B-39 SOVIET SUBMARINE — A U.S. submarine officer’s reckoning

B-39 Bow View

My husband, Michael, is a retired Navy Captain and veteran of the Cold War who spent 10 years in the submarine force. As a “dolphin wearer” and proud member of the “silent service,” he was tight-lipped about virtually all aspects of his life underwater and resolutely close-lipped about the operational aspects of submarines, but I knew as we walked up the brow of the Soviet submarine B-39 that he was experiencing a profound revelation concerning his submarine service and the intense underwater rivalry between the U.S. Navy submarine force and their Soviet counterparts.

After a very revealing and eye-opening visit to this vessel, he shockingly related his thoughts, recollections and perceptions as we explored the Soviet submarine from bow to stern.

Tin can musings
After our tour on board the only Soviet vessel moored at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, Michael wistfully shared the initial thoughts running through his mind as we approached the Russian submarine.

“I was thinking that here sits the B-39 now berthed at a San Diego pier. She’s old and tired-looking, yet still appears formidable. A true veteran of the Cold War and a worthy adversary.” With a curious smile, he added, “I wonder what secrets she holds?”

Michael served on one of the B-39’s contemporaries, a Lafayette-class, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine whose primary mission was to conduct ballistic missile patrols in support of strategic nuclear deterrence, but prior to arriving at their patrol sector, they were often given the opportunity to operate as a “slow attack” submarine — hunting, tracking and gathering intelligence on Soviet submarines — a role normally conducted by our smaller, fast-attack subs.

Michael’s ballistic missile submarine was one of 41, commonly referred to as “boomers” due to the incredible nuclear destruction capabilities they carried onboard. Once arriving in their patrol area and assuming their strategic deterrent mission, the submarine’s job was to avoid enemy contact and remain undetected. This was, by far, their highest objective: to remain hidden and invulnerable. Their ballistic missiles locked onto Soviet military installations and supporting infrastructure, keeping the Soviet Union in check with the ever-present threat of nuclear retaliation.

Whether they were actively hunting Soviet submarines or tracking them from a distance, Michael says the crew respected their worthy opponents. He recalls how his adrenaline would begin pumping when answering the call to “Station the Fire Control Tracking Party” as the Captain informed the crew that sonar had picked up a Soviet contact. They often tracked them for hours on end, always maneuvering to keep their own presence hidden.

Unlike his nuclear-powered vessel, the B-39 Foxtrot was diesel-powered. While we’d like to think our most lethal adversaries were the newest and latest Soviet nuclear-powered attack submarines, the simple truth is that their “diesel boats” represented an equally deadly threat.

While diesel subs have much shorter ranges and must surface, or at least snorkel, to recharge batteries and re-ventilate the air inside, they are by far the most silent of all submarines when submerged and operating under battery power. Even the most technologically advanced nuclear sub, with its nuclear-heated steam propulsion plant, turbines and coolant pumps running, can’t compete with the quiet whir of a battery-powered electric motor. Every submariner who has ever served beneath the waves is eminently aware of the silent but deadly threat posed by the diesel boat.

The B-39 appeared rundown and dated as we approached her berth. Upon closer examination, we noted the welding of her weather-worn hull to be extremely crude and sloppy, very much lacking in the workmanship he would have expected from an equal and deadly Soviet-era rival.

B-39 was a Foxtrot-class submarine according to NATO designation. In the Soviet Union, the Foxtrot-class was given the more secret and ominous-sounding name, Project 641, and a total of 58 were built from 1958 to 1983. Their performance and weaponry were on par with most contemporary diesel boats.

One major drawback was that the B-39’s three screws were much noisier than western submarines’ precision-milled propellers. Another drawback was her antiquated hull design. The Foxtrots were the last class of Soviet submarines built before the adoption of the now-familiar teardrop hull that offers much better underwater performance.

USS Casimir Pulaski (SSMN 633) photo courtesy of USS Casimir Pulaski website

The B-39 was launched in 1967, but though she had the length of nearly a football field, a width of just over 24 feet, a draft of less than 20 feet and a submerged displacement of 2,475 long tons, she was much smaller than the nuclear submarine upon which Michael served.

His submarine, USS Casimir Pulaski (SSBN 633), named after a Revolutionary War hero, actually predated B-39 by a few years. Pulaski’s construction commenced in January 1963 and she was launched 13 months later. In contrast to the B-39, the Pulaski was over a third longer with a width of 33 feet, a draft of 32 feet and a displacement of 8,382 tons. Part of the Pulaski’s extended size was its missile compartment housing 16 Trident ballistic missiles, but even the U.S. Navy’s shorter and smaller nuclear fast-attack submarines considerably outsized the B-39 in width, draft and overall tonnage.

Modifications have been made to the B-39 for tourists to more easily enter and exit with stairs instead of vertical ladders extending down into the submarine’s interior. The entry gangway leads directly into the forward torpedo room where visitors are introduced to a video of the history of the Foxtrot submarine class and its crucial role in the Cold War and, most notably, in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

The torpedo room contains six torpedo tubes and the long yellow-painted torpedoes with “CCCP” (Russian Cyrillic for USSR) stenciled on the side. The compartment, though narrower, was not significantly different from the one Michael recalled from the Pulaski, but his views of the Soviet submarine changed considerably as we moved aft into the operations compartment.

Michael never felt claustrophobic on his submarine, and all crewmembers were screened at submarine school prior to their “boat” assignments, but as we passed through the low, rounded hatch leading to the main living and operating spaces, he was profoundly surprised at just how tight space was.

Forward Torpedo Room

Despite being the Pulaski’s contemporary, the B-39 had much more in common with the small, cramped diesel boats of WWII than his submarine — the passageway was, at best, half as wide. The captain’s quarters were a mere cubbyhole, simplistic and Spartan with virtually no creature comforts for an officer commanding a vessel.

Life aboard
The B-39 was home to 12 commissioned officers, 10 warrant officers, and 56 enlisted men. Ship’s force on the Pulaski numbered 15 officers and 135 enlisted men, yet even with a crew nearly twice as large, the Pulaski was immensely spacious by Foxtrot standards. As he walked down the central passageway, Michael noted that even critical operational spaces like sonar and communications were tiny, closet-sized rooms sparsely equipped with minimal thought for crew comfort. The wardroom, where officers dined privately, was scarcely big enough to house a table for six and, surprisingly, the last half of the space doubled as the medical officer’s examination and treatment area.

Soviet Torpedo

With every space he explored and every piece of equipment he touched, the word “primitive” echoed in his head. Even for me, it was a shocking experience to compare this Soviet vessel with my recollections from the few times I’d been allowed to visit Michael’s submarine in port.

The B-39’s galley could host only two cooks at best, standing back-to-back facing either a pantry table or a stovetop with pots and pans that looked like rural relics from the depression era. The crew’s mess straddled the main passageway and could almost be overlooked.

When Michael thought back on the Pulaski’s galley and mess facility offset from the passageway, he recalled a large, brightly lit space with stainless steel counters and Formica-topped tables where a close and sometimes boisterous crew ate heartily and thoroughly enjoyed their meals. It dawned on him that regardless of how well trained and technologically advanced American submariners were compared to these poor sailors, the Soviet sailors must have been a special breed to live and work under such arduous conditions.

Living spaces onboard the B-39 were horrendous by any stretch of the imagination. One small room was designated for officers — their bunks, mere cradles stacked three high and suspended by chains from the overhead ceiling. No central berthing existed for the crew. Bunks were located in various spaces such as the forward and aft torpedo rooms.

Aft Torpedo Room Berthing

Warrant officers and enlisted crewmembers had to “hot rack,” sharing bunks with shipmates using paper blankets as sanitary precautions. Hot-racking was feasible because one-third to one-half of the crew was always on duty, making the rack available for off-watch personnel. In contrast, on U.S. submarines, only about 20 or so of the most junior enlisted personnel typically hot-rack.

Antiquated adversary
According to Michael, the profound differences between the Pulaski and the B-39 were too numerous to list. The B-39’s control room was so antiquated he did not even recognize what it was until he saw the quartermaster’s station on the port side; there were valve stations and levers everywhere.

On his submarine, the control room appeared much like a greatly expanded version of an airliner’s cockpit. Dual “air-plane-type” controls on the Pulaski were located at the dive station where the helmsman and planesman controlled the steering, depth and angle of the submarine as it maneuvered through the water.

Ballast Control Station in Control Room

Nothing on the Soviet submarine appeared even remotely similar. Michael said only a WWII submarine veteran could possibly make sense of this space.

As a diesel boat, B-39’s spaces were almost alien to him. Two of the three levels of the operations compartment housed the massive submarine batteries necessary for underwater propulsion. These batteries enabled the B-39 to operate underwater for up to 10 days before having to surface or snorkel to recharge her batteries. Conversely, thanks to nuclear propulsion, the Pulaski could run underwater for an entire 75-day patrol period without ever surfacing.

Disaster averted
On the B-39 museum tour, the Soviet submarine serves as a stand-in for another Foxtrot submarine that once had the entire world poised on the edge of nuclear war. Onboard videos, flashing lights and audio features in the forward and aft torpedo rooms and control room relate the true story of the B-39’s sister ship, the B-59 and re-create the dramatic role she played in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

B-59 was one of four Soviet submarines patrolling the waters off Cuba in late 1962. Their mission: to oppose U.S. Naval forces that were blockading Cuba in an effort to force the removal of nuclear ballistic missiles. U.S. Navy destroyers utilized small explosive training depth charges to force three Soviet submarines to surface, including the B-59. Before surfacing however, the B-59 captain and political officer, who at the time were out of contact with the Soviet government, thought they were being attacked with real depth charges.

Convinced that war with the U.S. had already commenced, the two senior officers were ready to launch their “special weapon,” a nuclear torpedo at the U.S. Navy ships. Only the intervention of the four-submarine flotilla commander aboard the B-59 prevented nuclear disaster.

B-39 Galley

Forbidding the firing of the nuclear torpedo, the commander instead wisely ordered the B-59 to surface and radio Moscow for further orders. Few today really know just how close these two Cold War adversaries came to all-out nuclear war that fateful October day.

A kinship
As we exited the B-39, we both realized the submarine was perhaps never the threat we imagined it to be during the Cold War, but Michael couldn’t stop thinking about the men who served on her. He could never envision him or his shipmates going to sea in this vessel and, yet, these Soviet sailors did not just operate this vessel a few weeks at a time in local waters. They traversed enormous lengths of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to patrol their assigned areas and challenge us on the high seas.

After exploring the B-39, his respect for these submariners increased exponentially. They lived in a smelly, cramped, steel coffin. These were men of iron, and they served their nation admirably throughout the long and dangerous era of the Cold War with its ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. “Even though they were our enemy,” Michael said, “my hat is off to each and every one of them.”

CAPT Kompanik-Hatch to Main Control Room

For each time my husband went out on patrol, I wondered how he could ever manage to be underwater for 75 straight days in tight, closed-in submarine quarters, come home from patrol reeking of diesel fuel, hydraulic fluid and other strange odors, yet be willing to do it all over again three months later. Now, after being onboard this Spartan primitive Soviet submarine, I realized he could have had it much worse.

For more info, visit sdmaritime.org.