Arctic Ocean, where it supported the National Science Foundation in several crucial scientific studies at the North Pole. Perry described how that very sail was used as a battering ram to break through three feet of ice to enable the boat to surface at the Pole – a dramatic event that the crew found both jarring and exciting. “I estimate that Hawkbill steamed almost 1.5 million miles,” said Perry. “Most of what she did on her many deployments remains classified to this day, but I can guarantee you that her crews contributed significantly to our country’s ultimate victory in the Cold War.”

Hawkbill’s distinctive hull number – 666 – earned her the nickname of “the Devil Boat,” but that ominous biblical designation – prominent in the Book of Revelations – never appeared to affect its many missions. “Our Navy’s not superstitious like that, so we didn’t skip the number,” Boston noted.

Most submarines end up as scrap metal after they’re decommissioned, but Perry said he was particularly gratified to see Hawkbill’s sail retained. “The last time I stood on top of that sail was on 22 September 1999, when we entered Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for decommissioning,” said Perry. “That was a very sad day for my crew and me.”

The new monument’s significance was not lost on its new custodians. Among the attendees at the dedication ceremony were more than a dozen members of the United States Submarine Veterans “Hawkbill” Base, eight of whom had served in World War II. They all wore submarine ball caps and blue vests embroidered with their records of service on former submarines. Retired CAPT Lawrence Gebhardt spoke of submariners as a tight-knit family and of how submarines – with their “sharp teeth” – had repeatedly deterred the nation’s enemies, near and far.

Now entrusted with what remains of Hawkbill, Arco’s town leaders plan to make the sail a cornerstone of their future museum, which will highlight nuclear developments both during and after the Cold War. Most of the things that happen within the Submarine Force remain secret,” said Clay Condit, chairman of the Idaho Science Center, “That’s why they’re known as the ‘Silent Service.’ But this history should be preserved.”

As for stranding a submarine in the desert, Steve Dunn, a representative of the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program, said he figured the ship would adapt. “Idaho isn’t quite the Arctic, but I bet this winter, Hawkbill will feel quite at home.”

LTJG Cockerell is a Naval Reserve public affairs officer with Navy Information Bureau Detachment 1118 at Fort Carson, Colorado.