In our Living History series, we will be profiling notable local residents. If you would like to suggest a person for us to profile, please email Harvey Kart at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You have to wonder how often, when Henry Jackson looks out over Lake Oconee, does his mind drift back to the days when he sailed both above and below the waters of the North Atlantic, the east coast of America and even the Mediterranean Sea.
Jackson, 73, and his wife Lee moved to Del Webb at Lake Oconee—or what Jackson likes to call “The Good Life”—in 2007. His trip to the community undoubtedly was one of the most circuitous ever taken by any resident.
Born and raised in the farm community of Lake View, South Carolina, Jackson remembers his boyhood days when he and his family “ate good, shared lots of love and didn’t know we were poor until the government told us.”
He recalled the time when his older brother was scheduled to take his first grade entrance examination and his mom talked the principal into letting the younger Jackson take the same day. He passed, and entered school early. Neither he nor his mother knew it then, but her granted request from the principal would have an impact on Jackson’s whole life.
“By the time I got to ninth grade, by state law I was too young to study agriculture, so I was forced into bookkeeping and typing,” he said. “Sometimes you just fall into an opportunity.”
The day after graduation—and thanks to what Jackson called a “smooth-talkin’ devil of a recruiter—the 17-year-old Jackson left for the service and onto Great Lakes, Ill. He was in the Aviation Electronics School, moved a few times to bases in towns like Norman, Oklahoma and Memphis Tennessee and remembered that what he enjoyed most was dancing and partying.
In his 16th week of school, Jackson said he was “kicked out” and sent to receiving barracks in Norfolk, Virginia. He was later transferred to Air Transport Squadron Three (VR3) at McGuire AFB, New Jersey.
“It was there that it was discovered—much to most everyone’s surprise—that I could type 60 words a minute on a manual typewriter,” Jackson said. “So I became a personnel man.”
After tours on the USS Waccamaw (AO109), a replenishment tanker and the USS Boston (CAG1), Jackson was discharged in 1960. He worked for a time in Langhorne, Pennsylvania before rejoining the Navy and transferred to Fighter Air Squadron 101 (VF101) NAS, Boca Chica, Florida, where he made friends with two submariners.
“I just loved their way of life,” said Jackson, who soon found himself first in Yeoman A School in Maryland, then sub school in Groton, Connecticut. Eventually, he was assigned to the USS Triton (SSN586), flag ship for the Atlantic Fleet submarine force out of Norfolk, Virginia.
“The Triton was a nuclear-powered sub and the first ship to circle the globe under water, following the same route as (Ferdinand) Magellan,” Jackson said. “My first year on the Triton, I had to both do my job and qualify in submarines which meant I had to learn the complete ship, the nuclear propulsion system, trim and drain system, electrical system, emergency breathing system, escape system every pipe and valve, all the equipment including its purpose and how it was operated.”
The effort was well worth it, according to Jackson, because it enabled him to earn his “dolphins”—the Submarine Warfare Insignia, a uniform breast pin worn by Navy enlisted men and officers who are qualified in submarines.
“I was very proud to earn my dolphins,” Jackson said. “It meant I joined the ‘brothers of the phin’ and there is nothing like the closeness of a submarine crew.”
Jackson’s next submarine experience came as a staff member in Submarine Division 21, Groton, Ct. Upon completion of this tour, he volunteered as a member of the USS BILLFISH (SSN676) Commissioning Crew. As a member of the Commissioning Crew he became a plank owner. He next served aboard the USS Henry L. Stimson (SSBN655) (BLUE) as a member of her Blue Crew. (The Stimson, which was armed with Polaris missiles, had two crews, Blue and Gold, who alternated trips at sea.)
Despite the opportunity to travel to the Mediterranean (the ship was home ported in Rota, Spain), Jackson admitted he found the slower-moving Stimson less exciting than the Triton. Jackson served in the Stimson from 1974 to 1977 where he enhanced his submarine qualifications by qualifying for and standing watch as “The Chief of the Watch” then was forced to quit submarines due to health.
“I loved sub life, but I had ulcers and couldn’t go to sea anymore,” he recalled.
Jackson returned to the Mediterranean once more on a fast frigate, the USS Valdez (FF1096). After this he served a year on shore duty in Shore Intermediate Activity (SIMA) in Charleston, SC and served the final year of his career with Fighter Squadron (171) (Det.), NAS, Boca Chica, FL where he eventually retired from the Navy in 1980.
He still remembers those days fondly, even if the life on a submarine can be challenging for some.
“Picture yourself in a sealed room containing all you need, but with water all around you and you cannot get out,” he said. “Inside, our atmosphere and our water is better than above. But when you pop out of the hatch, your eyes have to adjust to the surface world. If someone on the sub dies, they are kept in a bag in the freezer until we return to port.”
Jackson added that they could receive messages, but they couldn’t transmit. “We had the best movies and the best cooks, who trained with the best chefs from the finest restaurants. Everyone on the sub has to sign a form to tell if they want to receive bad news from home or not because there is nothing you can do about it.”
They also had a chief petty officer who couldn’t take the news that his wife and kids left him, so he sliced his wrists, according to Jackson. “It was really hard on the young sailor who found him.”
Jackson was at sea 287 days his first year in submarines and his longest time submerged without seeing daylight was 87 days. He recalled while serving on surface ships. “I would write about my experiences—seeing dolphins, playing near the bow of the ship while sailing through the Straits of Mesina and the changing colors of the ocean the beauty of the lights on the hills at dusk in the Mediterranean—in letters to my mom. She said through me she got to see so many things she otherwise couldn’t.”
But what he cherishes most is the closeness of the submarine crew, the “brothers of the phin.”
“I run the reunion committee for the Triton and even though I left in 1969, we’re still tight,” he said. We have a reunion every two years where we relive old memories and of course we share many ‘Sea Stories.’”