A voyage below the sea on the USS Alexandria

A voyage below the sea on the USS Alexandria

Dive! Dive! Dive!

The commander of the USS Alexandria orders the ballasts flooded and the fast-attack submarine, all 700 tons of it, makes a rapid descent at a mind-curdling, ear-popping 20-degree angle into the inky black depths of the North Atlantic Ocean.

50 feet..300 feet…500 feet…700 feet…

Well, the rest is classified, for national security reasons; a small price of admission for being one of only two journalists ever allowed to spend several days exploring the nuclear-powered sub, the front line arsenal of the worlds pre-eminent superpower.

Virginia, meet your submarine.

She is a Los Angeles-class nuclear-generating powerhouse, 365 feet in length slightly longer than a pro football field and towers 64 feet, roughly the height of a five-story office building. Shes one of 54 fast attack subs in the United States fleet. The ships commander, Capt. Michael Bernacchi of Fairfax, affectionately calls her Alex.

Underwater, Alex is a fine-tuned Maserati, Bernacchi marvels. Shes a hunter killer, designed to hunt in deep ocean blue water. Shes exceptionally quiet. Were an intel-gathering platform with the most highly advanced computer networks of any ship in the world. All of our missions are classified.

Except this one.

The third ship of the United States Navy to be named for either Alexandria, Virginia, and Alexandria, Louisiana, the sub cost more than $1 billion when the contract was awarded to the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corp. in 1984, has a replacement cost of $2 billion and requires $23 million per year in new parts. She was launched in 1991 (a delegation of Northern Virginia officials helped to see her off on her first mission), and was one of the first to strike in the first Gulf War. Once the plume goes away, were back to being invisible, Bernacchi said.

The subs crew members are specialists in everything from nuclear engineering to anti-surface sub warfare, mine warfare, SEAL operations, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

My crew calls me the most horrible tour guide on the planet, said Bernacchi. We spend summers in the Middle East and winters in the Arctic.

Last November, the Alexandria returned from seven months in Europe and the Middle East, supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, and after seven months of being in harms way, had picked up a green slime on its topcoat. After a serious scrubdown and training for Arctic climates, the Alexandria embarked in January on several months of joint exercises with the Royal Navy in the Arctic Ocean.

With the Russian Federation having recently tested a ballistic missile in the Arctic with a range of 4,900 miles, the United States wanted to test sub-on-sub warfare in the Arctic Ocean. The Trafalgar-class submarine, the HMS Tireless, participated in the joint exercise, and the Secretary of the Navy, several congressmen and a camera crew from Sci-Fis Channels Stargate: Continuum came onboard for several days. The Alexandria tested its operability and tactical abilities in the chilly Arctic waters, sliced through 10 feet of ice with its its razor-sharp sail and flew the flag of the City of Alexandria at the North Pole.

The mission was not without peril. The bridge and sail of the Alexandria was damaged in the exercise and two crew members of the Tireless were killed on March 21 when a self-contained oxygen-generation candle exploded on the British sub.

Roaming a nuclear sub
It was only the second time in 20 years the U.S. Navy had allowed non-elected civilians to take a trip on the Alexandria, Bernacchi said, compensation from the Secretary of the Navy (who personally approved the visit) for the strong ties the Alexandria has with the two cities which bear the subs name. A reporter was allowed to roam freely throughout the sub, the only condition being that certain information was kept off-record and classified, for national security reasons. Because of [its nuclear] classification, I cant show you half the ship, Bernacchi said.

After leaving the New London Submarine Base in Groton, Ct., the Alexandria was escorted by U.S. Coast Guard gunships into the chilly waters of the North Atlantic. Shortly afterwards, the six guests two Chamber of Commerce officials from Alexandria, La., and two city officials and two citizens from Alexandria, Va. were invited to climb four stories of greasy steps to the subs sail, where everyone was tethered in as the sub headed out to sea at a rapid clip.

By 9 p.m., submersion began. The seawater flooded the ballasts and the sub dove nearly 400 feet in short order. The Alexandria was now underwater.

Dinner both evenings was a white tablecloth affair in the captains Ward Room, courtesy of a special Navy chef who trained at the Culinary Institute of America. Its tough to keep these guys, because theyre the best-trained chefs in the Navy, bemoaned Bernacchi, as he cut into a dish of beef stroganoff in a puff pastry, bathed in a mushroom, onion and sour cream sauce. The White House and Pentagon snap them up pretty quickly. 

At 5:30 the next morning it was rise and shine. After breakfast, the crew embarked on an exercise known as angles and dangles, an evasionary tactic subs use to avoid detection by another sub. In this exercise, a hypothetical Russian sub was chasing down the Alexandria, looking to sink it.

Claustrophobic living
A lot has been written recently about exhausted troops, reduced training and worn-down morale, but the Alexandrias crew appears to be well-trained and exceptionally motivated, despite the long months out at sea. The Alexandria carries 12 naval officers and 98 sailors, a male-only, all-volunteer force which must undergo special sub school training and doctors must certify that months under the deep blue sea wont get the sailors, well, blue.

Sailors work around-the-clock in six-hour shifts, eating, sleeping and working at all hours of the night and day, giving little reason for wearing a watch. During the three-day voyage, the visitors slept in sailor berthing perhaps the size of half a coffin, with four inches between a nose and the next guy. Theres no beer or alcohol onboard, one small treadmill and stationery bike for exercise, and one washer and dryer for 110 men.

When that breaks down, theres nearly a riot, Bernacchi said. Weeks at sea with no clean clothes is a bad combination.

The subs configuration half nuclear power plant and weaponry; the other half, berthing, bathrooms and mess hall makes for cramped, almost claustrophobic, living for the sailors. But few days are without excitement or challenges, the sailors say.

Whats not challenging about this job? Im in charge of a nuclear propulsion plant, said Lt. Cmdr. Eric Higgs, of Dexter, MI., who received dual degrees in physics and chemistry from Xavier University. It does get tough at times, but we are supporting the war on terrorism. Everybodys a warrior. We are all crucial to Mission Accomplished.

Onboard, there is no telephone contact with home, no television, no creature comforts. Hollywood does provide mini-cassettes of first-run movies, however, to stave off boredom. At periscope level, the submariners may send e-mails home or to friends, but they are all screened by the Navy, and photos or other attachments are not permitted.

Ive been affiliated with the Navy for 24 years and what struck me was the respect and the teamwork of these young guys, said Tom Kerr of Alexandria, one of the subs guests who works as a senior budget analyst at the Pentagon.

On the final night of the three-day trip, a re-enlistment ceremony was held on the subs mess hall for Ofc. Richard Nebelski, who, after being detailed to submarine duty for 16 years, decided to re-enlist for another four. After swearing on a family bible to protect the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic, Nebelski, of Keene, N.H., was handed an oversized check for $20,137 hi
s re-enlistment bonus from the Navy.

I like the close family resemblance to life you get on board, said Nebelski, the father of three who was accompanied by his 12-year-old son Nathan. Being so close with the crew definitely helps with the homesickness.

Bernacchi, 41, hails from Grambling, Mich., and splits his time between homes in Groton and the Kings Park West neighborhood of Fairfax County. Bernacchi is one of seven children, a descendant of the Carrolls, signers of the Declaration of Independence, so thoughts of freedom and liberty are never far from his mind. He never got into trouble as a kid, professed his mother, Marilyn Hayes, who was also onboard.

By Thursday, it was time to surface.

Prepare to surface! The call went out over the subs onboard PA system. Ears popping, head swimming, visitors made their way up below the surface and onto periscope level.

Its been an absolute privilege having our two cities on board, Bernacchi said as his guests stepped off the gangplank.