Friday, August 19, 2016

Adventure classics: Spies in the air, spies under the sea

Around the World Submerged: The Voyage of the Triton

by Edward L. Beach, USN

One of a class of radar picket submarines intended for long-range defense during the Cold War, the USS Triton, when commissioned in 1959, was the biggest submarine ever built – and the most expensive. Within two years, still newer technology would make it obsolete, but not before it had performed one of history’s most spectacular voyages – the circumnavigation of the Earth, while remaining submerged.

The time was mid-February 1960. Within three months, the leaders of the U.S. and the USSR were scheduled to meet in Paris to discuss a possible d├ętente between their countries. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, still smarting from the USSR’s initial lead in the space race, wanted a spectacular military achievement to wow the Soviets.

There was a possibility at hand – the newly commissioned nuclear giant USS Triton, ready to make its maiden “shakedown” voyage under the command of World War II naval hero Captain Edward L. Beach, Jr. Would demonstrating the U.S.’s ability to use its radar anywhere in the world’s oceans while remaining submerged, and therefore virtually undetected, be enough to quiet Soviet Premier Khrushchev?

It was worth a try, Eisenhower decided. But to preserve deniability if the ploy failed, the Triton’s voyage must remain a closely-guarded secret until it was concluded.

Accordingly, as Beach wrote in his 1962 volume, Around the World Submerged: The Voyage of the Triton, “Late in the evening of the first of February, (with) all tests and evaluations complete. . . on my desk, as I came down from the bridge after Triton had been safely moored, (I found) a soiled envelope, slightly crumpled as though it might have been carried some distance by hand.”

Following the directions in the envelope, Beach met a few days later with a room full of admirals, captains and commanders. He had been directed to wear a civilian suit in order to mislead anyone who might question the nature of the rendezvous.  The question put to him: instead of its expected shakedown cruise in the North Atlantic, could the Triton go all the way around the world – while remaining submerged?

All he could say was, “Yes, Sir!”

And of course, could he keep the greatly extended voyage a secret from his crew members, some of them family men and expectant fathers. And still more urgent – could he keep the secret even from his wife?

“No one volunteered an explanation as to why the timing – and secrecy – were so vital,” Beach wrote, “and I did not ask.”

Most likely, Beach was aware of the impending Paris summit, scheduled for May 1960. It was possible, although less likely, that Beach may have known that the U.S. already an eye of the Soviets Since July 4, 1956, the U.S. had operated high-altitude U-2 spy planes over Soviet airspace. These flights at 70,000 feet were believed to be undetectable by ground radar, an important issue because unauthorized invasion of a country’s airspace could be considered an act of war.

But if the U.S. didn’t dare reveal its aerial overflights, it would be happy to trumpet an oceanic circumnavigation – provided the voyage was successful.

And so the Triton set off, its mission unknown to anyone on board save for Beach and a few of his officers.

“Dived,” Beach wrote on the first page of his report of the voyage. “We shall not surface until May.”
How much more than anyone realized would happen before that surfacing took place.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues an August of adventures at sea with Edward Beach’s Around the World Submerged: The Voyage of the Triton.)

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