Wood Lake’s Kenny Schmidt —Part II

Last week we met Kenny Schmidt and learned of his goal to serve on nuclear submarines. First, he had to qualify as a submarine crew member. He reported aboard the USS Sennet at Charleston, South Carolina in November 1961 for this demanding, nine-month task.

The Sennet was an old boat, built for WWII. She had four diesel engines that powered electrical generators which drove electric motors that powered the boat. The generators also charged banks of batteries that drove the electric motors when she was submerged.

Kenny described the tight spaces aboard the boat. (Navy surface craft are “ships,” submarines are “boats.”) The bunks (“racks”) in the crew quarters hung from chains; folded against the bulkhead when not used; and were stacked three high. He explained, “You’d slide in and, if you wanted to turn over, you’d slide out to turn over.”

Kenny even slept on an empty torpedo skid on an Atlantic cruise. The skid was designed to cradle the Sennet’s main weapons, which were self-propelled, explosive projectiles the submarine launched underwater toward an enemy ship. Kenny explained, “It (the torpedo skid with a thin mattress) was more comfortable than that rack.”

Other spaces were equally cramped. The crew’s mess held four small tables that could seat 12 sailors at a time, so they ate in shifts. He continued, “Any spare space, like in the Maneuvering Room, was storage for food, like canned goods and stuff. When we’d get underway, you didn’t have a shower. That was packed full of food. You waited until that got eaten up.”

His first cruise aboard the Sennet was to Key West, Florida where they participated in exercises with warships tasked to locate the Sennet while she was underwater. When the warships thought they found her, they dropped hand grenades into the sea. “You could hear them. It was a pretty big, loud bang when they’d go off,” Kenny recalled.

As a “new guy,” Kenny spent two months helping in the boat’s Mess. He described that duty, “You’d set the tables; you’d clean; you’d go into holes where they’ve got everything stored and try to find what the cook was looking for and you’d serve a meal every four hours with a change of watch, so you are essentially working all the time.”

That was one of the two times Kenny experienced seasickness. He explained, “We took a big roll. We’d just put out a five gallon can of oyster stew and that went over in the Mess Hall. The oysters would run from this way to that way, them green buggers. That was too much for this farm boy.”

Kenny described another interesting experience when the Sennet and another submarine were selected to sink a decommissioned warship. He explained, “The Sennet got the first shot. We were at battle stations — I was in the after torpedo room. We hit (the target ship) right after the forward gun mount and it — blew the whole forward gun mount off.”

The Captain then invited the crew to report topside to watch the other submarine’s attack. Kenny continued, “You could see the torpedo running and it hit (the target ship] amidships. That ship . . . folded up in half. This side went down and the stern came up with the screws. Not a lot of guys get to see that.”

But the Sennet cruise he recalled most vividly was to the North Atlantic. During this cruise the Captain directed a deep dive. Any dive below 312 feet required the crew to “Rig for Deep Submergence.” A Torpedoman in the forward torpedo room had failed to install a device called a “Pit Sword” that determined their speed while deep.

Kenny explained what happened when that sailor tried to install the device at 312 feet, “(I)t blew in. (We)were deep and they had flooding in the forward torpedo room. (O)f course, we went up just as quick as we could go, but by the time we got to the surface, it (the seawater) was already level with the walking deck in the torpedo room.”

This near disaster forced the Sennet to remain surfaced three days while the crew pumped seawater and dried out the Sonar system below the torpedo room. The problem with running on the surface was the stormy North Atlantic.

Kenny explained what he encountered topside, “The sail (the tallest part of the submarine that housed its periscopes) was 28 foot high. The waves were over the top of that and we were out in it on lookout – outside – roped in. You’d see them coming and you’d duck under. Water would come up and go down and you’d take a breath. Interesting times. We were supposed to be looking for ships, but all we were trying to do was save our lives.”

The Sennet and her crew survived the rough seas and Kenny completed his qualification course. He described what it involved, “You’ve got to know (and diagram) where every light switch is, every valve handle, everything. Because you don’t know, once they shut them doors, who’s going to be in that compartment. You have to be able to do anyone’s job in there.”

Completing the qualification course earned Kenny the Submariner’s Badge in August of 1962. He departed the Sennet on leave; married his high school sweetheart, Lenae; and reported, with Lenae, to the Nuclear Power School at Bainbridge, Md., for his Basic Nuclear Power Course. We’ll learn about the rest of his service next week

I welcome your participation in and ideas about this exploration of prairie lives. Reach me at prairieviewpressllc @gmail.com.


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