Stephen Worden of Port Charlotte. Fla. was a 1st Class Navigational Aids Technician aboard a couple of ballistic missile submarines —the USS James Monroe (SSBN-622) and the USS George Washingyon Carver (SSBN-656) — during the Vietnam War era.
The 21-year-old sailor had one of the most important jobs aboard the sub.
“My job was to take care of the navigational systems so they knew exactly where they were. You had to know where you were at all times so the nuclear missiles hit the right targets if they were fired,” the 62-year old local resident explained from his home four decades later.
Most of Worden’s missions aboard the nuclear subs were spent in the cold, choppy waters of the North Atlantic.
“The North Atlantic in the winter was a bad place to be even in a submarine 200 to 300 feet below the surface,” he said. “Even at those depths we were taking 25 degree rolls.”
The James Monroe or the Carver would sail to Scotland on the first leg of their 90-day mission. The submariners would sail out of there on a 60 day underwater cruise.
“When we dove on our missions out of Scotland we only broke the surface at night to get a location fix. Other than that, we were under water the whole time,” Worden explained “You served a six hour watch then you had 12 hours off. We carried 16 Poisiden-class, multiple warhead, long range, nuclear missiles.”
His toughest experiences aboard the nuclear subs were when they were practicing drills at the Arctic Circle in winter.
“What I remember most is when they shut down the nuclear reactor at the Arctic Circle. It was our job to get it up and running again,” he said. “This one time we couldn’t get it going. We tried to surface, but the ice was too thick. We finally broke through the ice and sat there for eight hours until we could get the reactor up and running again.”
Submariners had perks. Just for serving aboard ship they received $75 extra monthly “Sub Pay,” the equivalent of hazardous duty pay in other branches of the services. They were on duty three months at a time and off duty back home for three months.
Chow was another benefit of being in the “Silent Service.” Their grub was the best. It wasn’t unusual for the men to eat steak and lobster.
“When they served steak and lobster one time one of my buddies ate 13 lobster tails at one sitting,” Worden said with a grin.
“’Family-grams’ were another extra for the submarine crews. The families of the sailors got to e-mail a 25-word message to their loved one aboard the boat on a regular basis. It was reviewed by the skipper before it was given to the sailor.
Their submarines were equipped with Mark-48 torpedoes in addition to their guided missiles. They would practice with dummy torpedoes in Scotland when they were there.
“We fired a dummy torpedo and somehow it got off course. It came around and scraped our hull as it passed us by. I don’t know how it did that,” Warden said. “That was the torpedo-men’s problem.”
Asked if his sub ever had any problems with Soviet subs, Worden said only once.
“One seaman has a catastrophe aboard ship and he was given special consideration. This particular time the crewman’s mother had been killed in a robbery and our skipper surfaced the sub to have the sailor picked up by helicopter and flown to the mainland.
“When the sub surfaced to rendezvous with the chopper there was a Russian spy ship on the surface supposedly disguised as a fishing boat. It had antennas sticking up all over it and was obviously no fishing boat.
“The British sent out a ship to block the view of our submarine from the Russians’ boat as the crewman was being picked up by helicopter. Things like this happened a couple of times while I was on the sub.
“Russian subs were not much of a problem because we could pick them up on SONAR, but they couldn’t hear us. You could tell if the ship you were hearing on SONAR was a sub, an ocean liner or a container ship by the noise their engines made. Sometime we would play cat and mouse games with Russian submarines.
“Our job was to make sure no one knew we were there. We weren’t allowed to get within 5,000 yards of any ship.
“One time when we were down at Cape Canaveral they had a drill aboard our sub while it was in port. We called out the Marines and they brought a diver. They were all standing around with their weapons waiting for the diver to come up. Instead a sea turtle surfaced near our sub. It made the Cocoa Beach newspaper.
Worden spent three years aboard the USS Monroe and a year or so aboard the USS Carver.
“I developed a kidney stone problem and had to get out of the Submarine Service. I spent my last four years in the service teaching navigation elecronics technicians on land,” he said.
When he got out of the Navy in 1985 he went to work for civilian contractors working for the Navy. Initially he worked for “Military Training Associates” who produced navigational tests for checking the ability of Navy navigators. That was his area of expertise.
He spent some time working for other naval contractors who provided radio room services for the Navy. Before retiring Worden worked for the Department of Homeland Security at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. for three years.
He and his wife, Bonnie, retired and moved to Port Charlotte, Fla. in 2011. She taught elementary school in Virginia for 43 years before moving to Florida. The couple has four children: Chris, Allyn, Chad and Nicole.
Name: Stephen Henry Worden
D.O.B: 12 May 1953
Hometown: Bath, Maine
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 11 Nov. 1974
Discharged: 7 May 1986
Rank: E-6 (Navigation Aids Tehnician)
Unit: USS James Monroe (SSBN-622) and USS George Washington Carver (SSBN-656) — Nuclear Submarines
Commendations: Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, Good Conduct Award
Battles/Campaigns: Cold War
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, March 21, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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