Isolated in darkness, surrounded by ocean, and no guarantee of making it home alive. Such were the conditions Rick Wise grew used to during his 24 years of service in the United States Navy.
The submarine veteran now visits the Navy’s Nuclear Power School in Goose Creek every eight weeks to talk to graduates, revive the stories of his past and educate students on Naval history.
“One of the things that I tell them is that the submarine force changed from coastal defense to scouting to a force that slowed the Japanese in World War II,” Wise said.
Growing up in the small town of Mountain Home, Arkansas, Wise said he had no doubt he would eventually go the military route, always admiring his father’s friend who was a Purple Heart recipient.
But Wise said he never planned to make a career out of the Navy—until he realized nothing else seemed the right fit for his life. Ultimately, service to others and his country became the Summerville resident’s most important goals.
“It’s a job bigger than you are,” he said. “I expected I would probably be in for six years then go into civilian nuclear power industry, but I never found a job I felt was more important—so I stayed. Part of it had to with the people that I served with. I was very lucky...I served with several men who had been on subs in WWII.”
After high school Wise had plans to become a Naval officer and entered the Naval ROTC program at the University of Virginia. But he said shortly after he dropped out and joined active duty—“because there was no reserve branch anywhere close to me.”
Wise immediately shipped out for boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Recruit station in Illinois. The year was 1967, and he was just 19. While Wise’s family was supportive of his decision, he knew little about the heroic path he was forging.
“Of course, I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Wise said.
Upon completing boot camp he entered specialty training for the role of machinist’s mate—a person who operates all things mechanical on a ship. That includes team turbines, reduction gears, turbo generators, pumps, oil purifiers and more. However, for a large part of his career Wise also conducted engineering lab technician work.
“You are responsible for maintaining the chemistry levels in the steam generators and in the (nuclear) reactor plant and also monitoring radiation exposure and taking surveys throughout the ship,” Wise said.
After finishing machinist’s mate training, he completed six months of nuclear power school in Bainbridge, Maryland followed by hands-on, prototype training in Connecticut, and submarine school. Wise was next sent orders to report to Charleston before heading to Virginia’s Newport News Naval Shipyard.
It wasn’t long before he spent the next several decades of his life “mostly at sea,” working and living on four different ballistic missile subs during his military career—the U.S.S. Daniel Boone, U.S.S. Von Steuben, U.S.S. Nathan Hale and U.S.S. Woodrow Wilson. Most of his missions were based out of the U.S. submarine base in Holy Loch, Scotland, though Wise said he once patrolled in the Mediterranean.
“You have (men) packed into a tube that’s basically about 370 feet long, and most of it’s filled with machinery,” Wise said.
One of the hardest aspects of submarine life was the isolation from the rest of the world—the subs sometimes not surfacing for weeks.
“You can get crushing loneliness,” Wise said. “It was very, very difficult. You have to be able to talk it out or else otherwise it will depress you so much you can’t do (work).”
While most trips at sea had him and his fellow crewmen—about 120-130 at a time—submerged in the North Atlantic for a maximum of 72 days, he recounted the time they stayed under four days longer to remain hidden from a passing Russian fleet.
“We just stayed very, very quiet,” Wise said.
It wasn’t the only instance he remembered thinking he might not survive at sea. His fear stemmed from not just the risk factor involved but also skepticism about his fleet’s job performance.
“There were a lot of times when we left on patrol I knew we weren’t coming back,” Wise said. “I was not really comfortable about some of the work done on (the sub).”
Wise said throughout history it’s been common for subs to accidentally sink themselves, and not from enemy fire. He said of the 67 American subs lost at sea over the decades, about 30 never made contact with another ship.
“On submarines you’re always surrounded by your enemy,” he said. “They kill you by letting the ocean in. You could make the mistake, and let the ocean in yourself.”
The most perilous event Wise encountered occurred on his fifth patrol with the U.S.S. Daniel Boone. A mistake over missile launching was made.
“There was a situation...where someone had make a mistake and sent out the wrong launch order,” Wise said.
While the sub periodically received orders to practice launching missiles, they were meant for practice only. However, the orders sent were not for practice.
“So we thought we were going to launch...which meant we thought there must have been an attack,” Wise said.
Ninety minutes later the crew heard word to stand down.
“We never got the second message afterward to authorize launching,” Wise said.
Seated on his living room couch inside this month, he’s no longer surrounded by water but rather walls covered with evidence and accolades of his military accomplishments, including two Navy achievement medals, five good conduct medals and a National Service Medal.
But the trinket he’s most proud of is the cylindrical one he wears pinned to his shirt—on the front left side over his heart. Called the “dolphins”—it consists of two of the sea mammals on either side of a submarine. It’s a special pin not all submarine sailors acquire.
“You get those after you have proven to everyone that you understand how the ship operates—all the systems...how to shoot a torpedo, even though you will never shoot one,” Wise said. “The people (who) wear these are a certain type of people (who) have proven they can be relied on in special situations. We are brothers—brothers of the dolphin.”
In addition to gaining the unique Naval pin, Wise said the top highlight of his career was making the chief petty officer rank in 1976, even though he went on to also make senior chief in 1989.
While long since retired from his formal patriotic duty, Wise still volunteers with the United States Submarine Veterans Inc. (USSVI) Charleston Base, the second largest group of its kind in the country.