On June 25, 1982, I became Mrs. Scott Sears, wife of Commander Scott Sears, United States Navy, Submarine Service. Thus began an unforgettable adventure of a lifetime. He was mid-career, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and the son of a career United States Marine. Military service ran in his veins. Most wives at this point in their husbands' Naval careers had spent up to 15 years as Navy wives. Whereas they took it for granted that they could identify an active duty person as enlisted or officer and what rate or rank said individual was, I was in Pre-K in the military life department. Scott was patient and informative, often surprised at my lack of savvy, but I learned quickly. I attended seminars, asked lots of questions, had a trusty copy of "The Officers' Wives Handbook," but most of all, I relished my new role as his wife, a Navy wife.
Real Navy wife life started one and a half years after we were married. He was to report to the USS Albuquerque as the captain, a brand new Los Angeles class fast attack submarine, homeported at Submarine Base New London, Connecticut, after Prospective Commanding Officer School. Shore duty was over and he would be doing what he loved: going to sea under the sea. This would be an entirely new set of experiences for me as this would be the first experience I would have with his being gone for long periods of time. The Cold War was full throttle and submarines were an important weapon/deterrent in this conflict.
Submarines (referred to as "boats"), like destroyers and air craft carriers, go to sea for months at a time. Fast attack submarines could be ordered to deploy sometimes without much warning, at odd hours, and for undetermined lengths of time. The only given was that they had to surface after 3 months to pick up rations that had been exhausted. There was no communication, no Facetime (it wasn't invented yet anyway!), no phone calls, no letters back and forth. But, there were "familygrams." Each family could send one providing the message traffic from the squadron had room for one. A familygram consisted of 40 words, the first being his name, the last being the wife's name. One couldn't write bad news (the news that Aunt Betty had died would have to wait) or anything suggestive. Familygrams had to be upbeat and newsy—as newsy as 38 words could allow! Often parts of speech had to be eliminated, creating a kind of word puzzle for him to decipher. The familygrams came in with the daily messages to the boat and any U. S. submarine in that broadcast area received all the familygrams as well, so my news was read by everyone in that particular radius in the ocean! So much for privacy! The Submarine Service is known as the "Silent Service" and although this referred to the stealth of these vessels, for 3 months out of a 6-month deployment, we lived in silence with no word from our husbands, brothers, or sons.
"Loose lips sink ships" was a popular saying that applied to dependents. We too were to remain silent about boats' movements. We didn't know where they were going and when they would return. I could guess that if he took a comforter with him that he probably would be going under the ice at the North Pole (a favorite hunting ground for Soviet submarines) and if he called in 3 months from Scotland, he was most likely in the North Atlantic. But speaking these assumptions was not done. Naval Investigative Service had an eye-opening program for wives before a long deployment. I learned that the Soviets were very good at putting pieces of a puzzle together. They pulled microwave phone conversations out of the atmosphere in the vicinity of Navy housing and the Subbase. They could learn where boats were going, even if one spoke in "code" over the phone: "I can't say the name of the boat, but he's on The City of Brotherly Love". (He was serving on the USS Philadelphia.) Information about the boat's return was never spoken over the phone. I, as the captain's wife, would be called to the Squadron office, told the news, and then would have to get the wives together somewhere to share the news. So, we faced some challenges that surface Navy wives did not, although absences are never easy in any case.
Sometimes mid-deployment I would get word that the boat would be stopping somewhere for a few days and that wives could go and meet the boat for its few days of liberty. I had such a call once—they would be arriving in Portsmouth, England, for three days of liberty if any wives wanted to fly over. Two wives and I decided to go. Our husbands were not informed for security reasons. Were they ever surprised to see us on the pier! Scott came topside and explained to me that I would have to wait there for him—the boat was not cleared for security and he had to brief some people before he could join me. It was evening and when he emerged we went to the hotel across the street for a drink and dinner. At the bar we met a man retiring from the Royal Marines after having served in the Falkland War where he was wounded. He bought us "Yanks" a drink and we reciprocated. The other couples and we, including our new friend, Allan the Royal Marine, crossed the street to dine at the Green Mask, an Indian restaurant. One wife took photos as Allan balanced her two-year-old son on his shoulders. Over the next two days Allan wove himself in and out of our activities and on the night of the day Scott deployed he invited me to have dinner with him and a friend of his mother's in the hotel restaurant. I accepted and we had a table by the window. In the dark, the NATO fleet was deploying and Allan asked if Scott was involved with the NATO operations. "I have no idea, Allan. I am not privy to his boat's movements." End of conversation. Within hours of arriving home in Connecticut, I had a call from SUBLANT in Norfolk asking if I could supply the office with copies of the photos taken at the Green Mask! Allan, as it turned out, was a KGB agent, a fact I learned by going to the Squadron office. On that particular deployment USS Albuquerque was doing some highly classified work with the Royal Navy and British Naval Intelligence had put a tail on Scott to see if anyone would try and contact him from the Soviet side. Now that was intriguing!
My job as the commanding officer's wife often entailed assisting other wives with problems, be they long or short term. A new bride whose husband had made arrangements before a long deployment to deposit six months of salary in their account had to be helped to her mother's home in another state after she bought a car and furniture thinking that the money in the bank was one month's worth out of six months. Another needed someone to care for her 2-year-old son while she sought in-patient help for a problem. Whatever someone needed, it was provided. Whatever problem existed for one of our own wives, we solved. We were a cohesive and supportive bunch of gals. We got together periodically for a potluck, to chat, to relieve tensions. Sometimes someone from the squadron would be traveling to the boat and we could send a package for our husbands with him. One Halloween we took Polaroid photos of ourselves in costume and the husbands had to guess which witch was which! Such activities broke the monotony and got us all giggling.
Scott's career advanced from Commander to Captain to Rear Admiral. After driving a submarine, he got to drive a desk. He was stationed at Subbase Bangor in Silverdale, Washington, in the squadron office, then assigned to two subsequent tours in "the other Washington," followed by his final assignment at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center at the Navy Base in Newport, Rhode Island. There we were privileged to live in a house built in 1702 with a vibrant history that encompassed the American Revolution. He retired in 1995. In the 13 years during which I was privileged to share his Naval career I met interesting people, welcomed them into our home (ever had 200 people over for breakfast?!), traveled to places I never could have imagined, and proudly enjoyed all aspects of his career. Now Navy blood courses through my veins. As I reminisce, I am reminded of the shopping bags at the commissary way back when I was a brand new wife. They read, "NAVY WIFE, TOUGHEST JOB IN THE NAVY!" I would add....AND MOST REWARDING!
Postscript: Following retirement from military service, Scott Sears worked for General Dynamics in Greensboro and Raytheon in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. He retired permanently in 2007, and he and his wife, Barbara, settled in Ashe County, NC, where they had been summer residents since 2000. Scott succumbed to Multiple Systems Atrophy on the last day of 2011 and is inurned at Arlington Cemetery. Barbara continues to reside in Warrensville, in a house she and Scott built before he retired from civilian service.