PORTLAND — Mark Manzer sat aboard the nuclear submarine USS Sam Houston as it glided through the Pacific Ocean’s depths. The sonar technician listened through headphones to the noises picked up by the sub’s hydrophones.
He remembered a time on watch when hours had passed in silence, but a sudden sound startled him: the eerie moan of a whale.
“It was pretty scary,” he said. “It scared the heck out of me.”
It’s those Cold War-era experiences that make Manzer, 60, a unique guide for the USS Blueback submarine permanently stationed at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. The Salmon Creek resident is one of 30 volunteers who gives tours of the Blueback, and nine staff members also work with the submarine.
The sonar room aboard the Blueback is lit with a soft teal light. Wires draped overhead twist between pipes and nozzles, and tall, metal computer cabinets dotted with red and white pin lights line most of the room, leaving Manzer just enough space to stand.
“It’s pretty much the same setup,” he said, comparing it with the Sam Houston’s sonar room, where he served from 1978 to 1982.
Manzer gives a three-hour version of the tour called the “Tech Tour” twice a month on the Blueback, and the cost of each ticket is $15. There’s also a 45-minute version that’s geared more toward children. OMSI, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in November, has been home to the Blueback for 25 years.
During Manzer’s service on the Sam Houston, he and nearly 100 sailors would board the black sub and deploy from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. They stayed submerged for more a month at a time with the order of getting lost; the submarine carried ballistic missiles to launch in case of a conflict, and the Navy didn’t want it to be located by Soviet forces.
“We didn’t know where we were other than the people responsible for direct control of sub,” he said. “Even if we did, that would be classified.”
The Blueback is similar to the Sam Houston, partly because the Navy built them in overlapping times. But there’s one major difference: the Blueback was the last diesel sub to enter the U.S. Navy, while the Sam Houston was one of the first nuclear-powered subs.
Manzer’s job as a sonar technician was basically to be the eyes and ears of the submarine. He’d sit on a stool for hours with headphones and turn a red wheel that would connect to many hydrophones at the bottom of the sub, spanning 360 degrees, to sense anything around.
“With no windows, the sub has to rely on ears, much like a bat or dolphin,” he said.”You can do so much just listening.”
He heard snapping shrimp, moaning whales and the whirring propellers of passing ships during his patrols.
Manzer was born in Omaha, Neb., where he would read stories about World War II submarine exploits and was astonished by how the subs sank so many Japanese ships with a small fleet. So he joined the Navy out of high school.
“I knew I wanted to be on subs from the very beginning,” he said.
After his service in the Navy, he moved to Portland, and then to Vancouver in 2002. Manzer now lives in Salmon Creek and works at Riverview Community Bank as a commercial loan underwriter.
Every two years, Manzer flies to a meetup of former USS Sam Houston crew to “tell sea stories, lies and exaggerations,” he said with a smile and a laugh.
But for now, tourists are most likely to find him aboard the USS Blueback, which still smells of diesel, hydraulic fluid and sweat, as Manzer described it, although the latter isn’t as obvious.
His wife, Adena Manzer, has been aboard the submarine countless times with him and their two daughters. Manzer has told them many submarine stories, but she said her favorite is when the crew of the Sam Houston made makeshift sleds and waited for a drill that reared the sub’s nose downward toward the deep. The slope sent the sled skidding down the hallway with crew members on top.
Mark Manzer is taking a break from volunteer tours during the holidays while he works as a seasonal package delivery driver, but starting next year, he’ll be back to volunteer, giving the Tech Tours twice a month.
“I’ve always supported it,” Adena Manzer said. “He really likes the interaction with people.”