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Wood Lake’s Kenny Schmidt —Part III

We’ve learned how Kenny earned his Submariner’s Badge; married his high school sweetheart, Lenae, while on leave; and reported to the Navy’s Nuclear Power School at Bainbridge, Maryland.

The Navy assigned the newly-weds an 8×28 trailer as their quarters. They also met another Navy couple, Bob and Marilyn Taylor, who became their close friends.

Kenny described the basic nuclear course, “You’d have classes all day and study half the night. It went from math and algebra all the way to calculus. They wanted to ensure you understood [what’s happening in] that reactor.”

Completing the basic course led to the nuclear power operational course in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, where Kenny learned to operate a nuclear power plant.

In September 1963 the Navy assigned Kenny to the USS Skate, a nuclear submarine based in New London, Conn. Bob Taylor was also assigned to a New London boat, so the couples rented a beach house in Misquamicut, Rhode Island.

Kenny described differences between the Skate and his prior boat, “We actually had crew’s quarters — berthing compartments where the racks were stationary. But we had to hot bunk . . . three guys (shared) two beds.”

This arrangement fit the Skate’s watch rotation. Kenny explained, “We were 8 (hours) on and 8 off unless we were short-handed — then it was 6 on and 6 off.” Thus, one of the three sailors in the compartment would always be on watch.

Kenny also described a sobering reality of working on the nuclear boats, “We had to wear a dosimeter and badges so they know what (radiation exposure) you’re getting.”

Kenny identified his duty position, “I was the EPCP operator – Electric Plant Control Panel.” This meant our 22-year old from Wood Lake controlled the boat’s electrical supply, while other operators controlled her steam system and reactor. A chief petty officer and the officer of the day supervised these three systems operators — five men and three consoles in a crowded workspace.

Kenny was at sea qualifying for these duties when Lenae delivered their daughter, Rhonda, at the Groton Navy Hospital. She was alone except for their friend, Marilyn Taylor.

Kenny recalled Marilyn’s problems trying to reach him, “We were qualifying a new officer for docking, so we’d dock over there at New London. She’d run over there and try to get ahold of me. We’d back out and tie up in Groton. She’d run over there. It took a while before we got everything under control.”

Shortly thereafter, the Skate received orders for the Mediterranean. Kenny hoped to see to “The Med,” but things did not work out.

Kenny explained the first part of their cruise, “The (training) operation was Steel Pipe One, where they landed Marines on Spain. We were the opposing force. They found us right away.”

The landing force quickly found the Skate because a worn propeller shaft gave away her position. But another problem led to a leadership change on the Skate.

Kenny explained, “We had a change of command over there because they bounced it off the bottom at about 500 feet. They weren’t taking soundings in uncharted waters.”

The Navy is unforgiving of commanders who ground their ships, so the Navy relieved the Skate’s commander and assigned another.

The Skate went into a floating dry-dock, which left her high and dry, enabling engineers to inspect her hull. Fortunately, the ocean floor they struck was soft, so the exterior damage was minimal.

The news about the propeller shaft, however, was bad. Kenny described the wear on the shaft, “You could put your fist right through [where the shaft passed through the bearings]. They couldn’t get us a new shaft, so they sent us back on the surface on one screw.”

Kenny didn’t know it at the time, but his sea duty was over.

The Skate reported to Portsmouth, Va., for an overhaul triggered by the loss of the USS Thresher. Kenny explained the connection, “The biggest reason for the overhaul was the auxiliary sea water system. They completely replaced that system. They think what happened to the Thresher is one of those pipes burst while they were deep and they couldn’t get it closed before the boat was so heavy it went down. “

Kenny explained how the overhaul kept him busy, “We had to do a lot of validating on [electrical] cables because systems had been changed. They removed a lot of non-used cables. And we had to overhaul all the motors, whether they needed it or not.”

Kenny described how this overhaul led to another experience, “I’m one of the few guys that ever fell out of a submarine.” He was on welding fire watch in the engine room where workers had removed part of the hull. He continued, “So, you just had a 2×12 laying in the bottom. I happened to lean just right and out the bottom I went.”

Something sharp sliced open his leg as he fell through the open bottom of the sub. Kenny took 12 stiches at sick call before reporting right back to duty because the Skate was short-handed.

Kenny and Lenae added Stephanie to their family in July 1966, during the overhaul. They also decided a career that may include 300 days a year at sea and watches in port was no way to raise a family. So they returned to Wood Lake when Kenny’s enlistment expired in 1967 and began farming.

Thank you for your service, Kenny. “Home is the sailor, home from the sea . . .”

I welcome your participation in this exploration of prairie lives. You may reach me at prairieviewpressllc @gmail.com.

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