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The USS San Francisco left its port in Guam for a much-anticipated cruise to Australia. Following months of boring repairs, the crew was ready for the 3,000-mile trip and already planning what to do in Brisbane once they arrived. Since 2002, the Los Angeles-class nuclear attack sub had been stationed on the western Pacific island allowing more frequent trips to foreign ports instead of its less eventful patrols around Pearl Harbor.
Referring to an old chart of the ocean floor, the navigation officer sped up to 33 knots and dove to 525 feet in preparation for a series of drills. Then, without warning, the San Francisco slammed into an uncharted seamount.
The sudden shock threw bodies and equipment flying through the sub, leaving several crewmembers injured and bloody with a few lying unconscious. With the sub’s nose crushed and pointing toward the 6,000-foot-deep ocean floor, the officer ordered an emergency blow, pushing air through the ballasts to force the sub to the surface. But nothing happened.
Ten seconds passed, then half a minute. The crew thought their boat, and their lives, were lost. It took nearly a minute before the San Francisco slowly, painfully began to rise. Several minutes later, it was bobbing on the surface and the crew tended to the wounded and the sub herself.
When the seamount was hit, Machinist Mate Joseph Ashley was at the aft of the sub, having a quick smoke before his six-hour shift began maintaining the emergency diesel engines for the massive craft. “Cooter,” as his shipmates nicknamed him, was a proud country boy from Ohio who was popular for his great sense of humor and ever-present smile.
The impact sent Petty Officer Ashley flying 20 feet into the sub’s array of immovable metal equipment. When crewmembers saw what happened, one sailor held his hand while another called for the only medic onboard.
The corpsman set up a makeshift doctor’s office in the boat’s largest open space, the enlisted mess. In between stitching up the rest of the crew’s lacerations, he monitored the critically injured Petty Officer Ashley and administered oxygen and morphine. The medic knew he wouldn’t survive unless he got him off the sub, but help was very far away.
Seventeen hours later, a Coast Guard cutter arrived, but the sea was far too choppy to transport Petty Officer Ashley. A larger ship came soon after and sent a helicopter to airlift him out. After a few failed attempts, the young mechanic’s heart stopped. It was too late.
“(Ashley) dedicated himself to San Francisco, our Navy and our great country. By so doing, he earned the love, honor, trust and respect of his shipmates,” Cmdr. Kevin Mooney, commanding officer of the USS San Francisco, said in a release. “Although our hearts ache and we miss him, we thank God for the time together. We also thank Petty Officer Ashley’s family for sharing their son and brother with us.”
Mooney further highlighted Ashley’s positive impact on the crew.
“He was my shipmate, my friend and a great submariner. … He loved his job and life in the Navy so much,” Mooney said. “Not only was Petty Officer Ashley happy all the time, he made it his personal business to make sure all his shipmates were happy, including me.”
Lt. j.g. Josh Chisholm, who is a chemistry/radiological assistant, said Ashley was a great sailor who “loved submarines and being on the San Francisco, through and through.”
“He always brought a smile to everybody’s face when he was around,” Chisholm said, adding that Ashley always had a positive, upbeat attitude.
“For us, he was somebody we knew we could trust,” said Chisholm, who was interviewed after the memorial service. “We knew he would do the right thing in terms of when he was standing watch.”
…”He was one of those guys who was ready to make the Navy and the submarine force a lifelong career because of the tightness. It is like a brotherhood as we refer to it,” Cramer said. “We were very close to him — everybody on board.”
Ashley was in charge of the submarine’s emergency diesel on board and took great pride in that, Cramer said.
“In our most recent engineering exam, he got the highest grade that someone would get,” Cramer said. “He took pride in everything he did … and was always willing to learn more.”
I had the honor of serving on the San Francisco in happier times, when she was stationed at Pearl Harbor. Considering the damage to the boat, I remain shocked that only one crewmember lost his life in the incident.
This Memorial Day, when we honor the many brave men and women who gave their lives on the battlefield, let’s also remember those who sacrificed all in less violent theaters. Thank you, Petty Officer Ashley, for serving our nation and doing your part in keeping us free.