Mark Henson, US Navy, 1987-2011
Watch Mark’s story or read it below.
Hi. I’m Mark Henson. I joined the Navy in 1987, and I got out in 2011. I live in Bremerton, Washington, right now. Basically, I’ve been bounced back from east coast to west coast throughout my Naval career. And I’ll just give you a brief history of my Naval career.
So, I recently got married back in 1986, and decided to move to Groton, Connecticut, where I had new hopes of and dreams of sliding into a dream job somewhere, like, Electric Boat or some large corporation, just getting out of high school with no college education. After awhile of dreaming, I looked for work, and I couldn’t find anything.
So, my Uncle-in-Law, at the time, he was a senior chief sonar technician in the Navy. And he says, “Have you ever considered joining the Navy?” I said, “Well, no.” But shortly after speaking with him, I made a big career decision. I decided to join the Navy.
I’d gone to the local Navy recruiter’s office in Groton, Connecticut, and started the whole process. In December of 1986, I joined the Navy. The recruiter informed me for the best thing for me was to do what’s called the Seaman Seafarer Program, which is better known as the Striker Program. A Striker comes into the Navy and works their way from bottom to the top. At this point in my career, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do.
I went to boot camp, like I said, in December of 1986, in beautiful, sunny Orlando, Florida. Yes. In December. After my boot camp, they shipped me back to Groton, Connecticut, to my first command in the USS Pittsburgh. It’s a whole new way of life aboard the nuclear-powered submarine. It was a fast attack. I developed an interest in becoming an interior communications specialist, and so became my career path.
As an interior communication specialist, they work mostly on low voltage circuits throughout the ship. I worked on ship steering and diving system circuits, ships alarm circuits, gyros, performed battery charging line ups with the lead storage batteries, and such, worked on the ship’s entertainment systems, and most important piece of equipment that we owned, the central atmosphere monitoring equipment, which was very near and dear to my heart. In a closed environment on a submarine, we operate sometimes four to six months at a time underwater on deployment. So, CAMs is a combination of, basically, a carbon dioxide detector and a fixed mass spectrometer. That doesn’t mean a lot to you, obviously. But, it means a lot to me because it monitored the hydrogen, the water, the nitrogen, carbon monoxide, oxygen, and refrigeration gases so we could basically live comfortable in a submarine. The system became the first submarine air monitor to be approved, and, sequentially, installed in US Navy submarines. NASA also developed it as a little bit of a variant to … for their manned space vehicles.
So, during my tour on the USS Pittsburgh, I did go to Holy Loch, Scotland, Hawaii, and a bunch of other places I really can’t discuss. Basically, from day one in the silent service, in the submarine force, there’s a vow of secrecy. The term was coined long ago, “loose lips, sink ships,” when talking about submarines. The submarine is all about stealth and unseen forces.
So, after the USS Pittsburgh, I was sent to Bremerton, Washington, and became, basically, a member of the Trident submarine force, which my first Trident submarine was the USS Florida. A Trident submarine has capability of launching 25 … I’m sorry, 24 nuclear missiles, and operates as what is known as a strategic patrols. There are two crews, one gold, one blue. And they, basically, do three months at a time, and go in and out to sea. That’s basically the cycle that I was on.
After the USS Florida, I moved to shore duty which was still in Bangor, Washington. Got certified as a naval instructor at Trident Training Facility in Bangor, Washington, for at least three years.
So, I went back to Groton, Connecticut, for another tour after that on a fast attack which was the USS Sandlance. This was my favorite and most memorable part of my career. I got to do things that I remember … that I’ll remember for a lifetime. I got to go to Norway and conduct deep submergence vehicle operations with the Norwegian Navy. I got to go to submarine periscope photography class, basically learn how to develop 70 mm periscope film. And, it doing that, we … On a submarine, you don’t have a lot of places to develop that film, but I was able to use the officers’ mess and make that a kind of a pseudo-dark room to develop the pictures that we took out of the periscope. My pictures, my photos were crucial in showing the details of potential threats or would-be enemy ships within the area. I also had the rare opportunity to break through the ice of the Northern Atlantic to conduct experiments on the climate conditions in the North. I did … Yes, I did go to the North Pole and we did play ice football out on the North Pole, and some other things.
Seriously, the best part of this was my very first experience seeing a polar bear up personal, close and personal. We had a team of eight or more of the crew and a scientist that drilled holes in the ice, and placed monitoring equipment in the … which was, basically, ice buoys in the ice. I’d been up in what’s called the sail of the submarine. That’s just where the officer deck stands during surface operations. And there were two others with me. There was a officer of the deck, and a lookout. And they both had binoculars, and guns, and all kinds of things to watch out for polar bears. The next thing I know, after the team had already went out in the distance, the lookout speaks up in a loud voice. He says, “Sir, polar bear. Port side. Forward.” And officer deck says, in quick acknowledgement at the time and didn’t investigate right away, which I thought was kinda weird. Then the lookout said again in a more panic this time, “Sir, we have a polar bear port side, forward.” This time, the offer deck looked out of the binoculars, and proceeded to sound the ship’s whistle to warn the team and to get them back into safety. The team barely made it back to the ship. I got to see a very upset, and very curious polar bear standing on his hind legs, sniffing their footprints and sniffing the air around us.
I also got to participate, after that, in what’s called a six-month unit toss exercise, where I got to go to the Panama Canal, and go through the Horn of South America. I got to see such places as Ecuador, Peru, Chili, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. I also had the opportunity throughout my Naval career to see such places as Rome, Italy, and France.
After the end of my tour of the USS Sandlance, I decommissioned the Sandlance in Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. During this time, with the captain’s help, I put together a commemorative CD-ROM, which basically had from commissioning to decommissioning. And, basically, that website is still up today, and you can still access all those pictures and the videos from that.
So, my final tour was again back in Washington State, Bangor Sub-base. I reported again to the USS Michigan, which was another Trident submarine. There we go. And I was the first class leading Petty Officer there. I finished my career, after 2011, because we, basically, an I Seaman, which was what I was. We combined different rates. We combined the Quarter Masters, the ET’s, and the I Seamen, all together, and it really didn’t work out for me, so I decided I’d make a career change, and get out of the service after 14 years. I don’t regret getting out early. I cherish the time I was able to serve my country. Would I do it again? I don’t think so. Not at this time. But I really did enjoy the time that I served, and I’m proud that I did serve.