“The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the Living Infinite.” — Jules Verne
At 20 feet underwater, the human body can survive for as long as one’s breath can be held. Light penetrates the surface, the pressure may result in you needing to pop your ears, but divers are regularly seen at these depths.
At 100 feet underwater, the human body would undergo decompression sickness if someone was to ascend too quickly. While some light does penetrate, visibility is greatly reduced, temperatures have relatively dropped and the nitrogen bubbles that could form in your blood vessels could lead to heart attacks, strokes or ruptured blood vessels in the lungs.
While your lungs may have had a surface volume of melons, they have now, at this depth, shrunk to the size of oranges.
At 500 feet, coral reefs have largely disappeared. There is coldness enveloping you, what you see above and below is a vastness of complete darkness, and the chance of an untrained person surviving without deep diving gear has become infinitesimal.
But what happens to a man at a deeper level than that, farther below than that? What happens at the depth Seaman Ken Tompkins lived at for what amounted to a year of his life?
That’s a question the men of the U.S.S. Stonewall Jackson dealt with every day.
Tompkins was born Feb. 23, 1958, in New Mexico to Claudia and Henry Tompkins, a stay-at-home wife and World War II veteran turned Lockheed employee.
Growing up, the youngest of three boys and two girls, Tompkins moved around a little bit with his family, from New Mexico to California and back to New Mexico.
By the time he had moved back to New Mexico for his high school years, his brothers had joined the military and, eventually, so would one of his sisters.
Following in the family path, Tompkins would go on to attend a military high school for nine months, drilling every day as though he were already in the military.
By this time, the Vietnam War was well on its way, the ever-present nature of the Cold War and the possibility of a nuclear holocaust was on everyone’s mind. So was the possibility of being drafted.
“We were all in just to get out,” said Tompkins. “My brothers got drafted and my sister joined before she got drafted.”
Tompkins said his next step was the next logical step.
“I didn’t want to get drafted … but I didn’t want to go to Vietnam,” said Tompkins. “The Cold War era was pretty scary for all the nuclear (stuff) going on, which was pretty high tension, as far as I was concerned.”
“So that’s pretty much why I went on submarines.”
Going into his junior year, Tompkins decided enough was enough, and in June 1975, he enlisted.
“I was in boot camp in my 11th grade.”
U.S.S. Stonewall Jackson
“A voyage to the bottom of the sea … I thought they had windows on them until I got into sub school and found out I don’t get to see nothing,” said Tompkins. “The best thing you do is when they blow the trash or the (toilets) you hear the fish and the whales and stuff and you can hear them … you can hear the whole ocean full of stuff.
For Tompkins, life on a submarine was a lesson in daily study. The U.S.S. Stonewall Jackson, a James Madison-class fleet ballistic missile nuclear-powered submarine, was 425 feet long and carried a crew of 13 officers and 130 enlisted men. And each one of them knew every inch of her.
In order to get his “dolphins,” or the pendants that signify you are no longer in training on a submarine, each would have to pass a battery of tests. From what each device does to how to prepare food in the mess, to what to do in the event of, say, flooding.
“If you were the last guy in the submarine, you had to be able to maintain it and get it out,” said Tompkins.
And once he had his dolphins, Tompkins would be placed in charge of the 16 missiles on board. During trainings, the crew of the U.S.S. Stonewall Jackson would be on high alert, and practice against dummy targets placed in front of them off the coast of Scotland.
When there wasn’t a drill to be done, Tompkins and a few men would be placed in charge of cleaning the torpedo capsules at the helm of the submarine.
“You’d have to crawl in it, and you got to crawl all the way to the end and clean. So I had to get inside that torpedo to crawl all the way out to polish it.”
“We had one guy that could get out there (in the submarine torpedo bay) and turn around,” he added.
Filling his days with these tasks (which are considered so stressful that the Navy would only take volunteers for submarine school) distracted him from what eventually would become a day-to-day occurrence: the harrassing Russians and the threat of infallible water.
Russians and flooding
Over the course of two years, Tompkins did four patrols aboard the U.S.S. Stonewall Jackson, each one lasting a month. During the patrol, the submarine would either come up to periscope depth at 80 feet, or dive hundreds of feet. Sometimes, they would come all the way to the surface, Tompkins said, but that was rare.
The reason: Russian submarines and airplanes.
The Stonewall Jackson was placed in charge of a patrol in the North Atlantic, near Russia. During the Cold War, exchanges meant only as mind games were common.
“We had Russian MiGs come down, they liked messing with us, buzzing us pretty close,” said Tompkins. “They wanted to harass us and take pictures and stuff. And we had Russian trawlers follow us and we’ve had Russian submarines get behind us and follow us for a while.”
“When the jets flew over, we ducked, because they were that close.”
In one instance, a Russian sub got behind the Stonewall Jackson and tracked the submarine for a week and a half. Not knowing fully what was going to happen, but not wanting to give their “enemy” any advantage, the men carried on with their lives in “ultra quiet.”
“We can’t have meals, we have sandwiches, no cooked meals … everybody walks with no shoes on … no showers,” said Tompkins. “But eventually they just went away or we shook them off.”
If it wasn’t the Russians they were worried about, it was the water pressure being exerted on the sub hundreds of feet below the water. At least once, that pressure, and that water, would come face to face with Tompkins in an event that keeps him up at night still to this day.
The diesel engine onboard the nuclear submarine, requires air to be sucked in. At least once, the flap that prevented water from getting in wasn’t closed all the way.
“I was mess cooking and, as we got down to that periscope (depth) and went underwater, that water came down and blew out the doors of the fan room,” said Tompkins. With only seconds to act, he was the first to call in the flooding. “The more it filled up, the faster we were going downhill.”
The water was rushing to the front of the submarine, dragging the front down, bringing her closer and closer to the abyss, and men closer and closer to death. Not only was the submarine sinking an issue, but also the battery on the front of the submarine could not be flooded.
The non-waterproofed compartment the battery was in meant that the sulphuric acid inside the battery would meet the saltwater and cause a larger problem. Acting quickly and, within seconds, running through knee-deep water to the front of the submarine, the men began piling their mattresses in front of the battery compartment door.
The crew would spend days with the ship draining and returning to the surface.
“I saw the water come down the hallway that was knee-deep just like that,” he said. In total, 50,000 gallons of freezing water had rushed into the submarine.
“You know how quick something bad can happen,” Tompkins said. “I applied for PTSD (benefits), because I can’t sleep … I dream about it.”
In January 1981, after returning home from his fourth and final patrol and, having worked for the Navy in New Mexico and in the Naval Reserves, Tompkins was honorably discharged as an E-3.
He had gotten married, had a son and worked for five years in a mine in New Mexico.
In 1995, he moved to Santa Clarita and began getting work at Hart High School pushing lawn mowers. Later on, he would join the Veterans of Foreign Wars, start his own company and continue on living his life in Canyon Country.
Despite a divorce, he now has a relationship with a girlfriend who always wanted to date a guy in the Navy. But his time on the submarine, his life underneath and inside the infinite, would always be with him.
The Veterans Administration was able to get him hearing aids because, although still young, he had lost his hearing due to the pressure caused by the submarine flooding.
“Normally, when you make (depth) changes, you equalize, but you don’t have time to equalize when the change is so quick,” said Tompkins.
All in all, Tompkins said he would do it again.
“If I was that age … it was a good experience all in all … (except) for the flooding.”