The following letter was donated to this site by LCDR Michael Hallal. His description of the last voyage of the 658 is captured in this personal correspondence in a very elegant manner. Thank you Mike for this donation. This site would not be complete without it.
It has been a while, so this letter may be long. I received your 04 August letter during a port visit to San Diego. The mail does work. I also received your October letter in Washington and I am just a little slow in my reply. Well here we go.
Last I wrote, I was still in Charleston and had just become the Engineering Officer on the USS MARIANO G. VALLEJO. As you are aware, the massive cutback in our nations defense is resulting in numerous submarine decommissioning and naval base closures. The end of the Cold War was a wonderful event. I hope we don't undermine the military too much with the cutbacks since our use of the military has gone up in the post Cold War world. It will take many years and plenty of money to regain even a portion of the expertise and equipment which we are loosing daily through the cutbacks. So I hope we will never need it again. The following facts about the cutbacks will add flavor to the rest of this letter.
The Charleston Naval base, Charleston Naval Shipyard, and Mare Island Naval Shipyard are all on the base closure list and will be completely shutdown by 1996. The USS MARIANO G. VALLEJO (SSBN 658), USS SIMON BOLIVAR (SSBN 641), and the USS STONEWALL JACKSON (SSBN 634) were all based in Charleston and are all slated for decommissioning at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington. A bit of history before we begin the voyage.
The USS MARIANO G. VALLEJO (SSBN 658) was constructed at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Vallejo, California, during the height of the Cold War. Commissioned in 1966, she was the fortieth of the Polaris/Poseidon Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) Submarines to be constructed. Each of the forty-one FBM submarine fleet was named for a famous freedom fighter and thus the fleet was dubbed the "Forty-one for Freedom." Each of these magnificent submarines would leave port and totally disappear for seventy days at a time with her sixteen strategic missiles capable of reaching targets anywhere on earth. Each FBM submarine spent nearly one half of her existence submerged and undetected ready to counter any attack on her nation. The concept of strategic deterrence was highly successful. The program has a perfect record of zero nuclear wars in the thirty years that the "Forty-one for Freedom" patrolled the oceans of the world. The VALLEJO, JACKSON, and BOLIVAR were the last of the original forty-one to conduct deterrent patrols and are now being decommissioned. The VALLEJO was the last to patrol, last to off load her missiles and the last to arrive in Washington making her the last of the "Forty-one for Freedom."
In June of 1994 Madeleine, Patrick, and I began our move to Bremerton. The ship was still in Charleston but half of the crew moved their families before the ship left Charleston and the others moved after the ship arrived in Washington. The trip was good and we visited Yellowstone National Park in the process. After getting the family settled in, I flew back to the submarine which was in Kings Bay, Georgia at the time off loading her strategic weapons. Being the last submarine of Submarine Squadron Sixteen in Kings Bay, we were the platform for the Squadron's decommissioning ceremony. We conducted an unassisted underway (i.e. no tug boats to help). This was a symbolic gesture since the official support structure for our class of submarine in that port was just formally deactivated. Unassisted underways for submarines are very rare and somewhat difficult, but we had practiced and this one went without a hitch.
We had the Commander of Submarine Group Six onboard since he needed a way to get back to Charleston and the Squadron he just decommissioned could be of no assistance (again a symbolic gesture). On the transit back to Charleston we conducted a dependents cruise. This is where the crew members take family members onboard and show off their ship. These are always fun since we like to show off our ship with diving, surfacing, periscope operations (children of all ages like to look out the periscope), battle stations drills, etc. In Charleston we conducted the last maintenance period the ship would ever get. It was quite a task to repair this thirty year old submarine well enough to make a six thousand mile voyage.
On 02 August, the submarine left Charleston for the last time. The transit through the Caribbean was uneventful after the Bermuda Triangle and we arrived at the Panama Canal on 10 August. I know that the Bermuda Triangle is not a real thing, but every time I find myself there something on the submarine needs to be fixed. The Panama Canal was very interesting. It took a full day to make the transit. I never expected that the ship would have to travel southeast to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific but we did. We had Special Forces escorts for security as we transited through. There was a large "Gunboat" watching our rear and two heavily armed speed boats which zoomed up ahead of us and circled each approaching ship to ensure there were no hidden threats to us. The weather was hot and clear and we had a cookout topside on the missile deck. I saw a sign which stated that we were crossing the continental divide. I didn't know it went down that far. We got as far South as a latitude of 04 degrees but we were not authorized to travel the 240 extra miles it would have taken to cross the equator. There is a tradition when the submarine crosses the equator which involves those who have done it before, "Shellbacks," initiating those who have not, "Polywogs." I did not relish the idea of crossing the equator anyway, being a Polywog myself.
After traveling West forever, we finally made a turn to the North, skirted the coast of Baja California, and arrived in San Diego. The San Diego stop was just three days long and served to embark a couple of scientist for a couple of weeks of exercizes off the California coast. The work was very interesting and gave the crew a sense of purpose other than delivering the submarine to her decommissioning. The most exciting event of that leg of the voyage happened when we transited twenty miles from the epicenter of a 7.2 earthquake. The epicenter was far out to sea but not far enough from us. Its a good thing submarines are designed to withstand depth charges and battle damage. No one was hurt but we had no idea what had caused the violent shudders we felt. We came to communications depth and intercepted local radio reports which indicated that a major earthquake had struck off the coast. No one onboard had ever felt an earthquake while submerged. We had not even imagined that that was what had happened. A couple of days later we surfaced off the coast ready for the transit in to Vallejo, California.
I had the honor of being the Officer of the Deck for the transit under the Golden Gate bridge and into the San Francisco Bay. It was about four in the morning and the weather was beautiful. From the bridge of the submarine the stars looked the size of baseballs. Orion was peering over my right shoulder as the Golden Gate came into view. There was a crescent moon lurking above the bridge. A finger of morning fog was just reaching out to obscure one of the bridge towers. We met a tug boat between Alcatraz and the Ghiardelli Chocolate factory. The tug boat delivered about twenty passengers from the City of Vallejo. The guest list included the Mayor of Vallejo and several distinguished Vallejo businessmen and women. Martha McGettigan, the great great granddaughter of General Mariano G. Vallejo, was among the guests. Martha's older sister, Patricia was the woman who smashed the bottle of champagne on the VALLEJO's sail to christen her thirty years ago. Martha was the driving force in arranging the ships visit to Vallejo. We headed out under the Golden Gate Bridge again and took our guests for a day under the sea. As with the dependents cruise, we put the ship through its paces. The crew had worked very hard to prepare the ship for this visit and the ship looked spectacular. Everything shined. Our guests had a terrific time. After a very full day we again transited under the Golden Gate Bridge and then up the Napa River to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. This began our eleven day port call to the City of Vallejo.
Madeleine and Patrick came to Vallejo for the visit and thus ended our extended separation. The people of Vallejo treated us like kings. The shipyard was really decked out for our arrival. Even the cranes had red, white, and blue bunting. The people of Vallejo were anxious to see our ship. Many families of people who built the ship came to see her one last time. The namesake ship was built with special care at Mare Island. We have lots of fancy chrome and brass that the other ships of the class do not have. We hosted over three thousand tours of the ship in eleven days. The crew members in each duty section worked very hard to guide the tours decked out in their dress uniforms and then shifting to working uniforms after hours to clean up the ship and get ready for the next day. The off duty crewmen were not at a loss for things to do. We were given free tickets to Marine World USA, free ferry tickets to San Francisco, and numerous other special privileges. We were each given a laminated card stating that we were crew members of the VALLEJO. Show the card and you were treated special where ever you went.
Martha had two special events planned for us. The first was a formal reception at the Vallejo museum. This was very fancy and all of the prominent Vallejo citizens were there. The second was an entire day of events in the area. We were picked up in the morning and taken around in tour busses. We stopped by the museum to pick up three local historians who guided our tour. We toured several wineries. At one winery we were given an elaborate formal picnic with crystal and checkered tablecloths overlooking the vineyards. We were hosted by the owner, Sam Sebastiani. Martha was with us for all of the events and really made the day special. We didn't have to pay for anything. The only thing we were asked to do that day was to bring our dress uniforms with us. After visiting the home of General Vallejo, we went to the Sonoma Barracks. This is where Vallejo had his troops garrisoned. He had thirty troops and was sent to the area by Mexico to ensure that the Russians garrisoned thirty miles to the North at Fort Ross didn't get any ideas. At the barracks we were asked to change into our dress uniforms for a ceremony. The mayor of Sonoma and a whole bunch of other people commemorated our visit in front of the flags flown over California with an opera singer singing a song about the whole thing. It turns out that the USS MARIANO G. VALLEJO was the largest military organization ever to assemble at the barracks. We had about sixty crew members present. All in all, this was a port call like no other anyone onboard had ever seen.
Madeleine, Patrick, and I had a great time. We did some wine tasting in our old familiar stomping ground from Naval Postgraduate School days. We visited places that had special meaning to us like the Sonoma Cheese Factory and the Callistoga Inn. We visited friends in San Jose. Finally, we visited Yosemite National Park. We had a wonderful trip there several years ago for an anniversary in which a faulty camera resulted in no surviving photographs. We made up for that this time. These photos were even better because they had Patrick in them. Madeleine and Patrick flew back to Washington and I took the submarine for its final three day voyage of its thirty year history.
The first commanding officer of the VALLEJO, CAPT. (RET) Jack Nunnely, lives in Vallejo and came with us for the trip to Bangor, Washington. He noted that the ship's maiden voyage was a trip from Vallejo to Bangor for weapons certifications. CAPT. Nunnely is behind a movement in Vallejo to try to get the ship for a museum. This was considered a rather "crackpot" scheme in official circles due to the massive expense and political ramifications. Current arms control treaties allow for only twenty static display launchers. A VALLEJO museum would comprise sixteen static launchers all in one place. The scheme is no longer being considered as "crackpot." The Department of Defense has just formally laid out the guidelines by which Vallejo can buy the VALLEJO. The city has until December of 95 to come up with about twenty million dollars to fund the project. The ship went into dry-dock with three other ships last month to be cut into scrap. Now the shipyard has stopped all work on us except for defueling the reactor. The shipyard plans to refloat the VALLEJO after the other three ships have been scrapped.
We are enjoying the Bremerton area. We had our first snow recently. Patrick calls it "snow balls" no matter what shape it is in. We built our first snowman today. This is not easy for people from the South but we watched some little kids doing it and figured it out. I do not have my next orders yet though I expect them to be teaching at the Naval Academy. I am due to transfer in mid February, 1995. If I get my orders to the Academy, it looks like you will finally get to meet my family. I will keep you posted on further developments in this regard. I think I am all written out for a while. I'll be in touch.
Used with permission.