RICHARD VILLARS: Life on a U.S. nuclear submarine in the 1960s

2014-05-25T03:30:00Z 2014-05-28T11:58:10Z RICHARD VILLARS: Life on a U.S. nuclear submarine in the 1960s
May 25, 2014 3:30 am  • 

Richard Villars cares very much about veterans and thinks it is quite unfair that so many people do not understand the sacrifice made when you serve in the Armed Forces. He remembered a visit to the U-505 submarine when he was in school. But his memory is much more vivid of how his father, a U. S. Navy veteran who served in World War II, did not speak much about his wartime experiences. “I was very impressed with the U-505, and those courageous sailors and what they must have had to endure. I watched TV programs and movies about the Silent Service, and was absolutely awestruck about the ordeals they endured. After graduation from high school, I enlisted in the Navy with the intention of going into the nuclear submarine field.” His parents had to sign off on Villars enlistment which he joined officially in September of 1964.

After boot camp, I graduated to “Machinist’s Mate A” and qualified to continue to nuclear power training school, where we learned the theory portion. It was very difficult, but with the help of the buddies that were in the study group that we formed, I passed and was sent to Idaho for prototype training, which was working hands-on with the reactor and all associated equipment.” Villars went on to sub school and finally got on the USS Patrick Henry in the spring of 1967. “The Patrick Henry was the 2nd Polaris Submarine built (the George Washington being the first) that was capable of firing nuclear-tipped missiles while submerged. I was assigned to “M” division, which meant I worked with the reactor in addition to other systems. We had to be at our best at all times because one mistake could have meant death for all of us.”

Though the nuclear submarines of the 1960s were more powerful and stealthy, the jobs of sailors were still very hazardous and uncomfortable, Villars explained. “It was, of course, very hot in places and noisy. If we had a steam leak, you couldn’t see it until [you were very close] and when it cooled enough to condense, you couldn’t hear it because of all the noise. You just had to either sense something was wrong or carry a wand and wave it around out in front of you. If the wand got cut off, you had to stop quickly! The high pressure steam could otherwise cut you in half, and cauterize the wound so there wouldn’t be much, if any blood!” Everyone on board was highly qualified, according to Villars, because if something happened to any of your shipmates, you still had to carry out the mission.

“In each division there were different watch stations to man and once you were qualified on one watch station, you started qualifying on another watch station until you were qualified on everything, then you started all over again,” Villars remembered. “In between all that we had to do repairs, and preventive maintenance on drills to keep sharp in case we had to fire our missiles. Battle station drills, torpedo and collision drills, reactor emergency drills and fire drills. I think we even had a couple of drill drills!”

Villars and his shipmates did have time to relax, he said, but it doesn’t sound all that relaxing.

We had parties at special times like holidays, the half-way point of the patrol, and sometimes the last day of patrol. We also got news periodically of world events, and from home. Our families were allowed to send short messages, and if someone’s wife had a baby, they got a Baby-Gram. We also had a movie for each day of the patrol plus a couple of extras. We lifted weights. We had card tables set up between the missile tubes. Even though we were constantly hunted and flying blind down there depending upon charts and our navigation systems, I didn’t have much time to worry about dying. The one thing that did worry me was …if we did have to launch our missiles…that there would be nothing and no one to come back home to [anyway.]” --- Richard Villars lives in Chesterton, Indiana.

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