Imagine yourself on the periscope of a submarine about to shoot a torpedo. You can feel the adrenaline coursing through your veins and there is an icy sheen of sweat on your forehead. You call out for the Quartermaster to take your mark and he rushes over to note the direction. The control room crew is quiet, only the sounds of the rushing water past the hull as you near your prey. You call out for fire control to take a final solution and say “On my mark, tubes 1 and 2 ….”
“Mac, hey Mac… wake up buddy, its time for you to get up to the galley before the cook gets ticked at you.” And just like that you go from being a steely eyed killer of the deep to a steel wool killer of the grease.
I had a lot of ideas what submarine life was like by watching old WW2 films with John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and Clark Gable. This was in the age before Tom Clancy so the WW 2 depictions were my frame of reference. Who can ever forget the tension between Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens as they each struggle to defeat the other in “The Enemy Below”? Or Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster wrestling for control of the sub as the captain obsesses on obtaining his revenge against the Japanese sub that sank his previous boat. And anyone who is qualified probably has their movie card punched for that cheesy classic by Ronald and Nancy Reagan – Hellcats of the Navy.
Or this exchange between Bogart and a young sea cadet on the Murmansk Run trying to dodge German subs:
Lt. Joe Rossi: These nights are killers, aren’t they?
Cadet Robert Parker: Yeah, I lie in my bunk with my clothes on and try to sleep, but every time that engine slows, my heart speeds up. In time, I think I can train myself to have an iron nerve, like you have.
Lt. Joe Rossi: Yeah, let me tell you something about my “iron nerve,” son. It’s made of rubber just like everybody else’s, so it’ll stretch when you need it. People got a funny idea that being brave is not being scared. I don’t know, I always figured, you weren’t scared, there’s nothing to be brave about. The trick is, how much scaring can you take? I got an idea you can take plenty.”
Meanwhile, back on the George-fish, there is a scullery full of dishes with my name on it. Mess cook duty normally went to the newest guys that weren’t Petty Officers (although they did make exceptions from time to time). I think the only ones that never cranked back in the day were the Nucs. (My nephew, Theo the Nuc informed me that that is not the case anymore. I just hope he knew the difference between cabbage and lettuce unlike his Dad but that’s another story). Obviously that caused a bit of tension between the forward and aft guys but it never bothered me since I figured out pretty quickly that I was in the lowest form of human life that could exist… a non-qual. Oh wait, I should clarify that: an air breathing food consuming non-essential lower than whale poop non-qual.
So off to the scullery I went. No poopy suits in there, only dungarees and white tee shirts. The scullery on the GW was a small place with barely enough room to move the dirty dishes and pans around. You had to be quick during the main meals or the dishes would pile up at the window from the boys finishing their dinners. There was no garbage grinder so all that went into a round chute with a wet bag can underneath. The trick was to keep it as empty as possible to start the watch since many meals ended up producing a lot of waste.
You kind of developed a rhythm after the first couple of days. I actually think I learned some of my lean thinking from trying to figure out a better way to process the dishes. Batch processing always resulted in bottlenecks and those resulted in the right kind of dishes or silverware not being ready at the right time. So you learned to keep a balanced flow through the deep sink and the hot water rinse.
One other thing about the older boats, there was no dishwashing machine. You washed and rinsed everything by hand. The toughest part was retrieving the basket from the heated rinse sink. Man that thing was HOT. You had a pair of black rubber gloves (electricians gloves) and every once in a while at periscope depth you would get a real surprise when the water came in over the top of the gloves.
Probably the only worse thing than being the scullery maid was on garbage day. All garbage had to leave the ship one way or another and the TDU (Trash Disposal Unit) was the preferred method. Dry trash was compacted into metal cans and weighted to sink. Wet bags were also weighted and loaded during TDU ops. An A-Ganger would actually load and fire the TDU but the mess cooks assisted in getting things lined up so that the operation could be done swiftly and quietly.
From the Shipboard Pollution Control Regulations:
“Waste that is discharged overboard must either be pumped out against the ambient sea pressure or blown out using pressurized air. Waste materials are collected and periodically discharged. The potential impact on ship safety associated with opening valves to the sea and on ship detectability by running pumps or blowing tanks to the sea makes waste disposal operations a significant event. Mission considerations may force waste disposal operations to be suspended for some period of time.
Dry waste is consolidated using a trash compactor and then placed in special cans. These cans are fabricated on board from prepunched galvanized, perforated steel sheets, using a roller tool. The resulting cans are 28.5 inches long and 9 inches in diameter. They have metal tops and bottom caps. Metal weights are added to ensure that the cans will go to the bottom. The cans are ejected from the submarine using a trash disposal unit (TDU), which is a long cylindrical, vertical tube connected to the ocean through a ball valve. Several cans are placed atop one another in the TDU, the top of the TDU is sealed by closing a pressure cap, the ball valve is opened, and the cans ejected through a combination of gravity and air pressure.”
Sounds pretty simple right? As long as there weren’t any floaters, life was good.
The one day I learned to hate the most was the day we had to start getting rid of the fresh eggs that were stored in the torpedo room. The cool bilge areas in the torpedo room were ideal temporary storage places for the large gross of eggs that had been carefully loaded before patrol. But at some point, they would start reaching their “maturity” level and an evil popping sound led to a more evil sulphurous smell. Multiply that by a box with 144 of the devilish brew and you had a horrendous reason to get rid of the whole lot.
So the cranks would carry the reeking boxes up to that tiny little scullery room and start wet bagging them. For a while, you would try to show what a manly man you were and not use an EAB (emergency breathing device). But even the strongest among us finally weakened as the stench permeated the galley. The A-gangers also hated this task since it always seemed to take so long. But we finally managed to liberate all of them and face a few months of powdered substitute (which never in my memory actually stunk in the olfactory sense of the word.)
One side benefit of cranking was the mid watch tour. It was tough getting used to the change in sleep patters but considering the fact that we actually lived in 18 hour cycles most of the time, it wasn’t too bad. On the mid watch, the older guys who came off watch would watch movies and occasionally if you were really quiet you could sneak a peek or two as well. But about mid-way through patrol I noticed that a lot of the old timers couldn’t sleep so well so I always made sure I had some pie and coffee ready for them. You see, these were the guys who could teach me about the boat and after I learned it sign my qual card.
I knew the only way out of this mess was to get qualified as quickly as possible. So I got up early and stayed up late and used every chance I could to learn all about the boat. To this day I can tell you where TD 598 was but for the life of me I have no idea why knowing where an isolation valve for a gauge was so danged important to anyone.
I qualified in less than 90 days but am proudest that my nephew Artie qualified in even less than that using my technique years later.
Some of the best days of my life were in that galley, I just took a while to figure it out. Like everywhere else on the boat, people were honest and could be counted on in a pinch. I learned that service to others is a pathway to higher goals. I thank all the Commissary men and Stewards who took the time to teach me those lessons.