The teenage submarine hunter

As a teen at the height of the cold war, Gwen Settle was enlisted into a top-secret mission with some of the highest stakes imaginable.

By Tyler Olsen | November 2, 2022 |5:00 am

Gwen Settle was still a teenager when she was chosen for a top-secret navy mission.

Within a couple months of enlistment, she was working (and living) at a Nova Scotia base as part of a team of young women tasked with spotting any nuclear-armed Soviet submarines that might venture into Canadian waters.

Settle now lives in Abbotsford. On Nov. 7, she will talk about her Cold War experience, the importance of Nov. 11 in remembering both those who have served, and the reasons war is to be avoided in the first place.

We recently spoke to Settle about how and why she joined the navy and the crucial work she and her colleagues performed. To hear Settle’s story in person, register online by Nov. 5.

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A family tradition

The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

FVC: How and why did you enter the navy?

Settle: My dad was in the navy for 23 years. So was my uncle. My dad actually lied about his age and went in at 14 as a boy seaman and worked his way up through the ranks and finally became a lieutenant.

He was a gunnery officer and served on a Corvette that protected the convoys in the North Atlantic during the war. He’d been around the world a couple of times, and he had all kinds of adventures. When I was about six years old, and I was supposed to be upstairs in bed, I would sit on the landing of the stairs when dad had his navy buddies over and listen to their stories. And I thought that was so much adventure that I wanted to do that.

So that was always my goal. I was originally wanting to be a navy nurse because my mum had been a nurse. But I was a cadet in St. John Ambulance in Windsor, Ont.. and we won a competition so we got a tour through the hospital.

And everything was fine until we got to the emergency room. A little kid came in who needed stitches around his eye, and they ended up giving me oxygen. So forget the nursing part.

Gwen Settle was one of a relatively small group of female enlistees in the Canadian Navy in 1962. Settle is third from the right in the first row. 📷 Courtesy Gwen Settle

Settle ended up serving for one enlistment, from 1962 to 1965. After early training, and an evaluation, Settle was sent to Florida. Until she got there, she didn’t know what she had been selected to do. At the start of her training, she was instructed she could tell no one what she was being taught to do.

Settle: “It was special for us because we couldn’t talk about what we were studying when we weren’t in that special little area. So that left us free to enjoy the sunshine, and date.

We had to go study five days a week, and that three nights of study, but you’re young, it’s sunshine. We had a great time.

It was the spring of 1963 and the Cold War was in full swing. The previous October, the Soviets had deployed nuclear missiles to Cuba. That dramatic event is still talked about today—and is often cited as the closest the world came to full-blown nuclear war. One incident during the Cuban Missile Crisis saw an American ship force a Soviet submarine to the surface. When it surfaced, the Americans learned a shocking fact: the submarine was itself armed with a nuclear weapon.

The event made tracking such submarines even more urgent. And that, as it turned out, was the subject of Settle’s training in Florida, and the central focus of her job, even if she did not fully appreciate the seriousness at the situation at the time.

Settle: “Even though you’re in the middle of it. You don’t realize it at that young age—the whole big picture.

Besides, someone asked once: ‘Were you afraid of what was happening and everything?’ We’re 18/19 years old, we’re invincible. Of course we weren’t afraid. We were too dumb to be afraid.

In Oct. 1962, American ships forced a Soviet submarine to the surface of the Atlantic Ocean and discovered it was armed with nuclear missiles. 📷 US National Archives/USN 711200
In Oct. 1962, American ships forced a Soviet submarine to the surface of the Atlantic Ocean and discovered it was armed with nuclear missiles. 📷 US National Archives/USN 711200

In April of 1963, Settle’s training was complete and she was sent to a navy base in Shelburne, N.S.

FVC: Can you describe what you did there?

Settle: “We were down in a windowless building surrounded by barbed wire.

We search for Russian submarines on our equipment.

It was part of this SOSUS system, which the Americans had, which was a sound surveillance system.

It had hydrophones along the Atlantic floor, connected by huge cables to land facilities. Ours was the only one in the original system that was done by the Canadians.

The sounds would come in, be transformed into images on our equipment. We had a stylus that went back and forth and burned the images in a thermal paper.

There were banks with these pieces of equipment. We could analyze these and see whether they were two cycle or four cycle diesel engines. Or if it was a single straight line, approximately 21 decibels. That was an indication of a nuclear submarine. You couldn’t tell if it was a Russian sub or an American sub or what, but it was a nuclear submarine.

The paper took two and a half hours to go from the bottom up to the top. And because it moved across these different machines, we could estimate the course and speed and location of where some of these [vessels] were. If there was something that looked suspicious, then we would notify the officer on duty, and they would get in touch with the Naval Air Base, and they would send out their observation planes to see what they could see.

The job was trickier than just looking for a line on a piece of blank paper.

Settle: “It was a matter of observing your equipment all the time, seeing what you could see. Those hydrophones will pick up every engine sound.

And there were a lot of fishing fleets out there. And they just weren’t one or two ships, they were like, eight or 12 at a time. They would pick up regular engines, auxiliary engines, any type of sound that was there they would pick up.

There was a lot of noise there to kind of sift through and try and find.

And submarines had a habit of hiding underneath fishing fleets to mask their sounds. And sometimes too if there was a big storm at sea, there would be so much noise that the images would go just all white.

A story to tell, eventually

Settle would leave the navy a few years later for a new career adventure. But some of the lessons she learned, both about the military and friendship and humanity, would sit with her for decades.

It would be decades before the work she did was declassified and she could speak freely about the role she played in the Cold War. Now, though, she speaks regularly about her time in the military. On Nov. 7, Settle will give a talk, titled ‘Serving in Silence,’ at the Clearbrook Library in Abbotsford. You can register for the talk until Nov. 5.

Settle’s story was also recently featured in a Historica Canada video. You can watch it below.

 

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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