Austin Civil War Round Table

Bill Brinkman

Submarine Electrician's Mate

United States Navy, 1959-1962

Bill shares some great stories of his experiences with hurricanes, sharks, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Hurricane Gracie

Bill Brinkman In 1959, while stationed on the USS Sea Owl SS405, we were conducting a big NATO Exercise Fishhook off Bermuda. The exercise was cancelled due to the development of Hurricane Gracie. We were attempting to avoid its course as we headed back to New London. But when we went left, Hurricane Gracie went left.

We were in heavy seas on the surface going directly into the prevailing waves. We had one lookout (me) and one Conning Officer strapped to the bridge with chains and belts and wearing foul weather gear. The officer was 5 feet 2 inches tall, which was the minimum height allowed for submarine duty. He was on the port (left) side and I was on the starboard (right) side.

To give you an idea of how rough the Atlantic Ocean was, we had a US Navy Destroyer one mile away from us on our starboard side. Normally, you can see about 20 miles. The ocean was so rough, that I only saw the destroyer once every 30 minutes as we both would be on top of equal height waves. Another measure of roughness is that of the crew of 100, only 10 of us were not sea-sick. Other crew members were offering me $100 to stand their 4 hour watch so that they could stay in their bunks. Another measure of roughness is how many crew members begged you to shoot them!

So as we were on the bridge, we rolled 50 degrees to the port side. We were standing only 7 feet above the nominal waterline, and I looked down and saw the whole Atlantic Ocean rising up. With my 6 foot height and standing on my tippy- toes, arching my back, and tilting my head back, I was able to keep only my lips out of the water. While gulping down the precious air, I saw the poor officer completely underwater for about 30 seconds. Mercifully, the sub started rolling back to my side, elevating the officer as the ocean drained away.

This officer then asked me if I knew what to do if he was washed overboard. Normally, we would steam ahead, make a 180 turn, and go back for him. But in these heavy waves, turning would capsize us and kill all 100 men and of course, lose the ship. I told him these facts and that besides throwing him a life preserver, that all we would do is wave "Good Bye!" So, he then called the Captain and received permission for us to go below, dog down the Conning tower hatch, and do our lookout duties on the periscopes.

Many have wondered, why didn't we submerge? Well, the rough seas last longer than we can stay down. If we had to make an emergency surface (in case of fire, for example), then we might surface 90 degrees to the prevailing seas and capsize. So all things considered, our diesel sub was safer on the surface.

In the Eye of the Storm

During this ten days of rough seas, we experienced a most amazing event. We ended up in the Eye of Hurricane Gracie!

It was wonderful. It was as though we were in a huge soup bowl 20 miles in diameter. We were in the 20 mile flat part of the Ocean with extremely smooth water, as smooth as a still lake, and all around the 20 mile diameter was a rim of water 50 feet high. In the 20 mile eye, the sky was perfectly blue, but extending all the way up above the 50 foot water wall was the swirling black cloud which you could not see through.

A most un-pleasant side effect of the extremely smooth water of the eye of the hurricane was that the 90 sea sick sailors recovered. Their color came back from green to normal, their cockiness returned, and they ate. Unfortunately, the brief one hour in the eye actually is the halfway point of our rocking and rolling. The poor lads got even sicker when we were back in the 50 foot waves!

Bill Brinkman


Key West

Key West was a very interesting place to be in the early 1960's. I shared an apartment with another shipmate. Our landlord was Bruce Sales, a WWI veteran who went to war with his friend, Ernest Hemingway. Bruce showed me the scars on his legs caused by being gassed with mustard gas in the trenches. Also Bruce had books from the 1700's which used human skin as the covers ( both black and white ). I guess back then there was a shortage of Naugas ( to make naugahide covers).

So Bruce told me stories about his friend Ernest who wrote many of his stories in Key West. Key West is an island about 2 miles long and 1.5 miles wide. In 1960, there were over 200 bars on this tiny island.

President Truman liked to go there to escape Washington. His home (the "Little White House") was the Admiral's Building when I was in Key West. Right after Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to kill President Truman in 1950, Truman was on the sub base in a car headed for the "Little White House ." A sub sailor in dungarees wanted to dump garbage in the dumpster across the road from his sub. A security guard said it would be all right as long as he wasn't spotted by Truman wearing his dungarees. (All the other sailors were in dress whites). So, just as the cars came around the corner, a guard told this poor sailor to jump into the dumpster. When Truman's car came in sight, a Secret Service agent spotted movement in the dumpster and they opened fire! After many rounds were fired, and President Truman was safely clear, the Secret Service surrounded the dumpster and told the poor sailor inside to come out with his hands up. The mound of garbage moved (our sailor had burrowed under it) and a head poked up with one scared sailor really shaking in his boots!


While underway on the surface on the USS Sea Owl, our Captain Dave Wessinger decided to conduct "man overboard" drills. We found a cardboard box which had held steaks to simulate our "man."

While moving at about 20 knots, the Captain would fling the "man" overboard. As soon as it hit the water, one of us lookouts would yell out "man overboard starboard side!" The Conning Officer would then proceed ahead, make the 180 turn and pull up next to the "man". All the time, the Captain was watching and judging his performance. It took about 3 minutes to do this maneuver. We went past the "man" a second time, so that we could repeat the drill. As we were about to make the 180 turn, I was looking back at our "man" through my binoculars. A 15 foot shark was rolling around and around our "man." Apparently, the little blood in the bottom of the box attracted him. The shark was on the box five minutes after the box hit the water!

Cuban Missile Crisis - October 22, 1962

Bill Brinkman The USS Sea Poacher SS 406 was stationed at Key West, Florida. I reported onboard her on December 3, 1960, my birthday, as a 3rd Class Electrician's Mate.

In August 1962, in heavy seas in the Florida Straits, we rescued two Cuban men and one Cuban woman whose small power boat had engine trouble. Their boat sank within minutes after we rescued them. The Cubans told us that the Russians were constructing missile launchers in Cuba. We passed the info on to the Pentagon. Senator Kenneth Keating of New York stated these facts, but the Kennedy Administration denied them at the time. The Kennedy Administration finally acted to remove the missiles by announcing that they suddenly spotted them in October 1962.

We were in port the morning of Oct 22,1962 when the whole squadron got the word to go to sea. It was quite a sight to see all 13 submarines of Sub Squadron 12 in addition to the Destroyers and other ships at Key West all at sea at the same time.

We were in our Key West homeport that Monday morning getting ready to do three weeks of repairs and up-keep. I was part of the duty group ( 1/4 of the crew) standing watch over the weekend. We were told at 3 AM that we should forget the up-keep because we were in an National Emergency, and that the rest of the crew were being re-called. "As soon as your replacement gets on board, you should go to the barracks, pack your cold-weather gear and get back to the sub," we were told. Since it was 80 degrees in Key West, being told to pack cold weather gear told us that the North Atlantic would probably be where we were headed.

After going to sea, we had 13 subs steaming together north up the Florida coast. At about 7 PM, we rigged up a TV and heard President Kennedy tell the world about the blockade. Of course, the destroyers, cruisers and carriers went directly towards Cuba. We had a different mission.

The US Navy had about half of us peel off one at a time and disperse to different ports in Florida and Georgia. The rest of us continued to Charleston, SC. After getting there, we removed any dummy torpedoes, replaced them with "war shots," loaded up with fuel, supplies, etc.

I had to get battery water from the sub tender USS Howard W. Gilmore AS-16 . All military protocol was on hold that day. I interrupted officers poring over a map of Cuba and announced I was from the Sea Poacher and needed 400 gallons of battery water. They said, "Get that man his battery water." We ended up running a 3/8 inch garden hose from the sub tender to the sub over 1,000 feet away, It took 10 hours to get the water through that tiny hose!

While all this was going on, the executive officer said we could make one call home, but couldn't tell where we were or where we were going. My parents were concerned as the world situation looked bad. My parents stoically said to "go get 'em" and do my duty. My mother, Margaret E. Kyle Brinkman, thought I was in Key West and hot. I was in a outdoor phone booth freezing in Charleston. I hoped my chattering teeth didn't give away our position!

At 2 AM, the Executive officer had a hurried up meeting with us on the fantail. He said that if you didn't have one, that you might want to make out a will! Since I only owned a beat-up 56 Chevy, I didn't think a will was necessary. Needless to say, telling a 21 year old sailor that he needed a will was a sobering experience to the 21 year old sailor (me)! The Executive Officer also told us that all of us due to be discharged between October 1962 and by about June 1963 should forget it - the US Congress had extended our enlistment one year. I was due to get out January 5, 1963.

After loading up with 24 war shot torpedoes, we were ready to sail. We actually started out of Charleston harbor when the Pentagon lowered the DEFCON rating one notch. So Sea Poacher went back to the pier. During this time, the Russians were sending more transports with missiles on them to Cuba, and being watched by Naval air units. So we knew that our mission probably was to sink those ships if the Russians didn't turn around.

After a few days, Sea Poacher, another sub and the sub rescue ship Penguin went 60 miles up the Charles river to Georgetown, SC. The good citizens of Georgetown opened up their Moose Club for our recreational use. The Club had a few slot machines and of course, beer, so we were happy sailors. During this time, we were glad to see our UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson pointedly ask the Soviet Ambassador Andrei Gromyko at the UN to confess to having missiles in Cuba.

On our crew of 100, we only had one officer express glee at the thought of all out war with the Russians. The other 99 of us knew that it wouldn't be just a matter of painting Russian flags on our conning tower, but instead mean countless civilian deaths. On the other hand, I was secure in the fact that we had been training for this, and that we were a well-oiled machine. We would do our duty and protect the USA.

Eventually in late November 1962, we went to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. We entered the Bay at night and I was on the bow. Suddenly, without warning, all the US Navy Cruisers and Destroyers in the bay and the US Marines ashore with their artillery and tanks started firing star shells into the night sky. It was the most spectacular fireworks show I've ever seen.

My first thought was that World War III has just started and (since our biggest gun was a Thompson sub-machine gun) that our submarine was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It turned out that this fireworks show was a nightly show of force to Fidel Castro and his troops surrounding the US Naval Base at "Gitmo". The message we transmitted by the nightly show was " look at all the stuff we can throw, do you really want to cross the barbed wire and our fence?"

Also, Perry Como and his troup were at Gitmo putting on USO type shows for us and also for his Christmas Special. Perry also had dancers, and Senor Wences (hand puppet guy "S'Allright.") Perry Como is a down to earth kind of guy. Every night after his shows, he'd come to watch movies, drink a few 10 cent beers, and make his own steak sandwich! Also, he told the show girls to go "visit the Submarine".

Our adventures were not over. All the way back to Key West, we were on the surface. Suddenly, we dived, stayed down a few hours, and then surfaced to continue to Key West. Three months later, Roach Rossell visited me in Roanoke, Virginia and told me why we dived. It turns out that a Russian ship reported a US Submarine diving near her, and the Russians accused us of taping their screw sounds for later target identification. Russia complained to the U.N. This incident made the New York Times!

We were awarded the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for our participation in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. President Kennedy came to Key West after the crisis and we were ashamed to hear that the mayor greeted him with a bent key to the city to "symbolize how Key West's economy was hurt by the crisis."

Home at Last

We arrived back in Key West on a Sunday, December 16. Monday, I went back to the Sea Poacher to work, and was told "Why are you here? You're supposed to be at Discharge Headquarters." The Crisis was over, Congress had rescinded the one year extension, and now the Navy was going to discharge me two weeks early so that I could get home by Christmas. I was discharged two days later, and arrived home in Roanoke on December 20, 1962. Needless to say, it was a joyous Christmas at the Henry and Margaret Brinkman house!


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