Cold War Work

Published 11:14 am Saturday, March 16, 2013

by Archie Howell

A strong wind blows right into the mouth of Hamilton Harbor. Our aircraft cannot be turned out of the wind for normal engine checks. Waves reach up and sometimes cover the wingtip. I know it’s about fourteen feet between the top of the wing float and the wingtip, and waves, whipped to a frenzy by the north wind have no mercy on mere mortals.

We’ve launched into the mouth of the monster in response to a top-secret directive from somewhere in the upper echelons of power. Probably in some warm, dry office building on the mainland. Out here in the working world, it’s our job to obey, not criticize. The Cold War apparently did not check the weather forecast; or maybe it did.

It’s late 1950’s and the United States thinks Russia is using oceanographic research vessels to support clandestine submarine operations in the Atlantic, maybe transiting sea lanes toward the United States east coast or Cuba. The Russian vessel Mikhail Lomonosov is believed to be in our area and is actively operating with those submarines. It’s our job to go find the ship and photograph her for any activities underway or any other electronic data that we may discover.

The United States has developed a series of listening hydrophones in the Atlantic Ocean stretching from Greenland across to Iceland and Scotland, and south to Bermuda, Eleuthra, and Puerto Rico. On Bermuda, the station is located at the shoreline on the westernmost point. It is known as a US Naval Facility or NAVFAC. It is a Top Secret operation. Aboard our aircraft specialized electronic equipment with the code name Jezebel is covered after every flight and uncovered only for missions involving tracking Russian submarines. We have special sonobuoys aboard that can be dropped in the water to provide local listening.

Specialists have learned that every ship of any size, including submarines, has a sonic signature that can be identified, the same as a fingerprint can identify people. Cargo vessels, ocean liners, fishing boats, and submarines can be tracked leaving ports and transiting thousands of square miles of ocean. The seabed hydrophones are not yet numerous enough to provide more than one or two lines of position for any vessel. The ship or submarine can be anywhere along a line hundreds of miles long. It’s our job to investigate and record any activity along that line. Other aircraft in other stations and countries have similar jobs.

Our squadron has a special communications division for receiving missions and disseminating orders to carry out our part. Behind a locked door, a Teletype machine spits out ink character covered paper by the rolls. A twenty-four hour watch is kept for any immediate directives. A twenty-four hour ready crew is assigned daily, with the aircraft assigned, equipped, and loaded for a quick response to a threat in our area of responsibility.

My crew, on rotation with others, gets the call today. Classified codebooks for communications are assembled along with charts and weather reports. Our crew is briefed, the aircraft sits ready on the ramp for immediate launch. This is not training; this is for real.

Once on the water, we treat the aircraft as a sailboat, using engine power and the large built in hydroflaps at the stern. It requires a zig zag path to accomplish the engine checks and place the aircraft in position at the end of a windy, choppy sea lane. We’re in new territory and at the upper limits for air operations. No one, so far, has firmly established exactly what that would be. It’s something of a relief to push the throttles forward, feel the familiar surge of power. The roar of seven thousand horsepower is deafening.

Takeoff run is short because of strong winds; we turn to the northeast, to our target. Our intelligence is good and we locate the Mikhail Lomonosov, riding well in moderate seas. No submarines are visible alongside and no activity is readily apparent on deck. In fact, it seems an almost casual encounter. We circle the vessel, take lots of pictures, observe them taking pictures of us, and retrace our path home. The film will be developed, printed, and the photos sent to headquarters at Norfolk.

About two weeks later, the Mikhail Lomonosov docks at Hamilton, the crew enjoys a few days liberty, and anyone can take all the pictures they want while the ship is in port. We joke about the circumstances. In time, Russian submarines and shipping will push the United States to the brink of war. For now, we can have our laugh.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at