Friday, August 26, 2016

Adventure classics – Secret rendezvous, Cold War crisis

Around the World Submerged: The Voyage of the Triton

by Edward L. Beach

At 2 a.m. on March 5, 1960, in a drizzling South Atlantic rain, the USS Macon stands by in response to a distress call: a seriously ill sailor needs to be transferred from a submarine to receive medical aid. Five hundred yards from the Macon, its lights blazing as it lowers its boat, the submarine rises only high enough bring its sail, with numbers effaced, above the surface. The ship’s main deck is a few inches out of the water, with an occasional wave splashing over.

The Macon’s lifeboat nears, its gunwale level with the submarine deck. A sailor steps from the deck into the boat. Within a few minutes, the submarine disappears as mysteriously as it had come.

But who is the sailor? What is the unknown submarine where he was so lately a crew member? And what was the reason for the secrecy in which it operated? The only clues are personal letters of thanks from the submarine’s commander. More information than that must wait another two months until the submarine – USS Triton -- can finally make its identity known.

The reason for the secretive transfer began a few days earlier, Edward Beach reports in his 1962 volume, Around the World Submerged: The Voyage of the Triton, when the ship’s doctor came to him.

“Captain, I’m afraid we have a pretty sick man aboard.”

This, Beach says, was one of the happenings he had most feared during the shakedown cruise of the Triton, the world’s newest and largest nuclear submarine, whose secret mission was to circumnavigate the globe – while remaining completely submerged.

Captain Beach, US Navy photo
“I’m afraid he might have a kidney stone,” the doctor reported.

“My tone of voice must have indicated relief that it wasn’t something highly contagious like smallpox or meningitis,” Beach writes.

But although not contagious, the sailor’s condition failed to improve. Medical aid, the doctor feared, of a kind not available on the submarine might be needed. But the Triton was nearing Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, where the sailor would be far beyond aid. Weeks’ old information had indicated that the USS Macon was the closest US Navy ship, due to dock soon at Montevideo.

Despite the secrecy of its mission, the Triton might have risked surfacing in a foreign port except for reports that the Argentine Navy had blocked the exit to one of its bays due to reports of – of all things – submarine activity, ending the possibility of help from outside the U.S. or its vessels. If the Macon couldn’t help, the next nearest source of medical aid would be Pearl Harbor, nearly eight thousand miles away in the Pacific.

“There never was a question of taking any chances with (the sailor’s) life,” Beach writes. “Both my orders for the trip and the traditions of the US Navy for peacetime operations categorically forbade it. . . We calculate that we will have gone 2,000 miles out of our way on this mercy mission (with the Macon) . . . almost equal to an Atlantic transit.”

In spite of the delay, the tension that had strained the atmosphere in the Triton lightened after the ailing sailor's transfer. Not until the ship returned to the U.S. on May 11, 1960 would its crew know that an even tenser situation was brewing in the skies overhead.

“Have you heard about the U-2?” Beach was asked as he was ushered out of the White House office where he had received President Eisenhower’s congratulations on his mission.

"No," Beach answered. "What is it -- a new German submarine?"

He would find out when he caught sight of the newspapers later that day. The U-2 episode was the downing of a U.S. spy plane piloted by CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers over USSR airspace. On the very day of the Triton’s triumphant return, Eisenhower acknowledged his awareness of the spy program. And the Paris summit talks which might have led to an early détente between the US and the USSR were cancelled as the world struggled through decades more of Cold War.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins a September of young adventurers with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter.)

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