Stillwater News Press

July 5, 2013

Courage Under Fire: Tom Kinnick

By Elizabeth Keys
Stillwater NewsPress

STILLWATER, Okla. — The big globe at Spring Valley Rural School east of Stillwater spun around with names of places the students could not pronounce in the 1950s. Tom Kinnick attended the one room schoolhouse — the closest school to his family’s section of land that his great-great-grandfather had traded a livery stable in Perry and $100 to acquire in 1923.

With one teacher through the eighth grade, Kinnick stretched his imagination beyond the family farm coming into town and graduating with the first class at the “new” Stillwater High School in 1961. He married his high school sweetheart, Priscilla Washinka, and they shipped off together to see those tiny dots on the schoolroom globe with Kinnick’s enlistment in the Navy. Kinnick not only learned to pronounce the names of many exotic lands — he served in military intelligence gathering data about just what some of those faraway countries were up to in sea ports throughout the world.

His first deployment was aboard the USS Currituck (AV-7) which was nicknamed the Wild Goose. The Currituck class seaplane tenders provided base facilities for squadrons of seaplanes which were used extensively in World War II. The Navy continued to use the seaplanes for patrols and Kinnick found himself in ports of call from the Far East of Japan and the Philippines to the hostile shores of Vietnam.

“We would be anchored from 2 to 300 miles offshore and the sea planes would fly back and forth to get serviced,” Kinnick said.  

Up and down the Vietnamese coast, the ship often had to use naval gunfire to protect the sea planes conducting search and rescue missions for downed air crews.

Sailing the seven seas

As the United States entered heavy combat in southeast Asia, Kinnick moved to Command Cruiser Destroyer Flotilla 3 on which he served as Admiral Donald Irvine’s personal secretary. They continued routinely patrolling in the western Pacific with calls at Japanese, Taiwanese, Malaysian and Philippine ports. The routine came to a halt when North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. His crew steamed into war, cruising the waters off the Vietnamese shore as American involvement began to gather momentum. For 47 days, the crew battled in support of American and South Vietnamese troops on the ground fighting the communists.  

“Forward observers would call in targets and we would move to shoot in those areas,” Kinnick said.

Often targets were spotted by submarines which went undetected beneath the seas — and Kinnick became intrigued with the elite group. He volunteered for submarine service but “only one out of 100 are accepted.”

“Submarine school is intense,” he said. “There’s psychological testing, physical fitness aspects — and the academics of learning the machinery.”

Because of the stressful environment aboard submarines, personnel are accepted only after rigorous testing and observation at the Navy Submarine School New London Base in Groton, Conn. Besides their academic and technical training, much of which is classified top secret, all prospective U.S. naval submariners undergo three phases of testing related to the intense pressure differential between the surface and submarine operating depth. But what washes sailors out, if they are not claustrophobic and their ear drums don’t burst from the pressure, is the ultimate test of the diving tower which is really “spooky,” he said.

Packed like sardines into a dark room, damage control training classes replicate the submarine space and what can go wrong creating a need to escape. To simulate the possibility, sailors are locked in the tight space as water rapidly rises neck-high and they have to pop out of the hatch like a cork. It can be a harrowing experience but once you do it, the test is almost exhilarating, Kinnick said.

“Submarine school is very specialized training — but in the end — they are the best folks in the world,” Kinnick said. “When you go on patrol, you are undetected and it’s not fun and games. It’s real.”

Under way on nuclear power

Kinnick was assigned to the USS Robert E. Lee, a nuclear-powered BOOMER with 16 Polaris ballistic missiles “more powerful than the Nagassi and Hiroshima bombs.” At the time, 19 to 21 of the “41 For Freedom” submarines were on patrol throughout the world as a deterrent force against nuclear war with any foreign power threatening the United States during the Cold War. Their mission was to prevent war and their motto was “ever vigilant, always to be ready, always there.”

Kinnick was based out of New London, Conn., but he had to fly to Holy Loch, Scotland, when his crew rotated on patrol. The submarines operated with two crews, the Blue and Gold, managing the most effective weapons in the military arsenal as the cornerstone of the Navy’s conflict avoidance and resolution. There were 100 men and 12 officers aboard. Most missions involved 56 days under the surface in constant radio contact but with no other communications, moving at 20 knots-plus submerged.

The USS Robert E. Lee was a 321-foot long boat and was the second oldest of the Polaris fleet. Strategic missiles could be fired while the boat was submerged, meaning that it was far less likely to be detected before firing. In the compact quarters, everything had its place. Sea water was distilled aboard for drinking, cooking and  “we had the best food.”

When most men measure time in days and weeks, Polarismen counted in months. Months of training. Months on patrol. Months at home. The crew knew they could be gone for 60 or more days and that they would be submerged for the entire time. In addition to sea duty pay, submariners earn hazard duty pay. Where they were going, what route they would take to get there, just when they should return, only the skipper knew. But there was an awareness throughout the crew that the reason for their patrol is to be ready to launch the sub’s cargo of 16 Polaris missiles if, and when, the president so orders. They were riding in a billion dollar machine and all of the money, all of the time spent in training, all of the effort put into the system was for that sole purpose, to serve as a deterrent to an enemy attack on America and represent a stabilizing element for world peace during the Cold War, Kinnick said.

The nuclear power meant the boat could stay underwater forever with the only operational limit being the amount of food that the boat could carry “and human endurance,” Kinnick said. That endurance was tested in 1968 when the North Koreans captured the USS Pueblo, a major incident in the Cold War at the height of the Vietnam War.

“Something dreadful happened and we had to spin our missiles ready for anything the mission targeted,” Kinnick said.  

He said they didn’t react because the father of the nuclear navy, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, configured their missions as a preventive measure to another world war. A submarine reacting could mean doomsday for the world. Kinnick met Rickover in Scotland when the admiral was interviewing a potential candidate to command a submarine. Rickover handpicked the commanders as he was often quoted as saying he had a son — and if his son was on the submarine he would want it to be as safe as possible.

As the submarines were on standby throughout the world, the crew on the Pueblo were held captive by the North Koreans. Nobody wanted a nuclear war. Weighing heavy on the submerged crew of the Robert E. Lee during this trying time in history, the submariners and the nation evoked the  submarine and diver’s verses from the Navy hymn:

Lord God, our power evermore,

Whose arm doth reach the ocean floor,

Dive with our men beneath the sea;

Traverse the depths protectively.

O hear us when we pray, and keep

Them safe from peril in the deep.

Bless those who serve beneath the deep,

Through lonely hours their vigil keep.

May peace their mission ever be,

Protect each one we ask of thee.

Bless those at home who wait and pray,

For their return by night or day.

On the USS Robert E. Lee, Kinnick said the men had short family grams from home and radio news to keep up with world events but they didn’t see the draft card burning, or war protests that spread through the national conscious. Brief, personal messages from families and friends of the crewmen which let them know how things at home were going were great for morale within the deep but it was shocking to be in the San Francisco airport coming home on leave and be called a baby killer, Kinnick said. The country was conflicted about the nation’s efforts but a presidential executive order awarded the Vietnam Service Medal to all who sacrificed for the cause within the armed forces. Sculpture Thomas Hudson Jones, who had worked at the Army’s Institute of Heraldry, helped design the award. The colors of the suspension drape and ribbon suggest the flag of the Republic of Vietnam with the red stripes representing the three ancient Vietnamese empires of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China and the green trim at the edges symbolic of the Vietnamese jungle. Centered on the obverse of the medal is the figure of a half-concealed Asian dragon representing the subversive nature of the conflict. A grove of bamboo trees are an adaptation from the flag of the President of Vietnam representing a lawful, democratic state. Below this design is the inscription “Republic of Vietnam Service.” On the reverse of the medal is a cross-bow, an ancient weapon of Vietnam, surmounted by a lighted torch like the statue of liberty, symbolic of the United States and freedom. Along the outer edge are the words “United States of America” in raised letters. Through several missions, Kinnick earned the distinctive medal.

I spy

The stealthy submarines gathered military intelligence as they traveled undetected beneath the waves so Kinnick became more interested in that aspect of the service and he was selected as a naval intelligence clerk, living a real-life “NCIS.”

His everyday life in the naval investigative service at Pearl Harbor was not the fiction of the popular modern television drama. For Kinnick, it was fact that supporting the mission required diverse skills and substantial resources to choreograph complex criminal investigations or launch proactive counterintelligence initiatives.

Kinnick worked with different agencies and earned an associates degree at the University of Hawaii before being posted to the U.S. Embassy in Singapore. In gathering raw military intelligence at the second largest port in the world, he would photograph cargo on ships coming and going. The Russians sometimes would thwart his attempts by standing on deck and flashing tall mirrors toward his face so the pictures were fogged. If he was noticed photographing, sometimes a ship would radio the next one coming through and they would speed up too fast for him to shoot a clear picture. Kinnick would also take notes on what type of equipment he saw being shipped through the port. Information was collected and sent back to the Joint Chief of Staff operations to help piece together various puzzles concerning other countries during the Cold War.


Joint warriors

In 1974, Kinnick started a six-year stint with the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff in Omaha, Neb. — 1,000 miles from any ocean —  and 12 stories underground.

Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff was created to coordinate strategic nuclear targeting and develop integrated plans between the armed forces.   Kinnick went to work in a control center buried 45 feet beneath the earth at Offutt Air Force Base, 4,000 acres located in the heart of the nation. While duty in Nebraska seems to be far from the typical shore duty assignments, nuclear submarine servicemen have a long-standing presence at Offutt and “it was the closest station I could get to Stillwater so my kids could get to know our folks,”  Kinnick said. His children, the late Thomas Jackson “T.J.” Kinnick and Jacqueline Kinnick Anderson, grew up all over the world but got to spend their teenage years in one place in Bellevue, Neb., where the family was involved in the community. The first time Kinnick was eligible, he was the only one in the Navy to be promoted from E-7 to E-8 and then E-8 to E-9. After his children graduated from high school, he returned to Pearl Harbor with the Pacific Fleet Intelligence Center and finished his naval career aboard the USS William H. Standley.

Coming home

Kinnick’s service spanned 22 years before he retired as a Master Chief Petty Officer, earning a college degree and numerous medals along the way. When he was promoted to his final rank, he was one of only 12 in the United States Navy serving as a Master Chief Intelligence Specialist.

“The military is not for everybody but it was great for me,” Kinnick said.  

He said his wife put up with all the moving and took care of the kids by herself, acknowledging it’s a tough life for families but “my wife is a jewel. You have to be aware of what you’re getting into and go with your eyes wide open.”

With two brothers in the Navy when he enlisted, Kinnick knew what he was getting into.

“It’s not something you do and then wake up the next day and say you’re going to quit,” he said.

Kinnick said you sign a contract — and you have to persevere.

“During the Vietnam years, we were shunned in our uniforms,” Kinnick said. “Some didn’t think the same way as me but they had the right to protest. I was there to promote their right to protest and I knew I would do what I could to protect their freedom to do that.”

When he retired from the Navy, the Kinnicks returned to Stillwater where he taught at Stillwater High School and Priscilla taught at Stillwater Middle School as well as at SHS.  Kinnick brought real world experiences to his social studies classes and was named “Teacher of the Year” in 1989 before serving as athletic director. Although he retired from teaching, he is still working developing the property that has been in his family for nearly a century.

Traveling around the world and back, the Navy taught him to love his home even more.

“Whatever may be wrong with the United States we are so far ahead of most countries in the world,” Kinnick said, “and that is why people want to come to America.”