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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Famed mini sub’s control room to become future exhibit

A section of the "Nerwin," at the Keyport Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington on Tuesday, May 8, 2018. (Meegan M. Reid / Kitsap Sun)
By Julianne Stanford Kitsap Sun

BREMERTON, Wash. – The U.S. Naval Undersea Museum at Keyport has a new addition to its archives – the salvaged control room of the legendary, one-of-a-kind Cold War-era miniature submersible NR-1.

Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy, conceived the idea for the “Nerwin,” as it was affectionately known by its crewmembers, following the loss of the submarine USS Thresher in 1963.

After the tragedy that claimed the lives of all 129 crew and civilians aboard, Rickover dreamed up the idea for the small, deep submergence vessel with a compact nuclear propulsion plant and wheels that could drive along the ocean floor to increase the Navy’s investigative abilities in the deep.

The 145 foot-long NR-1, which was 13 feet in diameter, was launched on Jan. 25, 1969. During the next 40 years, the sub undertook a variety of missions – including search, recovery, oceanographic research, geological surveys and installing and maintaining underwater equipment – as well as countless military missions that are still classified today.

To date, the mini-sub is the only nuclear-powered research submarine ever built or operated.

Among some of its most notable de-classified escapades, the NR-1 recovered an F-14 fighter aircraft lost in the Atlantic Ocean in 1976, recovered lost components of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, surveyed the wreckage of the Titanic’s sister ship HMHS Britannic in 1995, discovered three ancient Roman shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea in the late 1990s and investigated the remains of the Civil War-era ironclad USS Monitor.

The submarine was inactivated on Nov. 21, 2008. It arrived at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard a year later, where it sat atop a barge for almost the next eight years until the recycling process began in January 2017, said shipyard spokesman J.C. Mathews.

But before the shipyard’s first cutting torch ever began to peel away scrap metal, the shipyard and the Naval Undersea Museum started to explore the prospect of preserving components of the historic sub.

PSNS Commanding Officer Capt. Howard Markle formally transferred ownership of the control room from the shipyard to the museum during a ceremony on Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s a proud moment for us to be able to present this to the museum,” Markle said. “We’re grateful for their willingness to accept it for eventual display, and we’re especially thankful for their commitment to educating the community – and our Navy family – on the men and women, the vessels, the mission and the legacy of our Navy’s undersea warfighters.”

For the time being, the control room will remain a part of the museum’s archives until space can be found to display it in the museum’s already packed galleries, said museum curator Mary Ryan.

“It’s a great opportunity to preserve and someday display something that is a one-of-a-kind in the whole world,” Ryan said. “When you can show the public something that is the only example of something, it’s pretty special to know.”

During the process of recycling the sub, shipyard marine mechanic Charles Dastrup was tasked with removing the components of the control room and reassembling them outside the sub in his workshop.

“The painstaking work he and his team went through to get all of this equipment out in the beautiful condition it’s in while we’re gracefully trying to retire the vessel is absolutely extraordinary,” Markle said.

Dastrup, who has worked at the shipyard for the past decade, said it was a privilege to have been the person tasked with the job.

It took Dastrup two weeks to remove everything in the control room. Certain items, like the cabinets, had to be taken apart and lifted through the sub’s small hatch because they were too large to fit through it in their entirety.

From there, all of the components were boxed up and shipped to the Dastrup’s shop at the shipyard. Once the front of the ship was cut away a few months later, crews removed the blue decking from the control room floor and shipped them to Dastrup’s shop.

“And then I just basically had to reassemble everything,” Dastrup said. “We had to make sure everything was labeled and put back together in the right correct spot.”

Dastrup used pictures of the inside of the control room as a map to ensure the authenticity of where all of the pieces went.

“Now everything is exactly as it was the day they decommissioned the boat,” Dastrup said. “We wanted to make sure that when it got over to the museum, we wanted it to be as exact as possible.”

While working on the sub, Dastrup noticed how cramped the quarters felt, with the small hallway and control room that was filled with knobs and buttons. Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the submersible was the smell, he said.

“It wasn’t an unpleasant smell,” he said. “It was like ocean spray, putting it into a jar, and saving it and then opening it up. It was a refreshing sea breeze.”

Former NR-1 submariner Richard Emerson, who served aboard the vessel from 2000 to 2003, said being a part of the Nerwin’s crew was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“It was just a really neat experience,” Emerson said. “It was one of those things that I’m glad I did, but I would never do again. There’s a reason why they select you to do it when you’re young.”

Right before he retired from the Navy, Emerson saw NR-1 sitting on the barge awaiting recycling at the shipyard. Soon after, Emerson started working at the shipyard and one day was called to do a security review of the control room to make sure all classified materials and documents had been removed.

“Of course, all classified items had been removed, and that’s when I found out the control room was going to be displayed.” he said. “I’m glad there’s a piece of history that moving forward people will be able to see the experience.”

While onboard, Emerson served as electrical division officer and maintenance coordinator, as well as a Navy diver to support dive operations. He served as a chief nuclear electrician’s mate before receiving a commission and retired as an ensign.

The hardest part of the being a part of the NR-1’s crew was while the ship was in port, Emerson said.

“There was so much maintenance, with such a small crew, that I craved to get underway so I could get some sleep,” he said.

Since the sub was a one-of-a-kind piece of machinery, it presented an abundance of repair work challenges. When something broke, no stockpile of replacement parts existed and a substitute couldn’t be pilfered from another vessel of the same class to get underway.

“So we’d have to go back and overhaul something from the ground up, using as much of new technology as you can to meet the old requirements or we’d have to contract out to have someone build something from scratch,” Emerson said.

The submersible typically had 15 permanent crew members and while underway, anywhere from eight to 11 people were onboard while submerged for a mission.

“It was tight-living,” Emerson said.

The sub was one level with a center aisle from the aft-deck to the forward end. It only had four racks, a convection oven for heating up meals and no shower.

To get some sleep while underway, the crew would put mattresses in the walkway and on hanging racks in the overhead area. Those moving about had to step over the sailors sleeping below and duck those sleeping above.

Most meals all started out frozen. His favorites included Texas toast, chicken strips and tater tots. Every once in a while, the sub would surface and meet up with a supply ship, which meant fresh fruit and vegetables for the crew.

“We used to say that if it couldn’t be cooked in 15 minutes at 350 degrees, or microwaved, it wasn’t onboard,” Emerson said.

The little sub didn’t have the propulsion power to quickly transit the ocean, so it had to be towed everywhere by support vessel Carolyn Chouest – a flat-bottomed ocean-going tug that didn’t cut the waves very well.

“It got pretty rough sometimes,” Emerson said.

NR-1’s workload was split between military and scientific missions. Occasionally, scientists and researchers from universities with oceanographic interests would tag along for deep-water exploration.

“We had really sophisticated sonar, so we could look at the bottom pretty good from a pretty good distance,” Emerson said.

Emerson has many memories from his time aboard the sub, but a couple stand out.

In one instance, the NR-1 crew worked with a retired U.S. Coast Guard chief who was researching a book on sunken World War II-era dirigibles. One dirigible he was researching, the USS Akron, sank off of the coast of New Jersey in 1933 after a strong gust of wind knocked the airship toward the water. The fuselage’s wreckage had never been discovered.

“We went to the most likely area where it should be and then `mowed the grass,’ which is basically doing a bottom grid with our sonar and then just keep going back and forth,” Emerson said. “We just did that for quite a few days, and were getting near the end of our tour, and then we found the tail section of the Akron and we were able to track that to the fuselage.”

In another case, the crew spent two weeks taking historical photos of a 19th-century galleon that had sunk off the Gulf of Mexico.

“Due to ocean and tidal currents, it was being destroyed and so they wanted us to go down and basically do a historical photograph of `this is what it looks like,’ because in 10 years it will likely be gone,” Emerson said. “So we went down and we were able to drive up onto it and use the thrusters to clear the debris away and get some pretty good pictures of it.”