The North Atlantic D+19 (28 July, 1987)

SACLANT placed a critical emphasis on ASW patrols in the Western Atlantic. With Pandora’s Box seemingly open now, the threat posed by a Soviet SSBN operating inshore could not be discounted. Even a single missile sub lurking near the Eastern Seaboard of the United States could be catastrophic. From the early 70s through early July, 1987 the Soviets regularly maintained two or three Yankee Class SSBNs in a patrol box east of Bermuda. Their presence was always a major concern for the US Navy. As tensions soared in July of ’87 the Soviets made the prudent decision to withdraw the Yankees back to northern waters and eventually to their homeports. On D+19, SACLANT was wondering if it was possible that a Yankee I or II class sub had slipped back into the old patrol area or to a position nearer the US coast and was waiting for the order to unleash its nuclear missiles against American military bases or cities.

SACLANT was increasing the number of ASW patrols up and down the Eastern Seaboard of the US and Canada. From Newfoundland to Key West, larger numbers of US P-3s and Canadian CP-140s scoured the waters. They were supported in some instances by shore-based SH-3 Sea Kings and SH-2 Sea Sprite helicopters. Residents in Point Pleasant, New Jersey were even treated to a scene of two helicopters and a P-3 dropping sonobuoys as they worked a contact in the waters not very far off the beach. For some of the older people along the Jersey Shore the scene brought back memories of early 1942 when German submarines stalked merchant vessels in the same waters.

US Navy and Coast Guard ships were also patrolling coastal waters. In the immediate wake of the nuclear exchange on D+18,  SACLANT ordered all seaworthy ships to leave Norfolk and other naval bases and ports on the East Coast.  Now, with dozens of warships idling in the waters off of their home stations, SACLANT was putting them to good use. Late in the evening as it became apparent the situation was deescalating, at least temporarily, some of these ships returned to their berths, while others continued their ad hoc patrols.

In the early afternoon, Norfolk time, SACLANT received permission to start preparations for renewed conventional air attacks against targets on the Kola Peninsula in fifteen hours. Orders were transmitted almost immediately to Strike Fleet Atlantic’s commander aboard Mount Whitney and within thirty minutes, the carrier air wings on the three American carriers in the northern Norwegian Sea were going to work on mission planning.

Strike Fleet Atlantic’s carrier groups remained dispersed through much of the day. The threat of nuclear attack, though tapering off, was not going to disappear entirely. The more sea space put between individual ships and groups meant less damage in the event a nuclear-tipped torpedo or missile detonated in the vicinity. The carrier groups were also still trying to mask their locations, though the heavy and constant combat air patrols and support flights that were airborne made the effort challenging. Soviet Bears were in the air and listening, though nowhere near the number there had been earlier in the conflict. The threat of detection remained, however, and reports that Backfires and Badgers from other regions were beginning to arrive at Kola airfields prompted a decision by Strike Fleet Atlantic’s commander to go after these airfields in the first wave of attacks on the morning of D+20.

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