Book Review | BIG RED: THREE MONTHS ON BOARD A TRIDENT NUCLEAR SUBMARINE, BY DOUGLAS C. WALLER
Reviewed by Lorraine Scott, USNUM Collections Manager
One of the reasons I enjoy being a Collections Manager at the U.S. Naval Undersea Museum is the proximity to history, and historic artifacts, it allows me. Artifacts help connect us to the stories, experiences, and people who make up our human story. Often while managing our Navy’s heritage assets, I sometimes find myself looking at a submarine console, or torpedo, and imagining that object as it was intended to be used.
I know I can never put myself in the shoes of a submariner on deployment; I’m lucky enough to occasionally tour these boats while dockside at Bangor. But reading the book Big Red: Three Months on Board a Trident Nuclear Submarine, by Douglas C. Waller, brought me a lot closer to the experience of submarine service in the nuclear age.
In 1999, the author was granted access to the crew of USS Nebraska (SSBN 739) for a three-month deployment in the Atlantic. During that time, Mr. Waller observed the daily routines, drills, interactions, frustrations, and round-the-clock work undertaken by the crew. He interviewed 106 of the 162 members of USS Nebraska’s Blue Crew, receiving unprecedented access for a journalist. Starting with Commander Dave Volonino, Mr. Waller acknowledged the extra time and effort given him by both officers and enlisted crew during their busy deployment.
The book began with the Nebraska leaving Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay (Georgia), navigating its way out to the Atlantic at the start of a three-month deployment. A near-mishap with a channel buoy gave the reader a sense of the challenges associated with maneuvering the 560 foot, just under 17-ton submarine.
Mr. Waller organizes the book around the three-month deployment, intermixing background stories of at least a dozen officers and enlisted crew. This gives the reader a sense of the variety of motivations and challenges submariners experience both on and off the boat. The author takes the reader from on-board daily rituals (eating, sleeping, exercising, etc.) to the many types of drills executed by the crew.
As a civilian with little prior knowledge of submarine service, I was fascinated reading descriptions of “rabbit and wolf” exercises, where subs practice tracking and avoiding detection, as well as fire and water intrusion drills. I did find myself wanting the author to give more detail about how some of these drills took place. For example, I really wanted an explanation (not provided in the book) about how a water leak was simulated. I recommend reading this book, but first find your nearest submarine veteran and ask them politely to provide more details (that they can share…thank you Steve Harvey!).
As an USNUM Collections Manager who deals with classified materials, I also would have loved to know more about the process of how Mr. Waller got to write this book in the first place. There is a critical line between information that can and cannot be publically shared; I would have liked to learn more about how the author’s manuscript got vetted by the Navy and cleared for publication.
“Big Red” is now a 20 year old book, and offers a snapshot of submarine service in a certain time period, now passed. When I began working at the museum in 2008, we had an exhibit some of you may remember, “The Trident Family: Service and Sacrifice.” In this exhibit visitors learned about the Family Gram, a 40-word one-way communication sent from families out to deployed submariners. In the book an explanation of the challenges these types of communications posed for family members is certainly dated, and the reader wonders how communication is different for today’s submariners.
For those of you who never will experience service on a Trident submarine, reading “Big Red” is a fascinating introduction to this secretive world at the turn of the 21st century.