Interview with Bruce Tavey, and the first submarine to surface on the North Pole.
Bruce Tavey was a crewmember of the first submarine to surface at the North Pole in 1959, the USSN Skate, SSN 578, as Chief Reactor Operator. He returned to re-surface a few times in 1962. He retired in 1988, after spending 38 years on 5 different submarines and in the Nuclear Propulsion Program.
After a long patrol of no shaves. I am in my poopie suit with the trap drawer, cotton booties and name (in case you get lost). If I look tired or high, it’s tired. I had been up two days working on my nuclear equipment patrol report for NAVSEA (RICKOVER).
– Bruce Tavey
I am sitting in front of the Air Fiji desk at Los Angeles International Airport (commonly known as LAX), feeling sweaty and tired from the first of leg of the journey, yet excited by the long travel laying ahead. I take a walk around the terminal to keep myself awake, and return to find my mom conversing with Mrs. Vicki Tavey. Snippets of the conversation float to my ears, and I soon realize they are talking about their children – meaning, in my mom’s case – me. As bragging mothers do, my mom mentions a few of my projects, and ArtArctica surfaces. Before long, Mrs. Tavey has told us how her husband, Bruce, was on the first submarine to surface at the North Pole. This is a story that I need to hear, and this long layover in LA gives me the perfect opportunity.
We pick up our tickets, navigate security and LAX’s mass of ‘new and improved’ shopping malls covering the area where LAX’s one and only green space used to be, and make our way to the gate. I grab a notebook and pencil, and listen to Bruce’s fascinating story.
“I first read about submarines in the paper at age 13, and knew that was what I wanted to do. Did it at 18, and stayed on for 38 years.”
Tavey was born on April 14, 1932. He grew up during war years. With most all of the country’s young men and women involved in WWII, 10-year-old Bruce could get a job almost anywhere in the shipyard town where he lived. He began working life by selling newspapers and stocking shelves. He first read about read about submarines in the paper at age 13, and knew that was what he wanted to do. Young Tavey switched to forestry in his teens, and then joined the navy to study nuclear physics and make his way toward his submarine dreams. By age 18, he found himself on his first submarine. He continued working on and off of submarines for the next 38 years. “I feel very fortunate to have gotten in on the ground floor and stayed.”, Tavey says.
What is it like to work and live on a submarine?
“It is like living in a little world of your own, in which you never leave your home, never leave your world.”
“I have been in every ocean”, Tavey remembers. They would go under on patrol for 90 – 120 days at a time, with a crew of 80 – 100 people onboard; sometimes travelling from Hawaii to England completely submerged. Submarine days were structured by the Watch, which usually is 3 days in 6-hour shifts each day. The remaining 18 hours were off, with 6 of those hours designated for cleanup and other submarine tasks. The crew was divided into 3 teams, who rotated on and off for shifts, meals, sleeping and other activities.
They used seawater to create their own drinking/living water, and atmosphere to live in. Waste was collected and released into the ocean in certain designated areas – away from tides that might wash it ashore. Plastic, metal and glass were packed into compact bundles, which were strictly controlled by the military before being released into the sea.
The submarine had three sleeping areas: Forward, Aft and in the Center. Officers slept in the Ward room or State room, which held only 4 people. There was also a small gym for exercise.
There was a doctor on board, with limited facilities. In extreme cases, the submarine could surface near an aircraft carrier so that a seriously ill or injured patient could be picked up by a helicopter, and taken to better medical facilities on land. The controlled environment meant that there was little illness onboard, but everyone usually got colds when getting out of the submarine.
There were only men onboard, and the environment was in Tavey’s words, “not the cleanest”.
What do you do on a submarine?
“Sleep, watch movies, read and stand your watch.”
Contact with the outside world was minimal. Radio contact was limited, and calling could only be done when the submarine surfaced above water.
The content of artistic and recreational activities was limited by the atmosphere restrictions. No chemicals dangerous to humans were allowed. Charcoal, pencils and watercolors were permitted, so a few painted or drew. Some sailors brought instruments to play. One submarine even had a glee club.
What challenges do you face living in such a confined space for so long? Is it mentally challenging?
“You don’t see any of your normal environment, so submarine life becomes normal.”
As Tavey remembers, relationships onboard were easy and uncomplicated. Everyone there had been through rigorous psychological testing. Few social problems arose in spite of the close confinement.
The one problem to keep on the lookout for was claustrophobia: “A person can generally live in a closed environment like a submarine for about 4 months before claustrophobia can become dangerous. At some point, it may hit you, and if it does, you will do anything in your power to get out. It can lead into fits.” Claustrophobia is aggravated by routine, so too much routine was avoided.
“Less routine – less human error.”
What did you miss about the world while on the submarine?
“Nothing. You know your environment, and patrol duration. You accept it.”
When not on a submarine, Mr. Tavey taught at the Nuclear power school, and spent time with Vicki and his girls. Vicki says that this arrangement suited her and the family well.
So now, back to the Arctic…
“I was fortunate to be selected for the crew for the first Arctic surfacing.”
We started this interview to discuss Tavey’s sojourn on the first submarine to surface at the North Pole. My first question was: Why?
“Just to see if we could do it.” And then, of course, “the Russians were interested, so we [the USA] had to see if we could do it first.”
The Boat was the #578 USSN Skate, and the year was 1958, around the time the Soviet Union’s Luna 2 became the first manmade object to land on the moon (11 years before the US made the first crewed moon landing). The Arctic was, and still is, an area symbolic for political power. Both the US and Russia have 12 mile zones around the edges of their shores which no other countries should enter. The USSN Skate was therefore, “watching for enemies, submarines, etc., to keep them out of [the US] area.”
The USS Skate was nuclear propelled – “a system that could run forever” – and Tavey was Chief Reactor Operator. The nuclear system gave the boat capabilities for long underwater stints. Apart from avoiding Russian borders and enemy boats, the submarine’s free reign of the Arctic was limited only by Greenland. Greenland is owned by Denmark, and Denmark does not allow Nuclear, so the boat could not go into port in Greenland’s nuclear-free zone.
The Nuclear System (explained as simply as possible)
“Atoms fission, giving off energy in the form of heat. This energy is used to heat water, creating steam, which turns turbines to create electricity or other forms of power.”
“There was a floating army base in the North Pole area, with about 200 army guys living up there. They had a large motor running in a hole in the ice. We could locate the base by measuring the vibrations of this sound. We also made use of an active sonar to get signals from reflection off of the ice. We used light meters (like those used in the apertures of old cameras) to estimate the thickness of the ice floating above us.”
“The ice was 3-5 ft thick on average. We tried to break through the ice as many times as possible to find our limits. 5 feet was the maximum we could manage at the time. If the ice was too thick, we would bounce off like a Ping-Pong ball.”
“Come up against the ice. Rock back and forth. Blow your ballast to make yourself light, and you will break right through. This method was adapted from methods whales use for breaking through ice, as observed by researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.”
So you managed to break through, and surface right by the North Pole! What did you do there?
“We played a softball game at the North pole. When you hit a pitch, you ran around the world.”
I look up to check the time. How much longer do we have before boarding the plane for the long journey? I am thinking about how our current location, here in the LA airport relates to the Arctic. The two are opposites, extremes, yet somehow, they connect.
This brings our discussion to broader questions.
I am thinking about water and land, how we connect to them. How we now claim to own certain portions of both.
A. Can we (referring to the USA) own the water in the Arctic? Do we have the right?
“Technology gives us the upper hand. We are quite advanced.”
A. There is a lot of talk about climate change in the Arctic right now. Bruce, from your experiences, what do you have to say about this discussion?
“It is obvious that the ice is melting up there. You can now go 15 miles further in towards the ice than we went 50 – 60 years ago. I don’t know what is causing it.”
A. Oil is a big issue in the Arctic. Countries are fighting over drilling rights. What do you have to say about the oil debate?
“We are a long way from running out of oil. Look at the Dakotas, but some day there will be a problem. We can’t live on top of too many caves.[i] When the oil is finished, we can fall back on Nuclear power.”
A. There is a debate on nuclear power in many countries. Some say the downside and dangers are too big to make it a good option for our future. What do you say?
“It can cause a lot of harm if it is not controlled. But, there are already massive improvements in this realm. For example, when refueling in the 60s, there were tons of waste every time, but by 88, there were only 2 garbage cans full.”
There is a call on the loud speaker. Boarding will begin momentarily. I look around the room, snapping my focus back from a submarine under Arctic ice, to a room full of restless travelers.
I have spent a lot of time in airports, and I still find them to be strange places. They are disconnected from everything that makes up my normal life, yet they are also the connection between lives in different places. Being in an airport, and then on a plane for a long time is like standing on a restless cloud, from which I can regard the parts of my life which came before, and those which will come after from above. It has always struck me as strange, but after doing it so many times, it has become normal, almost routine. I wonder if this feeling is anything like going under the ocean in a submarine.
Our long flight will be fuelled by oil, perhaps drilled from somewhere in the Arctic ocean, perhaps from somewhere else completely. Will planes be nuclear-powered one day, or perhaps run on solar, wind or other forms of energy? Will we abandon flight completely, or will we continue to drill oil everywhere, until the land is riddled with huge caves? Or maybe we will come up with a solution I cannot yet imagine?
Bruce and I head back over to Vicki and my mom, who have been having their own separate conversations, fascinating in their own right.
As we fly off into the darkness of the night over the Pacific ocean, I imagine little submarines below us, making their way north. How long will the North Pole still be covered in ice, I wonder?
I am sincerely grateful to Mr. Bruce Tavey for sharing his fascinating life story and knowledge, and to Mrs. Vicki Tavey for suggesting this spontaneous interview, and braving the internet world to send pictures. A big thank you!
Thank you to Mum for your help and support in making this happen, and for putting up with yet another spontaneous turn of one of my projects!