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CAPT Tim France graciously responded to my request to write a brief history of his tenure as CO of the Key from 1984 - 1988.  Below is his briefing.  Crew member of the Key that served with Capt France are welcome to add their comments.  Many photos of this period can be seen in the 1980s photo area on this web site.

CAPT France: Brief might be the hard part, but here’s an attempt:

I received my orders to the Key in the fall of 1983 as I was finishing my XO tour on Von Steuben.  I had joined the Von Steuben in the middle of overhaul at Newport News and completed the overhaul, homeport change to Charleston, shakedown, and two patrols out of Submarine Squadron SIXTEEN in Kings Bay.   I completed the Naval Reactors PCO course and the Submarine Force PCO school in June 1984, and found out that the Key was a long way from completing the overhaul.  I received an order modification to ComSubGru SIX staff in Charleston to wait for the overhaul to be closer to completion.  After five months at Group SIX, I reported to the Key at Newport  News in overhaul with “a few months” remaining.

A few months turned into ten, and after completing sea trials in July we were ready for crew split in August 1985.  I took command of the Gold crew on 26 August 1985, fourteen months after completing my PCO training.  The ceremony was held in the courtyard of the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News with Admiral Mal McKinnon, the Supervisor of Shipbuilding, Newport News , doing the honors as the principal speaker.  The Gold crew then moved on to Charleston to set up the off-crew office and conducted a shortened training period while the Blue crew was off on the first part of their shakedown. 

In early November the Gold crew relieved the Blue crew and in 89 days we went through post-overhaul shakedown, jumping through all the ‘hoops’ to be certified for strategic patrol operations.  The DASO (demonstration and shakedown operations) at Port Canaveral was quite memorable, culminating in the successful launch of a Trident I (C-4) ballistic missile on 7 December 1985.  We had a Christmas break in our homeport of Charleston and then completed our ORSE (operational reactor safeguards exam) in early January.  Then on short-notice we were able to embark some of our fathers and sons for a two-day cruise from Charleston to Port Canaveral.  On arrival at Port Canaveral we witnessed a launch of the space shuttle on 12 January 1986 as we steamed up the entrance channel.

We turned the boat over to the Blue crew again in late January 1986 – the day was memorable because we heard the reports of the loss of the space shuttle Challenger that morning as we drove from the crew exchange.  Back in off-crew we had an even shorter training period as we prepared for Patrol 50, the first for Key in several years.  Toward the end of April we again conducted a crew exchange with the Blue crew and completed refit and refresher training and were off on patrol in mid May.  The memorable event of that patrol was a mid patrol port stop in New London to pick up some targeting materials that had not been available when we left on patrol.  While off Montauk Point on the end of Long Island , inbound, we had an encounter with a Soviet AGI, one of a half dozen or so such encounters I had while in command.

Late July we were back from patrol and into off-crew again.  Toward the end of off-crew we found out that our next patrol would be a little “different.”  Due to several other of the Squadron SIXTEEN boats being tied up in extended maintenance, it was determined that the Key would be tasked with maximizing underway time to cover the strategic target packages.  To make this happen, a cadre of thirty-five of us went to Kings Bay a few days early, and embarked via tug transfer to start turnover with the Blue crew.  On the scheduled day we returned to port and were met by the rest of the crew to complete turnover and get the crews boxes on and off again and do a quick stores load.  Twenty four hours after tying up we had completed the turnover and relieved the Blue crew.  Twenty four later, after an abbreviated fast cruise we were underway, covering targets.  We remained in the local operating areas and had about 50 or so days of provisions on board, so we knew we would have to go back in to load out before we could do a full patrol.  As it turned out, after a week at sea we had a material casualty that we could have fixed at sea, but the powers that be decided to bring us in for a short refit and to complete load out.  After a week in port we were ready to go again, and headed to sea just after dark to keep from another day of target coverage degrade.  It was an interesting trip down the St. Mary’s River, but we were underway for Patrol 52.

It turned out to be an eighty four day patrol, with a slight break after sixty one days at sea for a port visit in Bermuda , the first ever for a U. S. SSBN.  We pulled in to the anchorage on the Friday of Martin Luther King Weekend, and left on Tuesday morning.  A handful of the wives were able to meet us there and we enjoyed learning about Bermuda .  The other memorable thing about that patrol was the number of medevacs we conducted.  We had several critical medical situations taking us to the Azores and Bermuda for tug transfers before our port visit.  We completed Patrol 52 in early February 1987 with a successful ORSE and were once again to off-crew in Charleston .

Back in Charleston we enjoyed the time with families and conducted our training evolutions to prepare for Patrol 53.  That off-crew and the subsequent patrol were fairly routine.  We were back to Kings Bay in mid May and off on Patrol 54.  Note the pattern.  We were on patrol in the hottest and coolest months of the year and back home with families to enjoy the springs and autumns in Charleston .

The next off-crew was somewhat routine until a few weeks before the end when I was tasked by ComSubGru SIX to a bit of “extracurricular” duty.  I ended up flying to Newport News and riding the USS Tecumseh on their initial sea trials as they were completing overhaul there about two years behind the Key.  When a boat is completing an overhaul or new construction there is the requirement that a submarine command qualified officer senior to the skipper ride the boat as the “Type Commander’s Representative.”  It seems that Group Six was fresh out of deputies and they could not find another candidate from another staff, so I was “elected.”  It was an enjoyable but totally unexpected break from off-crew and CDR Bob Gay and his crew conducted themselves in a very professional manner.  I guess I was the logical person for this task as I had participated initial sea trials on all five of my submarines, four overhauls and one new construction, and there was not much that I did not know about that particular evolution.

Patrol 56 was my last in command.  We went to Kings Bay in early December and relieved the Blue crew and sent them on their way.  We completed all the upkeep maintenance a week or so before Christmas and conducted our refresher training and sea trials en route Charleston to spend Christmas with our families.  We were able to arrange a short dependents’ cruise from the Naval Station to the Naval Weapons Station in Charleston a day or two after Christmas, completed our load out and we were underway for Patrol 56 before the start of 1988.  Another routine patrol was concluded by yet another successful ORSE, returning to Kings Bay in mid March. 

About a month into off-crew my relief was on board, our turnover was completed, and the change of command was held on the Submarine Birthday, 11 April 1988.  Admiral Bill Owens, ComSubGru SIX was the principal speaker and had a few kind words for me and the crew as CDR Jimmy Ellis relieved me as Commanding Officer, Gold.  The ceremony was held in the courtyard of the Naval Base Headquarters in Charleston with the azaleas in full bloom.  The circle was complete.  From the courtyard in Newport News to the courtyard in Charleston, a most enjoyable tour of duty was history.

No one runs a submarine all by himself.  Anyone who has ridden the boats knows that it is a team effort, and I could not have done what I did without my team.  My executive officer, two chiefs of the boat, two engineers, my navigator, two weapons officers, two supply officers, two corpsmen, the many junior officers, the Chiefs, and each member of the crew were part of my team and contributed significantly to any successes I might have had in command.  And there are also the families.  My family made many sacrifices and did not have me around for many special occasions as did each family of my crew.  My two Cob’s wives and two Ombudsmen were there for the families when the husbands were out at sea. We could not have done what we did without the support of the families.  It was a great job and an unforgettable experience.  Now almost twenty years down the road, there are many good memories.  Yes, there were the not so good days, but they fade away and it is the good days that come to mind.