05 October 2008


Ok, so somehow a submarine legend has passed on without my hearing about it. At least until I read it here. So I figured this Submarine Sunday will be my tribute to him.

Chester "Whitey" Mack was such a legend among the sub force, that the book Blind Man's Bluff devotes an entire chapter to his exploits. Born July 20, 1931 in Glen Lyon, Pennsylvania he earned a chemical engineering degree from Penn State despite being the son of a coal miner. Already known as a renegade in the sub fleet, in 1967 he became commander of the USS Lapon, where his true legacy would be born. The Soviets had just built the Yankee class, their first nuclear powered ballistic missile sub. US intelligance on the new boats was sketchy at best, and it became clear that only another submarine could provide more data. In March of 1969, Mack pulled the Lapon up to within 300 yards of a Soviet Yankee in the Barents Sea - The Soviet Navy's principal training area. After taking photographs through the periscope, the Lapon was detected and forced to run away at high speed. This adventure alone was not enough, though as "rival" sub commander Kinnaird McKee had already topped it by collecting sound signatures from two classes of Soviet subs as well as data on a nuclear powered ice breaker. Another commander, Guy Shaffer, had already photographed the underside of a Yankee class boat and gotten sound signatures. But all this data was considered useless until someone could track a Yankee for an extended period. On September 16, 1969, the Lapon got a message that a Yankee was found north of Norway, heading south. The crew headed north and waited in the Denmark Strait at modified battle stations. One day later the Yankee passed by and the Lapon began a "sprint and drift" trail of the Soviet boat. For four days the Yankee appeared and disappeared on Lapon's sonar, until Mack decided on a new idea: To head south of the Azores Islands and wait for the Yankee. After the Lapon had gotten caught in a fishing net and had to surface to clear it, the Yankee showed up. Determined not to lose it, the Lapon followed at 3,000 yards - a very dangerous distance underwater. Using a revolutionary sonar system, they tracked the Soviet sub and registered changes in its tones as it maneuvered. After several days the Yankee settled into a patrol area, 1,500 to 2,000 miles off the US coast, much further than the 700 miles thought by US analysts. The trail continued and the crew began to make light of the situation, giving names to the Soviet Officer-of-theDecks and making remarks like "we just got sh*t on" when the Yankee blew its sanitary tanks. Finally after 47 days the Yankee headed home and Lapon broke off the trail. The longest trail before then had been only a few days, and more importantly, the Lapon had proven that the Yankee could be tracked. The Lapon soon earned the Presidential Unit Citation, and Mack finally got the glory he had sought. He even got his own song, written by CIA spook Tommy Cox, who was aboard the Lapon for its long mission.

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