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Tuesday, June 27, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Crimson Tide' Vs. Reality -- Hollywood Takes Some Liberties With Life Aboard A Trident Submarine

BANGOR, Kitsap County - "Crimson Tide" actor Gene Hackman and Trident submarine Capt. John McMacken have at least three things in common: colorful personalities, a tough-minded insistence on frequent drill and a fondness for a last cigar before diving underwater for a 70-day patrol.

But the real-life captain and his 160-member crew on the USS Nevada insist McMacken can't start a nuclear war as easily as Hackman threatens to do in the popular thriller now playing in theaters.

Sailors commented freely on the movie during a final shake-down dive in Hood Canal's Dabob Bay last week before departing for the Pacific on a regular submerged patrol that continues even though the Cold War has ended.

Reviews ranged from Chief of Boat Tom Waterman's, "For someone not familiar with the Navy, it's pretty realistic," to Sonarman 1st Class's Herman Jenkins', "It's Hollywood."

"It's a great movie," allowed McMacken. But even on the world's most powerful ship, life is more mundane. The captain not only periodically orders his sub exhaustively cleaned, he gets down in the bilges with his sailors to help them do it.

"My wife says I'm not as studly looking as Denzel Washington," added Jim Ransom, the real executive officer, or second in command.

So how close is "Crimson Tide's" Trident to a real Trident? If you haven't seen the movie and don't want the plot spoiled, stop reading right here. Otherwise, the comparisons are enlightening, and

somewhat reassuring.

The movie goes like this: Russian rebels seize a Siberian missile base and threaten war. Cigar-chomping Hackman and Executive Officer Washington sail from a Trident base implied to be Bangor, since it is the only one on the West Coast. So what if it doesn't really rain that hard in Western Washington? Every American east of North Bend thinks it does.

The fictional USS Alabama nears Siberia's Kamchatka Peninsula, is damaged by a Russian submarine in the midst of receiving its strike orders, and can't communicate to clarify what it's supposed to do. Hackman orders the missiles launched before the Russians can fire theirs, while Washington insists on waiting for confirmation. Mutiny and counter-mutiny ensue.

Gripping? Yes. Reality? Not quite. An executive officer has to give recognizable verbal approval before two other crewmen in separate parts of the boat join the captain in turning three keys to launch the missiles.

The idea the crew would split, with one part supporting Hackman's decision to replace Washington - and another Washington's decision to arrest Hackman - goes against training requiring unanimity in something as momentous as launching missiles, crewmen said.

There has never been a mutiny on a United States warship. There was an unsuccessful attempt in the early 19th century on the brig Somers, said Navy historian Ray Mann, who found the quarreling among officers in "Crimson Tide" to be unrealistic.

The movie is reasonably accurate in showing the receipt of strike orders (though they actually must be decoded) and necessary agreement among officers on their meaning. The phones really do obnoxiously ring like a strangled chipmunk and missiles really must be "warmed up" or prepared for firing by pumping in compressed gas, a procedure that takes about five minutes.

Shooting takes a bit more crew cooperation than depicted. The captain has the combination to one safe with a key. The other two keys are in safes inside outer safes, with a different crewman having the combination to each.

The key the captain retrieves is sent to another officer in the missile-command center, and the captain in turn receives his bridge key from others.

Also not mentioned in the movie is that all Trident personnel submit regularly to a "Personal Reliability Program" of psychological screening that the edgy Hackman might flunk.

The movie is correct at its conclusion that procedures will be tightened even more at the end of this year, in recognition of the end of the Cold War. One expected change: Safe combinations will have to be radioed with launch orders.

DEPARTURES FROM REALITY

"Crimson Tide" gives a reasonable depiction of life aboard a Trident. But there are plenty of other departures from reality:

Setting sail: Trident crews don't stand at attention at dockside, don't hear any rousing speeches and don't run aboard to a bugle call. Everyone is too busy getting the massive machine under way. Visitors are greeted, however, by a shotgun-wielding crewman guarding access to a boat with up to 192 nuclear warheads, each many times more powerful than the bomb that leveled Hiroshima.

Weighty problem: The 300-pound movie sailor who has a heart attack wouldn't pass the Navy's weight and fitness quotas. And no sailor seasoned enough to have gotten through submarine school is going to do pushups for a brow-beating officer or chief. That's boot-camp stuff, Nevada crewmen explained.

Galley fire: It happens, as do fires in the clothes dryers, but there is an automatic extinguisher system to put them out more quickly than depicted. Would a captain really order a missile drill while the flames are being doused and a crewman is dying? McMacken said he might test his crew in an awkward or confused moment, but if someone is hurt, "Everything stops."

Captain's pet: Unlike Hackman, real captains can't have a dog. Crewmen can't have goldfish. A drug dog did routinely prowl the Nevada shortly before it sailed, however - and did stop to do its business while on board, as did Hackman's pet in the movie. Oops.

The Trident's look: The missile submarines are the biggest the United States has ever built, but they're still more cramped than the already-claustrophobic movie sets. The floors are beige Navy linoleum tile, not the photogenic (and noisy) gratings used in the film. Actual Trident lighting is flatter and less shadowy, with no lurid red-weapons rooms. And there is no nifty lower passageway to sneak through.

Underwater combat: In "Crimson Tide," a Russian attack submarine finds the USS Alabama a couple of times. In real life, Tridents have never been detected: They are very quiet and it is a very big ocean. Weapons do make a big bang, however: One crewman fired a test Mark 48 torpedo at a target 3 1/2 miles away "and the boat still rocked" after the explosion, he recalled.

Kissing Kamchatka: In the movie, the Trident sails close to Russia. Where the Nevada goes is classified, but the chart used to advise the crew of its position does not even include the far-western Pacific. After all, Trident 1 missiles have a range of 4,000 miles and Trident 2 of 6,500 miles.

Underwater navigation: The movie understandably shows the Alabama sinking by some cliffs, to give a sense of movement. In reality, however, skippers steer their billion-dollar boats well clear of any kind of underwater mountain or canyon.

Sonar screens: "Crimson Tide" makes it easy to follow the action by showing submarines and torpedoes as simple blobs of light on video-game-like sonar screens. The real thing, however, is as incomprehensible to a layman as a scrambled cable signal: scratchy green lines that operators learn to interpret as subs, whales, fish, etc.

Tension: Trident crewmen do get tired after switching to an 18-hour day that includes six hours' watch, six hours' maintenance or studying and six hours' sleep. But in peacetime, at least, they also find time to relax with skits, wrestling matches, marathons around the missile tubes, exercise machines, a library of 750 videos and so on. Occasionally, the boat will even surface to give the crew an hour or two on deck, called "steel beach."

Chief Jim Cressman, who has been on 17 of the long patrols, said last time the crew built model cars and raced them in the missile compartment while submerged. "You just put a little tilt on the boat and away they go," he explained.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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