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Doctor Waldo Kampmeier Lyon, (1914-1998), Director, Arctic Submarine Laboratory

Dr. Waldo K. LyonDr. Lyon, a 1962 presidential award winner for pioneering development that made possible submarine operations under the ice cap in the Arctic, discusses his work in that field beginning in 1941 when he first was with the Radio and Sound Laboratory. Over the years his research has taken him afloat in many subs including: the Sennet in the Antarctic; the Bearfish, then Carp in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait; the Nautilus when she crossed the Arctic Ocean; and the Skate and Sea Dragon in the Arctic. In 1951 he was instrumental in starting the Arctic Submarine Laboratory and in 1955 was advisor to amphibious forces installing the DEW line. The years of testing conventional and nuclear subs resulted in developments of special sonars, strengthened fins, and many adaptations to make submarines navigable in the Arctic waters.

Based on three interviews conducted by Etta-Belle Kitchen from January 1971through March 1971. The volume contains 279 pages of interview transcript plus an index. The transcript is copyright 1972 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee has placed no restrictions on its use.

An index to this volume can be viewed here (.pdf).

In this selection from his first interview with CDR Etta-Belle Kitchen, USN (Ret.), Dr. Lyon recounts the joint U.S.-Canadian Beaufort Sea expedition of 1952 where the submarine USS Redfish (SS-395) first ventured underneath the Arctic ice floes and had to navigate blindly to polynyas -- areas of open water in the ice sheets -- to surface and recharge her batteries.

Doctor Lyon: But in 1952 Rear Admiral Momsen moved from Op-31, and he had a real interest in the Arctic. He had an interest in just doing new things. The Arctic was a new thing, and that’s how his interest came about. So he wrote himself a letter on leaving Op-31, the submarine desk in CNO, to the force commander in the Pacific to go and do something about the Arctic, and then when he got out to the force commander, Pacific, he received his own letter and assigned the Redfish to carry it out. So we had the Redfish assigned to this joint Canadian-U.S. Beaufort Sea expedition of 1952. We had also that year Burton Island then under the command of Commander Maher, whom we mentioned, and the Canadian small vessel, the Cancolim, directed, all under the command of the Service Squadron. Fortunately, the man who was the Service Squadron commander was a submariner each time. That happened to be a billet that was always filled by a submariner, so the thing was put together very nicely. At that time Captain Grenfell was the flotilla commander, and so I remember that we organized the whole expedition between the submarine and the icebreaker under discussions with Grenfell. He was the flotilla commander, the Service Squadron commander was a submariner, and Admiral Momsen was SubPac, and Captain Daspit was Momsen’s Chief of Staff. These personalities all sort of fit together in this story as we go along.

That expedition put together a tremendous amount of information. As I remember, it included all of the scientific groups from the University of Washington, Scripps Institute, and the Canadian agencies. The Hydrographic Office had a big part, and the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey had a big part - it provided special equipment for positioning accurately the icebreaker and positioning accurately the submarine by electronic positioning, which was specialized equipment for getting the exact position of a ship relative to the shore. The Redfish was assigned a new task of holding her position in the ice cover northeast of Point Barrow. This was the first time we had taken a submarine east of Point Barrow, because we had gathered information during 1950 and 1951 on the bathymetry so we felt that we had some information and were not still afraid to go east of Point Barrow. So this was our first experience of actually taking a submarine there. We had again the same sonar set-ups that we had had on the Carp. We were equipped to pilot ourselves round underneath the ice cover, and also to surface in the open polynyas in the cover. So Redfish as assigned the job of holding a position northeast of Point Barrow and, working with the Burton Island, we made a lot of sound-transmission studies which had to do with the detection of submarines. Now we’re starting to think about warfare problems of submarines in ice cover and what the problems might be. So we ran exercises of submarines versus icebreakers in the military sense on this particular expedition, and carried out a number of experiments with these submarine-simulated attacks on the icebreakers, the icebreaker attempted to detect the submarine. I think, as far as the submarine was concerned, the most interesting thing was that the Redfish maintained her station in the ice cover without benefit of aircraft or icebreaker or other information for a week, holding her position by the electronic position-indicating equipment to a position within a tenth mile at all times.

Then at the end of the week, after the sound-transmission studies had been completed, with ice completely around her, on all sides, and without any knowledge of where open water might be, we had to dive and get out on our own. So we had the real crucial experiment to conduct, “how does a submarine act without the benefit of any outside assistance?”

Commander Kitchen: Let me clarify. Where were you when the week was over?

USS Redfish (SS-395) in a polynya in 1952, with the USS Burton Island (AG-88) in the background.Doctor Lyon: This was about northeast of Point Barrow, right out in the ice cove. We were holding our position. We were holding a position for radio communication and listening on sonars at the listening stations on the surface, and we had no information from the help of aircraft or anywhere else where was open water, what way do we go, and that sort of thing. We had to depend on our knowledge of what the ocean was like, what the vicinity was, and our own capability to get out.

Commander Kitchen: How far were you under the ice cover?

Doctor Lyon: We didn’t have the slightest idea, because we had gone to this station and we knew what it was when we had gone there. It was now a week or more later and the ice cover had likely completely moved by miles, so it was really the test.

Commander Kitchen: Had you reached your point when you submerged and then surfaced

Doctor Lyon: No, we reached our point partially – some submerging but mostly by surface with the icebreaker, together. We had gone as a pair. Then we were there for a week to ten days and the icebreaker had gone off 100 miles away doing other things plus making sound transmissions to us. So now we had to get out of there, and meet the icebreaker again on our own. So we were required to submerge. We were completely surrounded by ice as far as we could see and we hadn’t the slightest idea where the ice cover was, and now we were depending strictly on our piloting and being able to surface in the open water lakes wherever we could find them to get out, or to proceed, and that’s what we did do and were able to do, knowing our information of the ice cover, which was a matter of keeping track of the ice cover overhead, keeping track of the water temperature we were going through, and knowing which way to look for open water. We were using our knowledge of the ocean, and our sonar systems to get ourselves out of that situation. It was a demonstration of what we believed we could do, and we had to do in this case.

The next two days were taken in making an under-ice cruise, surfacing, re-charging the batteries, and proceeding under the ice cover so that we got ourselves into the open water, just east of Point Barrow, and then we proceeded on the surface the next 50 or 60 miles to the rendezvous with the Burton Island.

Commander Kitchen: Was that a tense time when you were submerging and not knowing where you were going to be able to come up again?

Doctor Lyon: The only tense thing that happened in that affair was just as were submerging, after being surfaced for this long period of time, we got a report from the after torpedo room that we were flooding, which shakes anybody when you’re on a submarine. In this particular case, the gaskets on the after room hatch were not holding. We’d had this happen twice. The main induction also had it happen. Apparently the rubber in the cold temperature had lost its resiliency and was not properly sealing, so the flooding came in just because the gasket wasn't holding. Fortunately, nobody had left any dirt of anything on the seat so that what we finally ended up when the pressure got high enough was just a metal-to-metal seal and it held well enough.

Commander Kitchen: It corrected itself?

Doctor Lyon: It really corrected itself once we got down deep enough, I think that was the only excitement for possibly ten minutes or so until we realized that we weren't going to have a complete casualty. hey took in quite a tit of water. I remember there was considerable water in the after room. We couldn't surface again because as we came down the ice was right against us, it just closed over – well, we could have surfaced if we had had to in an emergency, but it would have been damaging to do it. That was the only point of excitement, I think, the rest of it was pretty straightforward. It was a long run with a battery diesel boat because we had no idea how far we should go, so, of course, every precaution was taken to conserve our battery power and conserve oxygen. And we we did run for – I don't recall now, but it was a good number of hours before we did surface again for re-charging.

Commander Kitchen: You were going south?

Doctor Lyon: Yes, we were going towards where the open water should be, depending, of course, on our knowledge, how we had knowledge of where the ice boundary should lie, where to expect the open water, most open-water lakes, because of the way the currents flow at Point Barrow, the warm water comes up along the coast of Alaska and swings out north of Point barrow and in these kind of areas one can expect more melt-out between the flows and so we were guided according to that. We could watch what temperatures we were getting as we went along as to whether we were approaching the proper areas or not. it was a matter of keeping track of the temperature, the type of ice cover, and knowing the direction and what the bathymetry was, and where the ice margins should be. We got ourselves out of that situation.

Commander Kitchen: Were you still reading the pictures and instructing the commanding officer?

Doctor Lyon: Yes, at this time we were still the interpreters of all the information, and informing the commanding officer what our best estimates and guesses were. He would make the decision what to do with the submarine on the basis of that information. The ship was not operating this equipment. The special equipment was being operated by civilian specialists.

Commander Kitchen: And it was still located distances apart?

Doctor Lyon: There was still not much choice of that, again because all this equipment was experimental and was only put on for special situations and were working on a regular military boat, so we still had that communications problem but did the best we could.

Commander Kitchen: Was there any other equipment on the Redfish than there had been on the Carp?

Doctor Lyon: Not relative to ice cover, no. The only other special equipment we had was some communications equipment and the electronic position equipment for knowing our location exactly, nothing else special.

Commander Kitchen: Did you feel an additional challenge after the Redfish? You’d been able to do something increasingly difficult with each expedition?

Doctor Lyon: The Redfish was a demonstration of what we could do, and we took Redfish then – well, we did all these exercises which really opened up a whole new thing. It didn’t really open anything new, it just underlined what we believed – that a submarine had complete mastery of the Arctic Ocean, wherever there was ice cover the submarine had mastery of everybody, I don't care whether they were aircraft or surface ships, because the submarine could wander around under the ice and she knew what she was doing, but nobody on top knew what the submarine was doing. The surface ship just was a complete loss as to what was underneath her. Her sonar systems couldn't detect anybody under there. Redfish could wander right under the icebreaker and look up with a periscope and count the propeller turns, look at her hull, or do anything, and the icebreaker didn't have the slightest idea that she was down there.


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