The Saga of the 1972 Guardfish Patrol
During the summer of 1972 Guardfish (SSN612) was deployed in the Sea of Japan when world events thrust her captain, Commander David C. Minton, III, and her crew into the adventure of a lifetime. On May 9th the Vietnam War was heating up as the Paris peace talks had broken down and our forces had commenced mining Haiphong and other major North Vietnamese harbors. The aim was to deny the North Vietnamese Army the advantage of being supplied by sea from their communist allies. Guardfish was alerted by message of the possibility of a Soviet naval response.
The world situation was tense. No one knew how the Soviet would react to the mining. Guardfish was positioned at periscope depth near the Soviet’s largest Pacific naval base. Late on the evening of May 10th a surface contact was detected standing out the channel at high speed cutting across the normal channel boundaries and heading almost directly for the waiting Guardfish. As the contact closed in the growing darkness it was visually identify as a Soviet Echo II Class missile submarine. This class displaced 5,000-tons, was powered by a nuclear reactor, and carried eight Shaddock surface-to-surface missiles, which could be fired at targets up to 200 miles away. Guardfish followed. Soon the Echo submerged and headed southeast at high speed. Was this sortie in response to the mining of Haiphong?
During the next two days the Soviet submarine frequently slowed and spent long periods at periscope depth, probably receiving detailed orders from his naval commander. While listening for the Echo, Guardfish slowed which significantly extended her sonar detection range. To the crews surprise and alarm they were able to detect at least two and possibly three other Soviet submarines in the area. One submarine is hard to trail, three or four is impossible! Therefore they focused all efforts on maintaining contact with the Echo II they had identified visually.
When the Echo II resumed its transit toward the southern exit of the Sea of Japan, the skipper had two important decisions to make. First, did the deployment of three, possibly four, Soviet submarines meet the requirement for breaking radio silence? The number one priority of all submarine surveillance operations was to provide an early warning of an unusual deployment of Soviet naval vessels. This type of report, called a critic report, had never been sent before. The skipper determined that now was the time for Guardfish to break that silence and he notified his operational commander of the situation. Second, should Guardfish abandon her surveillance mission in the Sea of Japan to continue the trail of the Soviet submarine? The operations order was silent on this count, but it made sense to the skipper that their naval commander would want to know where the Soviets were going. Because he didn’t have the luxury of time to wait for orders he invoked the submarine commanders secret creed, "No guts, no hero ribbon". They were on their way!
Trailing is a complex task. For a submarine to remain undetected a contact's position, course, and speed must be determined using passive sonar bearings. Passive ranging required Guardfish to continually maneuver to generate a changing bearing to the contact. Too close and you could be detected, too far away and contact could be lost. These maneuvers were usually conducted in the baffle area of the contact, the blind spot astern.
The Echo turned to clear this baffle area almost hourly. Sometimes it was a very passive turn of 90 degrees so that his sonar could listen for anything behind him and at other times he aggressively turned 180 degrees and raced back along his previous track right at Guardfish. This maneuver was dangerous with a real possibility of collision. At the very least there was a chance he could detect Guardfish’s presence as the range closed. When the Echo made a baffle clearing maneuver Guardfish tried to anticipate which way he would turn so that they were slightly off of his track on the opposite side. Additionally, Guardfish slowed immediately to be as silent as possible and give more time and distance for the Echo to return to his previous course.
Frequent status reports were needed in Washington to assess the threat and intent of the Soviet forces. President Nixon and his National Security Advisor were briefed daily. Because high powered high frequency radio transmissions from Guardfish were subject to detection and location by the Soviet electronic intercept network, an alternate method of communicating was established. Navy Anti-Submarine Warfare P-3 aircraft flew covert missions over Guardfish’s projected location and received status reports via short range ultra high frequency radio either directly from Guardfish at periscope depth or via slot buoys, small expendable battery powered transmitters that could be programmed with a short message and shot out of the signal ejector while Guardfish remained at trail depth.
During this period of the trail every available submarine in the Pacific was urgently being deployed to provide protection for our aircraft carriers operating off the Vietnamese coast and to search for the other Soviet submarines. This deployment created a mutual interference problem for both Guardfish and the submarine operations staffs. Guardfish was committed to going wherever the Soviet Echo went and the staffs had to relocate the deploying submarines frequently to ensure that the much quieter US submarines would not endanger each other or Guardfish.
Once in the Philippine Sea the Echo turned southwest heading in the general direction of the Bashi Channel, the strait between Taiwan and the islands north of Luzon Philippines. The Bashi is the usual northern entrance to the South China Sea and the skipper was sure that it was the Echo’s objective, but their track continued well south of the normal course. Then the Echo slowed and came to periscope depth and went active on his fathometer on a short scale which was not suitable for the depth of water. He was lost! While at periscope depth he must have obtained a good fix because the Echo went deep, turned toward the Bashi Channel, and increased speed to 16 knots. After reporting this rapid course correction by slot buoy Guardfish rushed after him knowing that the repositioning of US submarines would be nearly impossible on this short notice. As a precaution against collision with a US submarine the skipper changed depth to 100 meters, a depth commonly used by Soviet submarines and one he knew US submarines would avoid. His apprehension was justified when Guardfish detected a US submarine clearing to the north at high speed.
On May 18th the Echo entered the South China Sea and transited to a point approximately 300 miles off the coast of Luzon. For eight days he established a slow moving grid track which covered a rectangular patrol area approximately 700 miles from our carriers along the Vietnamese coast and well beyond the 200 mile range of his missiles.
While the tracking team struggled to maintain contact with the Echo, world events were moving in a more peaceful direction. After long negotiations President Nixon went to Moscow for his historic summit meeting with Soviet's General Secretary Brezhnev. On During the summit on May 24th National Security Advisor Kissinger informed Brezhnev that the US knew the Soviets had deployed submarines and their presence so close to the Vietnamese War Zone was provocative and extremely dangerous. Within two days of this confrontation, the Soviets blinked and the Echo submarine started north.
After transiting the Bashi Channel the Echo established a second patrol area in the Philippine Sea south of Okinawa. This area of the ocean had some of the worst possible acoustical properties. It was often crossed by merchant traffic and at night the biological noise and frequent rain showers were deafening to sonar. Maintaining contact became even harder than before, making it necessary for Guardfish to trail at closer and closer ranges.
A lengthy procedure to transfer the trail to another US submarine, just developed by the staff, was placed on the radio broadcast. While Guardfish was at periscope depth copying this urgent message, the Echo came unexpectedly to periscope depth and visually detected Guardfish. The maneuvers that followed by both Guardfish and the Echo were violent and at high speed. Holding on to an alerted contact proved to be impossible and contact with the Echo was lost.
When Guardfish returned to Guam on June 10th the crew had been underway submerged for123 days with only an eight day refit as a break. They had conducted two demanding special operations including a 28 day trail of the Soviet Echo II under extremely tense conditions, but Guardfish's morale was sky high. The officers and crew were justifiably proud of what they had accomplished.