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July 5, 2013

Courage Under Fire: Tom Kinnick


STILLWATER, Okla. — 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:

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