We Listened to Tapes of Soviet Submarines

Ken Brown: Started in 1961 as a Nuclear Engineer; Retired as VP of Operations

When I started, we didn’t have cubicles. There were just open desks all around. It was a room full of engineers. There was a lot of conversation back and forth because we had to work on things together. The others were for the most part my age or sometimes a little bit younger. I was in my mid-20s.

Submarines at that time were making a lot of noise, the first nuclear boats.

Our work – the S5G project – was to make sure our submarines would be quieter so they couldn’t be picked up by the Russians. We all knew about the trawlers off the shore that were listening to our boats as they went out.

The S5G reactor was tested as the propulsion plant on the Narwhal, launched in 1967.

We did mostly the engine room and reactor compartment. The whole idea was natural circulation, quiet feed pumps, and quiet everything.

It was a very close working group. I don’t know how they picked some of the people. Jack Leonard, our boss – we all feared him because he was a rough old guy. Well he wasn’t very old.

He was very stern and very focused. After you got to know him he was a great guy. Russ Brown.

Herb Berry. Frank Rich. J.J. Kelley. The young engineers that I worked with, some of us became the best of friends. We all worked in this open bullpen and shared projects and problems.

A lot of our components were brought in and tested to see if they were quiet or if there were ways they could be quieter. We also worked with sound dampening under the mounts to try to keep vibrations from the components from generating into the structure of the submarine and out into the water. There was a real sense of urgency.

We had wooden mockups of different reactors and engine rooms, including the S5G. They were things of beauty. The best wood. Pure, defect-free pine and spruce. Full-scale. You were in a submarine. You could walk through there. There were no computers, so there was just no other way to see that if you put the coolant pump here and the feed pump here, you’d have enough room to pull one and move the other out of the ship.

We always wanted to know that we were better than the Russians. We had noise tapes of their submarines. “You want to hear what a noisy feed pump sounds like? Listen to this one. Here’s ours. See how much better we are?”

I couldn’t tell my family much about what I was working on. They asked all the time. You could tell them you were working on a submarine program and you could tell them about something they’d see when they rode by the shipyard.

All the tech manuals, all the plans for the components, all the studies we were doing in R&D – the sound tapes and all that stuff – all that was classified. We kept it in our lockers. There were rows of them. These things were damn near bullet-proof.

If you inadvertently left your locker unlocked when you left at night, that was a tremendous no-no. The secretaries would come around before they left and check all the locks. I don’t know how it ever happened but every once in a while you’d just forget. And the dreaded thing was to come in and find a red lock on your locker, knowing you left it unlocked and you’d all have to get a big lecture.