Bill Whitehead, submariner

The ultimate, long-range thrill ride in a sub.

FEATURE ARTICLE from The Morning Journal, 3-13-05, By RON VIDIKA, Morning Journal Writer

``Avon man looks back at his life as a submariner

AVON -- At age 44, Bill Whitehead has been under the North Pole, wedged his way through the Bering Straits and sailed through Pearl Harbor and the Panama Canal, racking up 20,000 miles in five months.

''In 1990, we circumnavigated North America,'' said Whitehead, who spent 23 1/2 years in the U.S. Navy.

He was on sea duty for 13 of those years, aboard a nuclear submarine, beginning as an E-5 second-class petty officer.

He retired from the Navy in June 2002, with the rank of master chief petty officer.

''I wouldn't have stayed if I wasn't enjoying it. I spent 18 months longer than needed,'' said Whitehead. He and his wife of 18 years, Sandra, have two children, Kristin, 12, and Ashleigh, 10 and have settled down in Avon ...

Whitehead said you can't consider a military career without the full support of your family. ''Without a doubt, the wife has the toughest job,'' he said.

''Once we're gone (on duty), she has to be the mother, teacher, mechanic. You have an extended family with the military but, like my wife says, you really don't have people there to support you when you have a sick kid at two in the morning,'' said Whitehead.

A 1978 graduate of Lorain Catholic High School, Whitehead entered the Navy in December 1978.

''I didn't do it as a career,'' said Whitehead. ''I initially joined, as many people do, to corner money for college. It offered an electronics program that interested me. I pretty much went in for a four-year hitch and out. But, after a few circumstances came up, they put me in a position of leadership, taking over a division on a submarine.'' Specifically, the USS John Adams ...

His next below-sea journey was aboard the USS Pargo, one of the first so-called ''fast attack'' submarines. ''Fast-attack submarines are smaller, faster and actually more of a hunter, whereas ballistic subs are not. Fast-attacks are more prone to get involved and engage themselves (in defense), whereas missile subs remain hidden in support of national security,'' said Whitehead. ''Fast-attacks carry the Cruise missile,'' added Whitehead.

In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came crashing down and took the Soviet Union with it, the function of submarines changed as well.

''During the Cold War, subs were built for the purpose of supporting the battle groups and carriers and concentrating on what the Soviet Union had, as far as (defense) capabilities. But after that, it was not the same threat and it redefined the role of subs,'' said Whitehead.

''On the USS Dallas, which was the last sub I was on, we would actually have the capability of taking out a group of special forces, the Navy Seals. They'd go off and do their thing and come back and we'd never have to surface,'' said Whitehead.

Top -- Home

It was in 1990 that Whitehead said he experienced the ultimate, long-range thrill ride in a sub. ''One of the most exciting experiences was on the USS Pargo in 1990. We circumnavigated North America. We began in Groton, Conn., went north and went underneath the ice at the North Pole where we operated for a few months,'' he said ...

''The main reason we were up there was because of the research,'' said Whitehead. ''There is an Arctic ice lab from Washington up there. They camp on the ice. We break through the ice for them.''

Whitehead said the ''unique thing'' about traveling under the North Pole is having to concern oneself with ice keels. ''The North Pole itself is relatively flat,'' said Whitehead. ''But below it, ice keels, like big, pointed icicles, stretch out for 100 to 200 feet. That's one of the things you have to worry about; keeping clear of them. And when you surface, you have to find ice that's thin enough.''

Should a sub ever fully encounter an ice keel, Whitehead said ''it wouldn't puncture the sub, but it could make you cancel your operation.''

The next leg of the journey led Whitehead and his crew through the Bering Straits. ''When we came down the Bering Straits, it was very narrow. In springtime, there's a very shallow area of water that you have to go through. The navigating aspect was one of the more intensifying periods for me. I would be in the driver's seat for periods of time. There's very little water above you and, because of the ice, the bottom would be very near. It was like driving through a tunnel,'' said Whitehead.

He will never forget the unspoiled beauty and awesome isolation of Adak, Alaska, one of the most western of the Aleutian islands.

''There was a Navy base there with just one squadron. It was totally untouched by man with the exception of a few buildings that were up. There were real Eskimos on the other side of the island and they were the only life form there,'' said Whitehead.

To complete the trip, Whitehead and his crew sailed to Pearl Harbor and then through to the Panama Canal. ''We spent six or seven weeks under the North Pole, driving around in that space,'' said Whitehead. The 20,000-mile trip lasted five months, said Whitehead.

These days, Whitehead finds himself a student. ''I'm going to Lorain County Community College, retooling a little bit. My primary job while I was in the Navy was maintenance and personnel management. So, I've gone back to school for business to sharpen some technical skills,'' said Whitehead.

He and his wife are ''exploring some business possibilities'' in connection with service-related businesses.

If he had to describe to the lay person what it's like to live inside a submarine, Whitehead said, ''The description I would give is, imagine taking a sewer pipe that's 300 feet long and 40 feet in diameter, packing it with motors and electronics and sealing it up. That's what it's like.''

''It's hard to escape the fact that, on a sub, you don't have outside visual references. You're 200 to 300 feet below the surface of the water. There's no motion and you lose the concept a lot of the time in relation to the water,'' said Whitehead.

If you want to really find out what happens on a sub, forget Tom Clancy. Whitehead said a book called ''Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage'' by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, tells it all.

''It's written by a former submarine captain. But, for research, he had to go over to Russia and actually got it from Russian sources. It's the same information that is still classified in the U.S., but without breaking secrecy,'' said Whitehead.

Should his daughters want to enlist in the Navy when they grow up, Whitehead said he would have no objection to it, provided they weren't doing it just because their dad did it. ''It would be something they would want to research,'' said Whitehead.

When not in school, Whitehead enjoys running, particularly what he calls ''marathoning.'' ''I ran in the Boston Marathon in 2002. I fared pretty good. I finished 2,000 out of 13,000,'' said Whitehead.

Despite his two decades of cruising beneath the waves in a nuclear sub, Whitehead is still reticent to talk about two minor annoyances, both ironic, which haven't really plagued him at all in his career.

''I don't really talk a lot about it,'' said Whitehead. ''But I'm prone to motion sickness. But in a sub, you don't experience much motion.'' The final irony: ''I'm not a very good swimmer,'' said Whitehead''

Avon Sketches -- Top -- Home -- What's New