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U.S. Navy mothballs last conventional submarine

By KATE CALLEN

SAN DIEGO -- Navy submariners completed their move into the nuclear age Monday with the decommissioning of the USS Blueback, the last American attack sub to run on conventional power.

Eleven former skippers of the Blueback, including the first captain to take the brand-new diesel-electric-powered sub to sea in 1959, were on hand to say farewell to the remaining holdout against Adm. Hyman G. Rickover's nuclear Navy.

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'This is the end of a military era. We must give way to progress,' said a tearful Robert H. Gautier, the retired captain who commissioned the sub.

With the Blueback (SS-581) officially in mothballs, the United States becomes the only nation defended at sea by an all-nuclear-powered active submarine fleet. A scaled-down diesel sub, the USS Dolphin, is still operated but only as a research vessel.

The Soviet Union, Great Britain and 42 other nations continue to build diesel subs and use them as combat-ready boats, particularly in close-range situations.

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After the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, was launched in 1954, Rickover convinced the Pentagon to begin phasing out all remaining diesel subs on the grounds that diesel subs could not travel as fast or remain submerged as long as nuclear boats.

But fans of the diesel subs have persisted in arguing that the smaller conventional boats could still be of value to the U.S. fleet, being quieter and cheaper to build and maintain than nuclear subs.

The Blueback, one of three Barbel-class subs affectionately dubbed 'the B-girls' in the late 1950s, achieved minor fame last year when it impersonated a Soviet attack submarine in the film 'The Hunt for Red October.'

But the boat was best known, and widely revered, as the last of the American diesel submarines that began patrolling the world's oceans in 1900.

'The era of the U.S diesel submarines has passed, but the record of these men and these ships will never be surpassed,' said Capt. Oscar D. Scarborough III, commander of Submarine Squadron Eleven.

The commissioning pennant on the coal-black sub was brought down and colors were lowered for the last time under gray skies at 3:20 p.m. PDT. The Blueback will be mothballed at Bremerton, Wash.

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Past and current crewmen recalled how the cramped quarters and small crews of the diesel subs engendered special camaraderie. Recalling how crewmen were limited to one shower a week, Gautier quipped, 'No longer can you tell a submariner by that distinctive aroma.'

Many of the crewmen who took the Blueback on its last run had gone to great lengths to be aboard the last diesel sub. Some requested transfers from other boats; others postponed scheduled retirements in order to have the honor of saying they served aboard the last conventionally powered sub.

A number of those men hung their heads when 'Taps' was played alongside the boat Monday. 'The old Navy is going away. The dinosaurs are fading -- and I'm going with them,' said Electrician's Mate Steven Suden.

The Blueback's last skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Thomas A. Grassi, said the boat's demise 'carries with it a special sadness. ... From the almost intolerable living conditions and the unbearable tensions created by depth charges launched by an unseen enemy, there has arisen an esprit de corps and pride unmatched by any other branch of the military.'

Comparing his men to the fighter pilots glamorized by the film 'Top Gun,' Grassi said, 'The popular myth of the submariner is miles away from the flash and dash of a Tom Cruise.'

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He ended his speech by saying, 'It is time to say farewell to an era and to a valiant lady who has given her best for 31 years ...' Overcome with emotion, he could not finish the sentence.

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