Though he grew up in Sheridan, McCalla’s family moved to Casper his junior year of high school, and when he graduated in January 1957, he knew what he wanted to do next.
“When I was 10 years old, the picture ‘The Frogmen’ with Richard Widmark came out, and it was all about what they call now SEAL teams, but it was underwater demolition teams then – Frogmen,” said McCalla. “We were pretty much mesmerized by that. I guess I just wanted to be in the Navy ever since then.”
McCalla joined an all-state Wyoming group of Naval recruits that took a bus to San Diego in mid-January. Over the next few years, he trained at various locations and in various areas, including radio communication and repair and electronic engineering. His ultimate goal was to be part of a submarine crew. After acquiring a sinus infection during submarine school, however, he was unable to pass the 125-foot emergency underwater escape test and was instead assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid CVA-11 and later, in 1958, the USS Independence CVA-62.
These assignments allowed him the chance to travel extensively. During his year and a half on the Independence, he traveled to Portugal, Holland, Norway and several countries in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.
After a two-month hiatus in 1960 to visit family, he reenlisted. He then spent several years in various postings including the USS Interpreter AGR-14 picket ship and as station keeper in Sioux City, Iowa.
McCalla took a big step closer to the ocean in 1965 when he was assigned to the submarine Pacific Group in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. One year later, the submarine USS Guardfish came to port, and McCalla caught a lucky break.
“I finally got what they called a swap,” he said. “When I went down there, the other radioman who was on board wanted shore duty, and I wanted to go on submarines, so we just swapped duties. That is when my life changed, and I went on the Guardfish.”
The USS Guardfish was a fast-attack nuclear-powered submarine approximately 325 feet long by 60 feet wide. That space was shared by between 120 and 140 men. The Guardfish was just a year and a half old when McCalla joined its crew.
For the next several years, the submarine made three West Pacific cruises, traveling for months at a time to different ports in Guam, Okinawa, the Phillippines and Hong Kong. Many of the patrols were top-secret missions, and in 1967 they ended up in the Gulf of Tonkin supporting the Vietnam War with intelligence gathering and reconnaissance work. This work would be repeated for eight months in each of the next three years.
McCalla’s job was in the radio room, working with the teletype or crypto machines, sending, receiving and decoding messages and performing repairs or maintenance on the equipment. The “radio shack” was an 8-by-12-foot room that, with equipment in place, offered only a 3-by-12-foot working space for two men.
The submarine’s mission was to elude rather than engage with Cold War forces – a task that required days or weeks of remaining submerged.
“We would come up to periscope depth every ten hours and get our messages, get our fleet broadcasts, the weather and whatever top-secret messages we needed to have to proceed on our special ops,” McCalla explained. “We would come to the surface also and do what we call snorkel, or bring on fresh air. We were submerged at one time for 110 days on special ops. We almost ran out of food and we did run out of cigarettes, but we made do. We made our own oxygen and our own fresh water out of seawater, so we didn’t need to surface anytime except when we left the harbor or came back in.”
Under the waves
Besides cramped working conditions and tiny living quarters – just a 15-foot-square bunker with a curtain for privacy – there were other challenges to life in a submarine. For instance, at the end of a six-hour duty shift, if a sailor had not already cross-trained on every system in the vessel, he spent off-time learning the systems – earning his “dolphins,” which designated submarine qualification – rather than relaxing and watching movies with the rest of the crew.
McCalla said despite weeks or months away from port, the crew was well-fed, with four meals a day. Fresh produce ran out after three weeks at sea, but excellent cooks fashioned dried and preserved food into quality meals.
“Of course we had good cooks and we had a baker on board,” he said. “About four in the morning you could smell him cooking cinnamon rolls or caramel rolls or something like that. When we did run out of food one time, we had bologna sandwiches and soup. He did hold back all the Thanksgiving trimmings though, and we had a great Thanksgiving meal. But then we went back to bologna sandwiches.”
Communication with loved ones back home was also a challenge. McCalla married in April 1968, and his wife Melody resided at base in Hawaii. In May, he left on another long patrol. Just five times during his absence, Melody was allowed to send a 25-word “familygram” that was transmitted to the Guardfish. While McCalla could receive the brief updates, no return messages were allowed. He returned from patrol in December, and their first daughter was born in January 1969. Their second daughter was born in Groton, Connecticut, in 1971.
Besides day-to-day difficulties onboard a submarine, real emergencies were a possibility. One incident in particular almost proved deadly.
“We lost our bubble one time,” said McCalla. “We lost our ballast and we went down quite a deep depth where we weren’t supposed to. We went below crush depth before we could catch it and come back up. It was just an accident, just one of those things, but we caught it. We went back up to the surface, and everybody changed their underwear and we just kept on going with what we were supposed to do. If that was going to be the end, that was going to be the end.”
In 1970, McCalla was reassigned to a fleet ballistic submarine, the USS Kamehameha, and remained with that vessel until his retirement from the military in 1975. His homeport was changed to Charleston, South Carolina, which required a trip through the Panama Canal on the way to and from the Pacific.
On dry land
Transition back to civilian life brought changes and challenges.
“I was tired of electronics,” he said. “I didn’t even want to turn on a TV set. I was afraid it would break. And I had trouble adjusting to civilian ideals. We are always on our toes in the Navy, always alert. You had a strict routine every day. And out here everyone is asleep.”
McCalla held several jobs upon his return, and eventually he and his wife took jobs as car haulers and flatbed truck drivers. Over 21 years, he logged more than 2.5 million accident-free miles, and his wife covered more than 300,000 miles. Between his military service and their civilian jobs, the couple has traveled to all 50 states and seven Canadian provinces. He also worked at Black Thunder Mine as a shuttle bus driver and in security before retiring in February 2015.
Reflecting back on his service, McCalla had no difficulty finding positive outcomes.
“It gave me more confidence,” he said. “It made me know myself better. It molded you into what the Navy wanted you to be. I think the Navy made me a better person.”