The sonar room supervisor of the nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine USS Batfish (SSN 681) picked up his microphone and punched the intercom button for the officer of the deck a few feet away in the control room. "CONN, SONAR. SONAR CONTACT BEARING ZERO-SIX-TWO. CLASSIFIED POSSIBLE SOVIET SUBMARINE!" The sonar listeners had just picked up the distinctive sounds of a Soviet "Yankee" class ballistic missile submarine on a course toward the East Coast of the United States. The date of this undersea interception was March 17, 1978. The place: about 200 miles above the Arctic Circle in the Norwegian Sea.
Concern over Soviet missile submarine patrols in areas that allowed them to target the eastern half of the United States had led to the Navy order that sent Batfish to sea under the command of Comdr. Thomas W. Evans (now a retired rear admiral). She would seek to intercept a Soviet missile submarine, follow her, and observe her operations throughout an entire patrol without being detected.
The 120-odd men who served in an attack submarine such as Batfish lived and worked in incredibly cramped conditions in a steel tube about 300 feet long and 32 feet in beam. Though by no means small, these boats were dwarfed by the giant "boomers," or missile boats, of both the American and Soviet navies.
Batfish and her sister submarines were quieter than their Soviet quarry. "Our task was to establish a trailing position well behind the Yankee from which we could maintain tactical control," says Batfish skipper Evans. "Maintaining tactical control means you're in that zone where you're close enough to hear the noises emitted by their machinery and propeller through all the other noises in the sea, but not too far awaywhere you can hear him and he can't hear you."
Batfish stayed with the Yankee for 50 daysthroughout the Soviet submarine's patrolfollowing her through storms, fishing fleets, the cacophony of oil exploration explosions, traveling 10,369 shadowing miles to record the Yankee's 8,871 miles. As far as is known, she was never detected by the Soviet boat. Batfish surfaced off her home port of Charleston, South Carolina, on May 17 after 77 days submerged.
The Soviets did ultimately learn of our trailing missions through the treachery of American spies in our own navy. However, Rear Adm. Sumner Shapiro, the director of Naval Intelligence in 1978, now retired, believes that such knowledge of our ability to track their submarines anywhere in the world's oceans made the Soviets realize that their ballistic missile submarine force, which they counted on for reliable second-strike capability, was not invulnerable. This realization could have been a major factor in bringing the Cold War to an end. If so, then the U.S. submariners of Batfish and other boats of the Navy's Silent Service made history. Now at least part of their story can be told.