USS HAWKBILL (SSN 666) - Arco, Idaho

Hawkbill's Final Chapter - Official Dedication Ceremony July 19, 2003

Collage Picture

News Article

USS Hawkbill Sail Surfaces as Idaho's 'Submarine in the Desert'

Story Number: NNS030724-08

Release Date: 7/24/2003 3:43:00 PM

By Lt. j.g. Penny Cockerell
Naval Information Bureau 1118, Fort Carson, Colo. Public Affiars

ARCO, Idaho (NNS) -- Folks passing through this rural Idaho town of mountains and sagebrush have stopped for months simply to ask: What on earth is a submarine sail doing in the middle of the desert?

After more than two years of preparations, the explanation came when the tall sail, or conning tower, of USS Hawkbill (SSN 666) was officially dedicated to Arco during its “Atomic Days” celebration July 19.

On hand were some two dozen Reservists from the Pocatello Naval Reserve Center, many of whom spent the last year and a half laying the foundation, putting down conduits for lighting and welding the sail in place.

It was no small task establishing Hawkbill's sail as the only known “Submarine in the Desert.” But because of Arco’s history in nuclear power development, town enthusiasts latched onto the idea, and when Hawkbill was decommissioned in 2001, the Naval Historical Society donated it to them.

Arco, with a population of 1,023, was the site where nuclear propulsion for submarines began. During the Cold War, all of southeast Idaho was a hotbed of nuclear testing and advancements – but because their studies were classified, no one knew about it.

Over the last several decades, some 40,000 Sailors trained in nuclear operations at three prototype nuclear power plants in the Arco region.

“The very first submarine prototype was in Idaho, so southeast Idaho has a very big connection to nuclear power,” said Lt. Robert D. Boston, a Reserve engineering officer who helped install Hawkbill in Arco, where the future Idaho Science Center will be built. Boston drills at the Naval Reserve Center Pocatello under the Naval Reserve Readiness Command Northwest in Everett, Wash.

Once the sail was donated, the next step was moving Hawkbill some 1,000 miles from the sea to the high desert. The move was laborious, but made easier when a group of truck drivers agreed to transport the sail in three parts for just the cost of gasoline.

Sail on Truck Bed The project hit a glitch when state troopers spotted the massive tonnage moving down the highway on three separate trucks and deemed it too dangerous to continue. Undaunted, Hawkbill backers contacted Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) to assist in steering the sail through.

And as it sailed into town, Mayor Jacques Marcotte of Arco stood high on its top, saluting onlookers “like Captain Courageous,” one spectator said.

The Department of Energy and Idaho’s tourism office then donated $6,000 to hire a crane for a day to put the sail in place. Some 15 volunteers, including six welders – many of them Reservists – scrambled to get the job done in such a short time.

Boston put a pencil to the cost of labor and figured the Reservists saved about $50,000 by donating their drill weekends to install the sail in its permanent place.

The Naval Reserve's contribution has already paid dividends in bringing a symbol of pride to the region.

Hawkbill’s illustrious history was recounted at the dedication by its last commanding officer, Capt. Robert Perry, who with some emotion, told of its 29 years of missions. To his side stood an American flag that once flew from the decommissioned sub.

“I estimate that Hawkbill steamed almost 1.5 million miles,” Perry said. “Most of what Hawkbill did on her deployments remains classified to this day, but I can guarantee you that Hawkbill’s crews significantly contributed to our country’s victory in the Cold War.”

Hawkbill had the unfortunate chronological numbering of 666, earning it the nickname of “Devil Boat.” But the ominous biblical numeral never affected its many missions.

Assembling the Sail The submarine deployed 10 times to the Pacific and six times to the Arctic Ocean, where it joined the National Science Foundation in several crucial studies at the North Pole. Perry described using the sail as a battering ram to break through three feet of ice – a dramatic event that the crew found both jarring and exciting.

The Hawkbill’s significance was not lost on those now responsible for it. Among the attendees were more than a dozen members of the U.S. Submarine Veterans-Hawkbill Base. Eight of their members were World War II veterans. They all wore submarine ball caps and blue vests with the names of their tours stitched on the back.

Now entrusted with Hawkbill, Arco town leaders plan to make it the cornerstone to their future museum, which will highlight nuclear advancements during and after the Cold War.

Navy Captain and last Hawkbill Commanding Officer, Robert Perry, speaks at the dedication ceremony with the following comments:


Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

Thank you very much for the invitation to Arco to attend this great event. This is a very special day for all the sailors that served on HAWKBILL. Most old submarine sails are cut up and sold for scrap - only a handful of sails stand as memorials in our country. On behalf of all the HAWKBILL sailors out there, thank you very, very much. The combined effort by many groups that went into making this happen is greatly appreciated by all of us.

As you know, I was the last Captain of HAWKBILL. I served from July 97 until April 2000. These years were the best time I have had in the Navy. Being Captain of a ship is the best job in the world. Being Captain of HAWKBILL was especially gratifying due to the outstanding crew I had - they did not come any better. The sail you see in front of you has sailed in all the world's oceans. During normal submerged operations, it is basically a big covering for all the periscopes and other masts. When we transit in and out of port, it is manned and that is where the orders are given to drive the ship. The last time I stood on top of the sail was 22 Sep 99 when we entered Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for scrapping. That was a very sad day for my crew and I.

Let me tell you a little about my old boat. HAWKBILL was the second ship with this name. The first HAWKBILL (SS 366) distinguished itself during World War II and was decommissioned in 1948. The second HAWKBILL started being built in Mare Island Naval Shipyard in 1966 and was completed on 7 February 1971. HAWKBILL was 292 feet long and weighed approximately 4700 tons. She was 52 feet from the top of the sail to the bottom of the keel. She was manned by a crew of about 125 hardworking men. My HAWKBILL had an illustrious career serving our country. HAWKBILL's first home was San Diego where she remained until '75 when she shifted homeports to Pearl Harbor where she remained until '99. Her first mission was off the coast of Vietnam in 1972. Throughout her 29-year life, the ship deployed 10 times to the Pacific and 6 times to the Arctic Ocean. Most of what HAWKBILL did on her deployments remains classified to this day but I can guarantee you that HAWKBILL's crews significantly contributed to our country's victory in the Cold War.

HAWKBILL was well known for her Arctic exploits. In '73, HAWKBILL was the first submarine to operate in the Bering Straits in the winter - a very challenging operation. In '86, HAWKBILL surfaced with 2 other submarines at the North Pole to mark the first time in history three submarines had met together at the North Pole. In '98 and '99 when I was Captain, HAWKBILL deployed to the Arctic Ocean conducting scientific research furthering our knowledge of our planet. We surfaced in the Arctic 17 times. When we surface through the ice, we use the sail as a battering ram. The sail you see here was specially designed to go through 3 feet of solid ice during normal operations with no damage. In an emergency, it was rated for 6 feet with some expected damage. Let me describe the surfacing evolution. We start about 100 feet below the ice with no speed. We made ourselves lighter and floated up toward the ice. We usually struck the ice at 30 feet per minute smashing into bottom side of the ice pack. It was a very dramatic event that shook the ship as the sail pushed its way through the Arctic ice. It was the only time I could hit something with my ship and come away with my career intact! My crew really loved this evolution because it was a pretty exciting thing to do.

My last operation on HAWKBILL was very special as it was the ship's last mission. We took HAWKBILL out in grand style. We left Pearl Harbor in March 99, transited up to the Arctic to conduct our science. After two months under-ice including a stop at the North Pole, we departed the Arctic via the Atlantic Ocean, the first time in the ship's history that HAWKBILL had ever been in the Atlantic. We stopped in Portsmouth, England for liberty and then transited to Ft Lauderdale, Florida for more fun. We departed Florida and headed south toward the Panama Canal. We went through the Canal which was a great experience and then returned home to Hawaii in July after a brief stop at the Equator! My crew really enjoyed that voyage and we took the ship out in style!

Hawkbill Sail in Arco

When I was in command, we steamed over 100,000 miles. I estimate that HAWKBILL steamed almost 1.5 million miles during her life. The reason that HAWKBILL could effortlessly transverse those distances was its nuclear power capability. All of us submariners owe a great debt of gratitude to the tremendous work accomplished right here in Idaho. The application of nuclear power in submarines was developed right here. In fact, many sailors trained for six months at time at the prototypes learning how to operate nuclear power plants before going to their first ship. The Navy contributed the sail of HAWKBILL to honor the incredibly valuable work the Department of Energy and Defense personnel accomplished that was critical to the defense of our country.

In conclusion, I wish to thank all those involved in erecting HAWKBILL's sail here in Arco. Every HAWKBILL sailor can come to Arco and look with pride at the sail of our fine ship and reflect on the many significant contributions to our nation's defense. Thank you very much.


Sail in Arco

This image taken by your Webmaster on July 25, 2008, shows the Hawkbill and the surrounding park in excellent condition. We want the thank the citizens of Arco for preserving our boat with the dignity she so valiantly earned during her 30 years of service.

Sail in Arco

Additionally, this image taken by your Webmaster in December of 2014. Although our visit only allowed us to stop by at night, we again noted the wonderful condition of the sail, museum and surrounding grounds. Thank you again to the citizens of Arco and the submarine volunteers for taking such good care of this piece of our shared history.