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Key Overhaul 1982 - 1985

Submitted by Jeff Buss - YN3   (note: click on the blue text as you read to see pictures)

Anyone who endured the Newport News refueling overhaul of 1983-85 had a unique Naval experience.  Two crews were consolidated to one, and the boat entered the yards in early 1983.  Put into drydock, massive holes were cut into her hull.  Everything was stripped bare, tiles off the floors, paneling off the walls.  Valves and equipment were removed and shipped all over the country for replacement, refurbishing or recalibration.  The boat was nothing like you would remember.

  I reported to the “boat” in April of 1983.  The term “boat” was used loosely, as I actually reported to a brick building outside of the shipyard, simply called Building 606.  For “newbies,” this was not a pleasant experience.  You were given a qualification card like anyone else.  The difference was, you had nothing to learn from except books.  Practically everything on the boat was gone.  You’d ask for help, and learn “well that valve would be here, but it’s gone.”  Qualification signatures were signed in red ink.  When the boat became operational again, you’d have to go through the whole checkout again, and get it signed off in black ink.  It was a strange experience because you could literally go days without even seeing the boat.

  Obviously the boat was uninhabitable.  Originally, crews were given apartments about 10 miles away from the shipyard.  But in May 1983, all of the non-married personnel were moved to a brand new barracks facility called Huntington Hall.  “The Hall” as it became to be known, was a converted former high school.  It was ran by the shipyard, and had a private security presence.  As barracks go, it wasn’t all that bad – it had a fully operational galley, lounges, sauna, laundry, and even a basketball court.  In the rear of the building was a run-down football field and track.  The sick bay was later located in “The Hall” as well.

  The main problem was location. Huntington Hall was located about half-mile to a mile from the shipyard, depending on which gate you entered at.  The daily routine would be to walk to the shipyard in your big steel-toed boots, hard hat and safety glasses.  After leaving Huntington Hall, we'd pass by this beautiful church, which was about the only nice thing we'd see. Downtown Newport News, which was once a bustling retail area, but had since been reduced to a slum.  Old buildings were torn down and parking lots made for the shipyard’s 35,000 workers.  What buildings remained were boarded up.  The had a number of small, family-run restaurants, two strip clubs and a 7/11 convenience store.  That was pretty much your options if you didn’t have a vehicle.  If your shipyard duties required a trip back to “The Hall” after dark, you would encounter prostitutes, many of them males dressed in drag, propositioning you.  The command encouraged people not to walk alone.

  Huntington Hall housed all the crews that were in the yard at any given time, whether it was a SSBN undergoing overhaul, or SSN’s under construction.  Thus, you got to know many people from different boats.  Among the other boomers in the yard at that time were USS Daniel Boone (SSBN 629), USS George C. Marshall (SSBN 654), USS Henry L. Stimson (SSBN 655), USS George Washington Carver (SSBN 656), and USS Will Rogers (SSBN 659).  New 688-attack boats were also built at the yard, some of those I remember were the USS Olympia (SSN 717), USS Honolulu (SSN 718), USS Chicago (SSN 721) and USS Key West (SSN 722).  One side of “The Hall” had rooms with private heads, the other side for lower ranked sailors, were rooms with a common head down the hall.  To get from one side to the other literally required a walk of 1-2 blocks.

  With the lack of entertainment options, we made the best of a bad situation.  Often, we turned to drinking in our off-hours.  Maybe not the most popular statement in this day and age, but it did get us through, and I have many fond memories of my time at “The Hall.” (Barracks 1  2  )  My room was #220 with an exceptional view.

  Meals were served in the galley, so you would have to walk back and forth from the shipyard for lunch.  If one was on duty, meals from “The Hall” would be brought in plastic trays, always cold and generally nasty.  Often, fast-food runs would be made using the GSA-provided vans.

  Sometime early in 1984, the equipment had been returned and the boat’s large holes had been re-welded and sealed, and it was floated for the first time.  About that same time, another boat left the yard and we moved the offices from Building 606 to the barge.  The advantage was the barge was closer to the boat, the disadvantage was you had to enter the shipyard just to get to the offices.

  Topside watches in those days were strange.  You had no weapon, your main job was to check the shipyard workers to ensure they had the proper badge.  The topside petty officer and sentry never saw each other, only talked via phone if need be.  At night, with minimal shipyard workers, the watches would be eternal.  Time was often spent launching soda cans into the river and watching them sink, or throwing things at the little crabs which swam near the surface.

  Below-decks watches were equally dull.  Many who stood these watches began to loathe the shipyard workers, who were making $15.00 per hour minimum (in 1984) and exhibited some of the laziest traits in history.  I remember one story of a yard worker who had to install something by putting in four large screws, which would take a normal person 15 minutes tops.  The below-decks watch told me he would start, then as the supervisor would leave, he would sit down and not do anything until the supervisor came back.  He spent his entire eight hour shift on this and turned it over to his relief on the evening shift.  It was no wonder the overhaul took about a year longer than anticipated!

  Throughout 1984, we began to receive more and more shipmates as we started to prepare for the two crew system again.  Each week would see the boat finally taking shape and look like a real submarine again.  More and more time was being spent on the boat, rather than on the barge. 

  One experience I recall was January 20, 1985.  Super Bowl Sunday, San Francisco vs. Miami.  We watched the game, partied hard, and got up the next morning (January 21).  It was a brutally cold day, an ice storm had coated the yard with ice.  I had duty that day.  The shipyard was closed, the off-going duty section went home, everybody else was told not to report.  This kind of weather was totally uncommon for this area.  I had topside watch twice that day.  Both the fore and aft brows (yes, we had two) were coated with ice.  The only yard workers were essential personnel.  I remember one came down the aft brow, which was steep.  He slipped on the ice, landed flat on his bottom.  His hardhat bounced off the boat into the water, floated for a bit, and then sunk when it filled with water.  His tool belt and also come loose and slid off the side to the bottom of the river.  I laughed my butt off, then later found out that they had to purchase their own tools.

  As the year progressed, the boat was nearly fully operational.  In early summer, we started the “fast cruises” and then finally went out for sea trials.  The post-shipyard sea trials were very interesting.  They rigged up massive amounts of temporary bunks in upper level missile compartment, and many of us were sleeping in lower level missile compartment on foam.  There were something like 300 people onboard, the normal crew plus about 150 technicians and shipyard personnel.  Nobody had water to bathe with, all fresh water was used for cooking and drinking.  The air handling system wasn’t working properly.  We were out the better part of a week.  I remember returning to the shipyard after not bathing that long.  Went back to “The Hall” and spent the better part of an hour in the shower.  I did the subsequent trial, then sat out the third one while others got some experience.

  Finally in August 1985, we departed Newport News.  The crew was split once again and our shipyard experience had finally ended and we were actual submariners again.  They say it’s not the place you’re at, but the people you are with.  That was never more true.  Despite the horrible setting they placed us in, we ended up having a good time, one that I will never forget. 

If you have anything to add to this history of the second Key overhaul period, please submit it to ssbn657@comcast.net