Jim Winslow of Venice, Fla. served as an electrician’s mate 2nd class aboard the ballistic missile submarine Francis Scott Key during the Vietnam War era. He helped keep the nuclear reactor that powered the sub running during his six-year hitch in the service.
“We were there to give the Russians a moment of pause before they launched anything,” the 67-year-old former sailor recalled. The statement on the back of his T-shirt says it all, “Our job was to deliver retribution.”
The Benjamin Franklin Class nuclear sub’s main reason for existence was to deliver 16 multiple warhead nuclear missiles to an enemy’s shore. In theory, the submarines missiles could obliterate more than 100 targets at the same time in minutes.
“From the time they said shoot we would have had all of our missiles away in five minutes,” Winslow explained. “There are 20 of these nuclear missile subs at sea at any given time protecting the USA,” Winslow said.
Life aboard a nuclear submarine began for him when he and a buddy went down to the recruiting office and both signed up for a 6-year hitch in the Navy.
“I signed up for nuclear power. After boot camp in San Diego I went to electronics school. I spent another 26 weeks in basic nuclear power school. Then I was assigned for six months to the Navy’s land-based nuclear reactor at Windsor, Conn.
“I replaced an injured Gold Crew sailor aboard the Francis Scott Key. The sub was at Holy Loch, Scotland at the time,” he said. “I first saw this big, black submarine sailing past the Isle of Clyde into the dock the morning I arrived. She had been out on sea trials.”
The 20-year-old Winslow climbed aboard the nuclear sub as one of the members of the 135-man crew.
“She was 425-feet long, had three decks, an ice cream machine aboard and a piano in the back of the chow hall the guys played from time-to-time,” Winslow said. “We had the best chow in the armed services—steak and on special occasions lobster. Our captain was John Foresight, one of Adm. Rickover’s boys who grew up in the nuclear navy in the early 1950s.
“As we pulled away from the pier on my first cruise they were playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ As the sub passed the Isle of Clyde, John Philip Sousa marches were emanating from the sub as she sailed into the open sea,” Winslow remembered.
For the next 60 days or so the Francis Scott Key, with all of its deadly missiles aboard, disappeared beneath the sea. Stealth was their way of life.
“As we sailed from square-to-square on the charts in the ocean while underwater our target package would change with each square,” he said. “Except during an emergency aboard the boat we would not break the surface while on patrol.”
The closest Winslow and his Gold Crew ever came to war was during the Israeli-Egyptian War in 1973. He wouldn’t talk about the incident except to say they ratcheted up their war status by a notch during this period.
“One day in the North Atlantic while we were submerged a Russian submarine went by. They were noisy,” he said. “We followed him for a couple of hours.”
About the strangest encounter they had was with a whale.
“That whale thought we were his mother or his boyfriend. Anyway he bumped into us a couple of times and then swam away.
“On another occasion we went above the 66th Parallel under the polar ice. We became qualified ‘Blue Noses’ for going under the ice cap.”
Disaster almost struck the crew of the sub about the time they returned to Holy Loch from being on patrol.
“Fire broke out on the sub tender at Holy Lock. We were moored near the tender working on the nuclear reactor,” he said. “The tender had eight or 10 nuclear missiles in an adjoining room to the fire. It wasn’t my idea of the place to be.
“Two tugs came over and grabbed us and towed us over to the dry-dock area, away from the burning sub tender. Then the tugs went back to evacuate those aboard the sub tender, but they weren’t fast enough,” Winslow said. “Two guys who were in the brig never got out and a third guy who tried to rescue them died, too.
“That was the end of my second patrol aboard the nuclear submarine.”
The standard drill was that the submarine’s Gold Crew spent 60 days on patrol, returned to base and after five days working to get the sub ship-shape they would turn it over to the Blue Crew that would take it back out to sea. Winslow and his shipmates flew home to New London, Conn. They would get two weeks liberty. For the next 70 days after that the crew would remain in port going to school or receiving training of some sort.
The most hectic and controversial time for the Francis Scott Key’s two crews was shortly after the boat was given a complete overhaul at the naval shipyard in Bremerton, Wash. In addition to getting the nuclear sub up to speed again the Navy switched the missiles aboard the sub to the newer Poseidon missiles.
“The Blue Crew took the submarine to Fort Lauderdale for a qualifying show with the new missiles,” he said. “Problem was they couldn’t get the missiles to fire. So the Gold Crew was sent down to get the job done.
“We got on board the Francis Scott Key and had every admiral in the fleet looking at us. We got down there to fire the missile and everything went perfectly. When we pulled up to the dock after the missile shot they brought lobsters aboard the sub and put them in the frig. It was the only time in the Navy I had lobster.”
When Winslow was discharged from the Navy on May 29, 1971 he went looking for a civilian job. He was 25.
“I was hired to help operate the land-based nuclear training reactor the Navy had at Windsor, Conn. I worked for Combustion Engineer at that plant for 16 years. For the next 15 years I worked for California Edison electric utilities helping build two nuclear power plants near President Richard Nixon’s home at San Clemente. He retired but quickly went back to work for Siemens, the German-owned conglomerate. He stayed with Siemens until he retired for good in 2014.
He and his wife, Barbara, moved to Florida in 2010. They have two children: James and Michael.
Name: James Winslow
D.O.B: 29 April 1949
Hometown: Princeton, Ill.
Currently: Venice, Fla.
Entered Service: July 10, 1968
Discharged: 29 May 1974
Rank: Electricians Mate 2nd Class
Unit: USS Francis Scott Key
Commendations: National Defense Service Medal
Battles/Campaigns: Vietnam Era
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, June 13, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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