A version of this article originally appeared in “We Remember, So You Won’t Forget: Stories of Cambridge and Deerfield Veterans” published in 2017 by the Cambridge Veterans Memorial Committee and Hometown News. This shortened version appears in “We Shall Not Forget,” inserted today in all Hometown News publications including the Cambridge News & Deerfield Independent.
Alan Ehrke was born in Watertown and raised on a farm in rural Cambridge.
He graduated from Cambridge High School in 1965 and from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1970 with an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering.
Ehrke joined the Navy ROTC program and was commissioned an Ensign in the US Navy Reserve in June 1970.
Ehrke was greatly inspired to join the Navy by his father, who joined the US Marines in 1944 and ended up fighting for his country and was grievously injured on Okinawa in 1945.
Ehrke was recruited to serve in the Navy’s nuclear surface ships and submarines program. As his first step in nuclear training, Ehrke entered the US Navy Nuclear Power School in Mare Island, California in July of 1970. Ehrke graduated in the top group of his class and then was sent in February 1971 to the US Navy Nuclear Prototype Training Unit on the National Reactor Testing Station in the desert several hours from Idaho Falls, Idaho for six months of training.
This station contained several working naval nuclear reactors that were identical to reactors in surface ships and submarines. Trainees spent eighteen-hour shifts using these reactors as training platforms, learning in great depth all aspects of a working naval reactor. Ehrke graduated in the top group of this class, which allowed him a choice assignment; a newly commissioned fast attack submarine home ported in San Diego, the USS Pintado, SSN 672, of the Sturgeon class.
Just prior to reporting onboard the Pintado, Ehrke attended US Navy Submarine Indoctrination School in New London, Connecticut starting in August 1971. It was here that Ehrke was promoted to Lieutenant, Junior Grade.
Ehrke reported for duty on the Pintado on October 1971 in San Diego, just one month after the newly constructed Pintado was commissioned into the US Navy. Ehrke took charge of the Electrical Division with responsibility for electric turbines, electric distribution, and all forms of electrical pumps, motors and devices onboard, as well as about twelve enlisted men trained as electricians.
About nine months later, Ehrke qualified as an Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW), usually a six-hour (every 18 hours) watch station where an officer would be in charge of the safe operation of the nuclear reactor and all of the engineering spaces, including main engines and a watch crew of seven highly trained enlisted men.
San Diego-based submarines, like the Pintado, typically deployed for extended periods of time to the Western Pacific where they were attached to the US Seventh Fleet. In May 1972, President Nixon decided to strengthen his position at the Paris Peace Talks with the North Vietnamese government by mining Haiphong Harbor, a port where about 80 percent of war munitions entered North Vietnam. While the mining appeared to be effective, the Navy wanted an in-depth confirmation and analysis of the ship traffic in and out of the harbor.
The Pintado commenced her first operational deployment in October 1972 and was ordered to proceed to the South China Sea and to take up position just east of the straights between Hainan Island and Mainland China.
Any merchant ships going into or coming from Haiphong Harbor would have to pass through those straights on their way to/from China. For two months the Pintado tracked Chinese merchant ships transiting those very shallow straights.
In late December, Nixon ordered heavy B-52 bombing of Haiphong and Hanoi and this and the mining of Haiphong forced the North Vietnamese government back to the Paris Peace Talks. The treaty was signed in late January 1973 after which the U.S. began a withdrawal from Vietnam. Ehrke and the crew of the Pintado were awarded the Vietnamese Service Medal with Bronze Star and the Navy Expeditionary Medal for service in November and December 1972.
Anti-submarine warfare was the Pintado’s main mission on these deployments to the Western Pacific. A typical two or three-month patrol or “special operation” began with a transit from bases in Japan, Guam, or the Philippines to one of two main Soviet naval ports supporting missile subs, Petropavlovsk or Vladivostok, Russia.
The Pintado conducted just such a special operation in the spring of 1973 in the areas in and around the approaches to Petropavlovsk, Russia. After eight months deployed, the Pintado returned to San Diego in May of that year. In October of 1973, Ehrke and the crew of the Pintado were awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Chief of Naval Operations.
Immediately after qualifying as EOOW, Ehrke began the long process of qualifying as Officer of the Deck (OOD). The OOD is in charge of the operational aspects of the submarine, including navigation and maneuvering of the sub through depth, course, and speed. In the spring of 1973, after over a year of study, Ehrke completed OOD qualification and then earned his Gold Dolphins. Dolphins are awarded to signify that a submariner has demonstrated a great depth and command of technical and operational knowledge as well as practical skills relating to all aspects of the submarine.
In early 1974, Ehrke changed jobs onboard from E Division Officer to Communications Officer. He now was responsible for all of the radio and satellite communications onboard and was charged with securing all of the top-secret cryptographic materials that were used to code and decode messages.
From March to October of 1974 the Pintado conducted her second operational deployment to the Western Pacific. In late April, Pintado was ordered to the approaches of the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky naval base for anti-submarine operations. In early May, she detected a departing nuclear submarine and fell into trail. Through sound signatures, the Pintado identified it as a Soviet Navy Yankee class ballistic missile submarine and thus began a week and a half of evasive actions in and around the remote Kuril Islands south of the Kamchatka Peninsula.
In late July 1974, Ehrke was promoted to Lieutenant, US Naval Reserve based on his continued high level of performance on the Pintado.
In August 1974 following repairs in Guam, the Pintado again was ordered on another patrol focusing on anti-submarine operations. This time, the Pintado successfully found and, over the course of almost three weeks, followed a Soviet Yankee submarine to her station less than one hundred miles from Maui, Hawaii. This was considered to be an extraordinary achievement given the challenge of finding a Soviet sub and the difficulties of trailing over an extended period of time without being detected.
In early 1975, with his original commitment coming to an end, Ehrke decided to leave the service of the U.S. Navy. Ehrke officially became a civilian again on July 15, 1975. Like his father, Ehrke served his country with great distinction and with the highest ideals of the citizen soldier that he was. Ehrke was extremely proud of his accomplishments during this time and very grateful for all of his experiences with the fine men of the Pintado.