Below the surface - Navy veteran shares story of Cold War era submarine service
Leaving high school as an inexperienced and restless seventeen-year-old, Uel Smith—like most his age—was simply searching for a break from the monotony of his rural Missouri surroundings. What he quickly discovered, however, was an adventure below the ocean’s surface that placed him in an uncomfortable proximity to a Cold War era foe.
“My friends were talking about joining the Navy,” recalled Smith. “I was only seventeen at the time and it didn’t make a difference where they were going—I was going to follow.”
He traveled to St. Louis to enlist in June 1956, and was soon on his way to boot camp at the United States Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Maryland. (The training site burst into existence during World War II and closed in the early weeks of 1976.) While in training, leadership asked if anyone was interested in becoming a submariner. Responding with an emphatic “Yes!”, Smith was sent to complete the submarine physical.
Following his graduation from boot camp, he was given orders and $14 in travel money to attend submariner school at New London, Connecticut. During the eight weeks of training that ensued, Smith received instruction in escape procedures and the basic operating environment a sailor would encounter on board a submarine.
“We didn’t have any books in sub school,” Smith noted. “We’d walk into class in the morning and the instructors would write on the blackboard what they wanted us to learn that day.”
Upon completion of his training, he received orders to report for service on the USS Cubera—a diesel-powered submarine built during the Second World War. Smith boarded the vessel at Norfolk, Virginia, on a Sunday evening. The freneticism of his travels resulted in the young sailor not having eaten in over a day, but he recalls the generosity of his fellow sailors upon his arrival.
“I walked down the hatch and many of the crew were watching a movie and eating chicken out of a big pan,” Smith said. “Someone asked me if I wanted some … I was starving. That was some of the best chicken I’ve ever eaten,” he quipped.
An element of a naval group whose primary mission was to search for Russian submarines, the USS Cubera coordinated with carriers and destroyers on the ocean’s surface to monitor enemy submarine activity. As part of his duties and responsibilities, Smith’s battle station assignment was that of a torpedo loader.
“The conn (command) would contact me with firing information and I would input the information into the TDP (torpedo data computer),” Smith said.
Fortunately, the young submariner maintained, he never had to fire a torpedo in circumstances outside of a training environment. After a year on Cubera, Smith was told that he would have to qualify in another duty position and he made the decision to become a cook.
“I didn’t have to go to school to become a cook…all of my training was done through on-the-job training,” he noted.
Not long thereafter, Smith was on a weekend pass in Norfolk, Virginia, when, through a “stroke of luck,” he met a yeoman serving aboard another submarine who indicated they were looking for a seaman. In November 1958, Smith was approved for transfer orders to serve on the USS Growler—a cruise missile submarine.
“Our purpose was quite different,” Smith recalled. “As a missile submarine, the Russians would be searching for us instead of us looking for them.”
Throughout his year-and-a-half on the Growler, Smith participated in many exciting missions, but the most memorable was the vessel’s journey to the Russian coast.
“We were part of patrols off the coast of Siberia and stayed about 50-feet below the surface of the ocean,” Smith said. “There were intelligence guys on board and we never really knew what they were there for.”
According to Smith, the submarine would often ascend just enough to allow photographs to be taken of the Siberian coast through the submarine’s periscope.
“I don’t know what would have happened to us if we’d have been caught,” he stated. “I really didn’t want to find out.”
With their mission completed, the Growler returned to port in Hawaii. Smith was discharged in June 1960 and returned home to Jefferson City where he began working for Cowley Distributing the following month. He remained with the company for 44 years and retired in 2004.
With thoughts focused on time he spent below the water’s surface during the Cold War and the potential dangers he survived, Smith has never been hesitant to recommend military service to all young men and women.
“I hold my head a little higher now because I know that I did my duty,” Smith said. “People should realize that the only reason we have the freedoms we do is that there are those who are willing to stand up and volunteer their service.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
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Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.