America’s First, Finest and Maybe Its Last

At the height of the Reagan presidency, the United States Navy fleet numbered at approximately 800, a fulfillment of the country’s quest for global naval dominance and a reminder of its inviolable maritime traditions. Today that force has been reduced to less than 300, the Navy’s mightiest and oldest warships decommissioned into museums or transferred into the “1,000-ship Navy,” the global coalition whose interest is to maintain international economic prosperity and security. One of the victims of this downsizing will soon be the attack submarine, the USS Los Angeles, “America’s first and finest” and the lead boat in her class. Two weekends ago, the 360-foot vessel ported for the first time ever in its namesake city, in remembrance of the 65th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks. The Santa Barbara Navy League sent nearly 30 of its members to San Pedro to tour the inside of the boat and contemplate the sub’s future after retirement.

Launched in 1974 and commissioned two years after, the USS Los Angeles is the embodiment of American durability and versatility. The controls and dials in the navigation room appear exactly as you thought they would three decades ago. In its lifetime the sub has absorbed only a smattering of tune-ups and standard upgrades. “It’s like a car,” the boat’s captain of five months, Erik Burian, points out. “But you wouldn’t throw your car in the ocean for thirty years.”

Your car is also not equipped to handle a flexible set of abilities: undersea and surface warfare, mining operations, reconnaissance and ferrying Navy Seals to remote destinations. Your car has also not gone 30 years without refueling, a luxury the Los Angeles derives from its nuclear reactor. In fact, if it weren’t for the need to replenish food rations, the sub could last at sea well beyond 60 days.

“The perishables like the lettuce and tomatoes go within a couple weeks. So at the end we’re down to Jell-O and peanut butter,” Burian says. “But don’t get the wrong impression, we’re fed very well.”

Because submarine service qualifies in military terms as “arduous duty,” the Los Angeles gets up to $10 per crewman (instead of about $7) for food. The meals are prepared by a “culinary specialist” who received his training from the Culinary Institute of America.

Its resilience aside, the Los Angeles also has a design economy that would be the envy of any Japanese planner. Within the body of the cigar-shaped double hull is a complement of 13 officers and more than 120 enlisted men. Open space is in such high demand that the torpedo room doubles as sleeping quarters. Rows of narrow cots are almost buried under the metal encasings of armed projectiles that read on the outside “fuel loaded, primed.”

Smoking, ironically enough, is allowed at designated places, though not encouraged. The Navy tried unsuccessfully to implement a smoke-free policy, but Burian says the attempt was stymied by “grumpy” smokers who threatened the crew’s psychological equilibrium.

When the specter of claustrophobia sets in, exercise is recommended to all crewmembers as part of the Navy’s “culture of fitness.” The workout space comes outfitted with free weights, stationary bike and treadmill, a machine Burian locates during each of his 20 hours of work every day. “Leisure time comes at a premium,” says Burian, who is 39 and has 17 years of Navy service to his name.

“All that training for a twenty-hour work day?” asks Doug Crawford, the Santa Barbara Navy League vice president.

“It’s OK,” Burian replies modestly. “I get paid very well.”

The submarine’s decommission date is scheduled three years from now, and its crewmembers would love nothing more than to enshrine the boat in Los Angeles. For the officers of the Santa Barbara Navy League, the retirement plans give a simultaneous sense of pause when they assess the significance of the Navy’s waning forces. The local chapter fashions itself as a non-partisan organization that, as Doug Crawford worded it, puts the public “face to face with the people that serve in those services and so that they get to see the equipment that their tax dollars are paying.” But Crawford sees those opportunities slowly slipping away, especially in Santa Barbara.

“Bringing ships to Santa Barbara has been something that the Navy League has succeeded in doing up until recently because of the cost-cutting measures in the military for everything that is not related to the wars we are fighting,” he says. “This has caused the Navy to take a serious look at where their liberty ships go.”

As it turns out, Santa Barbara is not a desirable place for warships because the City Council has been steadfast in imposing a tax for entry to its waters, a levy that is relatively unseen across the California coastline. Crawford assures that the revenue to the city generated by military ships more than compensates for any fees. The USS Ronald Reagan’s visit to Santa Barbara last summer, he said, generated about $830,000 of income from the 3,000 servicemen who came ashore and their 2,000 family members who joined them for the weekend.

Last year, the City Council reluctantly waived the Reagan’s fee, but vowed to inflict a tax in future instances, a message that was seen by the Navy as an economic deterrent and symbolic affront.

“These are tight times, these are war times and the money that the Navy spends has to be conserved,” Crawford says. “We’re going to work with the City to see whether they can’t change their attitude about that.”