Submariner Don Spear goes deep to protect his country


On a June trip to Peru, I met an engaging guy. Don’s an entrepreneur whose latest company,, is the largest collection of online business training courses. It’s what he did before that intrigued me. Don was a Lieutenant in the US Navy and served aboard the USS Tunny (SSN 682), a fast attack nuclear powered submarine.

Talk about a challenge…

I had no idea how difficult submarines are to run. Nuclear sub engineer Russell Canty writes on Quora that young people with a bent for engineering, math or science are drawn toward being pilots or submariners. Canty says, “Pilots get all the glory.” He calls becoming a submarine officer “a hard sell… Other than Seals, no other community asks more of its men and women than the submarine service.” It is, he says, a badge of honor.

Sleep deprivation’s the norm, Canty reports. “One day you might work 34 straight hours and you can grab 2 hours of sleep before waking up to do it all over again.” Underway, a submariner is cut off from the outside world for up to several months. “Imagine locking yourself in your house with 100 friends you love to hate, with no TVs, radios, telephones.” In a craft that’s packed with a nuclear reactor, intercontinental ballistic missiles and the rockets that propel them.

As opposed, Canty says, to pilots on an aircraft carrier, mandated 8 hours sleep before flying a mission. On board the ship, they enjoy satellite internet, email and Facebook. If their plane needs maintenance, someone else does the work. On subs, the people who operate the equipment fix it when it breaks. There’s no one to fly in spare parts.

Don served from 1976-84, during the Cold War with Russia. The job of his fast attack sub was to “track enemy subs, keep tabs on the bad guys, and stay invisible.” Their other major mission was providing sea lane safety for American and world commerce. They were often in the Straits of Hormuz, south of Iran, maintaining open passage for 60% of the world’s oil as it shipped. To this day, Iran threatens the flow of oil through this passageway and could cripple economies worldwide.

US subs also protected aircraft carrier groups from other subs. Groups consist of up to 15 ships and over 10,000 sailors. Submariners have a saying, “There are only 2 types of ships: submarines and targets.”

It was the Reagan era. Don, Weapons Officer, says, “The USA beat the Russians economically. I never had to fire a shot.”

Serving on a submarine is voluntary. Don was interviewed by legendary Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. (He directed the development of the naval nuclear program and ran its operations for 3 decades.) Don says the rigorous selection process assured that officers were “smart, competent and hard-working.”

120 men worked on Don’s sub, 95 of whom shared 3 showers and 3 toilets. Women were admitted in the last few years, which meant reworking already cramped quarters. (And I get impatient waiting in line for the ladies room during intermission???)  The Tunny ran 24 hours a day. Every year, 1/3 rotated off. At any time, 40 crewmates were new.

“For a sub to operate safely and succeed, everyone needs to know their job,” Don says. “If someone screws up, the whole ship could die. Even the cooks stand watch. Our commanding officers took great care to develop each newcomer. As an officer, I had to know every piece of equipment. The nuclear reactor, the turbine generators, the air conditioning, the weapons systems, the steam generator, the propulsion systems. There were hundreds of pieces of equipment to operate, maintain and monitor.”

Nuclear submarines make all their own electricity, oxygen and water. The only limit is food. Once the food ran out, usually about the 90th day at sea, it was time to head back to port.

Don still remembers his first night as a newly qualified Engineering Officer of the Watch (EEOW). They were transiting the ocean serenely when a siren blew, a reactor SCRAM. It meant the reactor shut down and all power was cut off. “Gary Jensen, my commanding officer, shows up at the Maneuvering compartment, dressed in our underway blue jumpsuit uniform, chewing on a big cigar, smiling. It was a drill. The Commanding Officer, Captain Karl Kaup, was testing me on my first watch. That was in 1981. I still remember the 5 emergency actions for a reactor SCRAM.” Nuclear power training was and is “rigorous and comprehensive.”

Submarine officers’ wives are also dedicated, Don says. As a young man on the way to join his ship in the Philippines, he was picked up at the airport in Hawaii by Bev Jensen, the wife of his Executive Officer. She welcomed him with a lei and drove him to the home of the Commanding Officer for lunch. The Tunny was already deployed on the other side of the Pacific, but these wives wanted to be sure Don knew the board game of Uckers. The Captain liked to play it with his officers after dinner. It gave him a chance to know his men better, to see how smart and risk prone they were.

Military service runs in Don’s family. His father was an officer in the army in the ’50s. “He suggested we all join the military to learn responsibility and leadership. But he warned us: don’t join the army or you’ll have to sleep outside in tents.” Don’s middle brother Scot spent 6 years as a US Marine Corp officer including 2 as a general’s aide. His youngest brother Jeff attended Duke on an Air Force ROTC scholarship and served 23 years as a career Air Force pilot. “We all share similar stories of the camaraderie and excitement of being officers in a military unit.” (Their sister became a public school teacher, like their mom. “Even though she didn’t serve in the military, as the oldest, she still thinks she’s in charge.”)

Don and wife Ione recently held a dinner party for Don’s Tunny shipmates at their home in Portland, OR.  Being back together reminded Don “how interdependent we were and why we formed such tight bonds.” He was especially pleased to see executive officer Gary Jensen, his wife Bev and their family. After becoming the commanding officer of a sub, Jensen was commodore of a fleet of nuclear subs. (Following a long career in the Navy, he served in Homeland Security and retired at 70.) 37 shipmates, including wives and kids, attended the Spears’ dinner. Don was reminded of “the respect I have for Gary, for the expectations he had and the care of took of me and everyone on board.”

Where would we be without those who serve? There’ve been times, especially in WWII, that our military saved the world as we know it.

What did service mean to Don?

“Creating, protecting and maintaining freedom around the world is our mission. … I’m honored to have served and contributed to that legacy.

“As President Reagan said, ‘Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.’ We don’t pass it down through our bloodstreams. It must be fought for, protected and handed on for others to do the same. Or we will spend our sunset years telling our children and their children what it was once like in the United States when people were free.”

Amen, brother, to you and all the brave men and women in our military. Thank you ever so much for your service.

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