I’d like to be a submariner. How hard could that be?

Caution: Some salty language may be found in this post

I belong to a number of very fine military organizations that all have special purposes. The Navy League for instance is a group that supports and promotes the sea services. I think this is important because of the dangers still present in the world at large. The American Legion and VFW both focus on active duty and veterans benefits so they are also near and dear to my heart. MOAA (Military Officers Association of America) is a fine group of leaders who help to ensure Congress doesn’t spend all of its money giving themselves haircuts and special deals that average citizens will never imagine.

But the organization that really holds my heart is the USSVI –

United States Submarines Veterans, Inc.

Riding high 2

I have belonged to the group for a number of years but wasn’t very active until recently. Work and home obligations have kept me pretty busy but this past year I have had a chance to remind myself that I  really like being around submariners. While I share strong bonds with a number of people for different reasons, being a part of this brotherhood has been the strongest of all. Its not a military thing. Most of the submariners I have known through the years are strong patriots but while on active duty probably bristled under the yoke of a militaristic setting. Submariners are actually pretty individualistic in their own way bordering on a bit rebellious against some kinds of authority. But they put that all on hold when it comes to the mission. If I were ever in a bad place, I would want to be surrounded by submariners.

Bob Hazen and Ken Pyatt

I know from speaking to men of different generations that their journey was slightly different than mine. Some will tell you it was harder and some will tell you it was not hard enough. Its a funny phenomenon that as you get older, the “kids” that come behind you have it so much easier and no one’s journey is as tough as yours was. I chuckle a bit when the Diesel Boat Forever (DBF) crowd talk about their hardships. I don’t chuckle because I think they are exaggerating. Its only because many of them think that nuke boat sailors lived in pampered luxury boats that rarely encountered sacrifices. After serving on five boats that had their share of challenges, I can assure you that each generation has been tested and proved well qualified.

So how hard could it be to become one of the most elite group in the world?

SSBN 598 A gang

It depends.

Most of the guys I knew and served with were already on the high end of the gene pool. They tested better during classification, they seemed to adapt to unusual lifestyles with ease, and they had the ability to suspend their fears long enough to sign not once but twice as a volunteer. While I am sure there are some who will claim that they were “drafted” or “forced” into the pipeline, the rule has always been that only volunteers were able to be trained and tested as potential submariners. Submarine school and technical specialty schools were one way of getting to your first boat but back in the day that also included testing (both physical and mental). By the time I got to my first boat, the Navy had 73 years of experience in weeding out the wannabes from the will-bee’s.

Getting there is only half of the struggle. Staying there is quite another. From the minute you get there, you are an air stealing nub that has not yet proven yourself worthy of even the simple pleasures like having your own bunk or watching a movie. Your job is to do the most menial tasks like peeling potato’s or scrubbing the shitters in the head. Depending on your rate, you may even find yourself inside a shit tank or even worse a potable water tank crawling around and doing tasks that are indescribable. Torpedo men routinely found themselves inside the long cavity where a water slug had just met its demise, rags in hand while the ocean was a mere few feet away on the other side of a valve. You had to be careful where you sat on the mess decks so you didn’t incur the wrath of some “Qualified” man who could make your life even more miserable than it already was.

Salvation came from the ink in a standard Navy ball pen.

As you learned more and more about the many systems that made the submarine a killing machine, you gathered more and more of the precious signatures on your qual card. Hand over hand, piping systems were traced, valves were memorized, electricity was diagrammed and damage control became not just a second nature but a first. This whole effort ended up with you facing a Qual Board made up of men who had themselves been tested. Grizzled old Chiefs and an Officer would be the deciding factor of whether you would remain lower than whale shit or could stand up tall with a new set of silver dolphins on your chest.

My board was probably the hardest test I ever could have had. I had the A gang chief, the TM chief and the Navigator. At the end of the two hours, I had two lookups. By midnight on that day in 1974, I had a completed qual card with all of the required signatures attached. Shortly after that, I received my dolphins and was a Submariner. Men who had been my tormenters now were my brothers. There was alcohol involved at one point after the boat returned to port. My chest was a bit sore from the “anointing” those poor fish received at the hands of a number of sailors.

Artie Quals

In all the years since, I have had many fine things in my life. A beautiful wife. Some great successes that were personal as well as professionally satisfying. My Zombie room is flanked with certificates from a lifetime of service in and out of the Navy. But the one thing I am proudest of is those silver dolphins. I am also proud of those who share the honor and distinction. While it may be difficult to understand to an outsider, every man who has ever earned his “Fish” knows exactly what it took.

Mister Mac


By the way, if you are a submariner, you really need to belong to the USSVI

64 thoughts on “I’d like to be a submariner. How hard could that be?

      1. Back in Da Burgh? Me too but I always called it “tacking” the fish onto and into your chest. And don’t stop drinking from the pitcher as your new brothers will start refilling it for you.

  1. thanks for the write-up, mate. It’s a strange feeling, that sometimes goes undercover for a while, but at the oddest times snaps back in place like a lens – the perspective of having qualified subs is different than any other job I’ve had, ever. Your writing here reminds me of that. I write about these things from time to time too. I enjoyed this one. Thanks for posting it.

    1. Thanks. I was watching Sixty Minutes earlier this evening and they were covering veterans who were having a rough time coming home. I feel blessed that my service was surrounded by guys who went the distance for me and for their country

      1. mstrmac711. Thanks for an article that takes me back more than four decades. Given a chance, I’d jump at being on the boats again, even though I’ve been retired for 24 years now. As another brother here says, “Submarines one, Submarines twice!……………

        EMCM(SS) Lee Oslund USN, Ret.

        USS Dace (SSN-607) Qual boat (1974-1976)
        USS George C. Marshall (SSBN-654) Gold
        USS William H. Bates (SSN-680)
        USS Pintado (SSN-672)
        USS Haddock (SSN-621)

  2. If you’re interested, have a peek at themightyviking.com. Click on the “submarine” category of blog post.

  3. Great article brother. Im the COB of the USS Alaska SSBN 732 Blue. Im going to read this to my Sailors. Thank you for your service. Submarines once Submarines twice……

  4. Nicely done, shipmate. More than two and a half decades have passed now since I earned my fish on Aug. 14, ’86… but not a day goes by that I don’t draw from that fantastic experience of serving with the finest. The older I get, the more I have come to appreciate it. I laughed out loud at your line… “…you may even find yourself inside a shit tank or even worse a potable water tank crawling around and doing tasks that are indescribable.” Been there and done both… it’s amazing what grows in those tanks! Thanks again! Jody “Wayne” Durham, MM2/SS (A-Gang), USS Los Angeles (SSN-688), ’85-’88

  5. I NEED to join! Qualified on the George C. Marshall SSBN 654 Gold in 1969. How do I join? I live in a small town in Central Oregon and 40 miles from any significant population. Live in La Pine.

      1. Roy T. Coverdill EM1(SS) SSBN 620 Gold 1978-1981Qualified Dec 78

    1. Here are the bases in Oregon…. Blueback, Central Oregon and Inland Empire…also USSVI.org will get you there.

    2. You can become a member at large if you don’t have a local chapter. Go to USSVI.org for membership details.

  6. Truer words never written, been a member of subvets Groton a long time, every time I see a brother wearing his fish on a vest at biker rallies, we stop and talk sub shop. though we know exactly what we are saying those around think it is a foreign language,

    1. The ‘green mermaid hair’ of the potable water tanks.. A living entity…

      S.Stevens ST1/ss USN Ret (95)
      Qualified Oct 83: USS Batfish SSN 681
      Plankowner:. USS Providence SSN 719
      Plankowner: USS Boise SSN 764

  7. I luved the write up, you hit the nail on the head, I recieved my Dolphins in 1975 on board the USS Simion Boliver SSBN 641, and in my 20yr carreer served on 4 boats total (2 Boomers and 2 Fast Boats), and your right when we try to tell others what we did they look at you with a blank stare. We also belong to the USSVI and luv it, able to talk with others that know exeactly what you did and can relate. Thanks for put this story out there.

    1. You are welcome. We have a great fraternity and a proud heritage. I am going to my first National convention for USSVI this year and I am looking forward to seeing some of my brothers in person

  8. Thanks for an interesting read. I’m a retired surface engineer, but spent a few years repairing attack boats in San Diego while stationed on USS Dixon. My nephew is a current bubblehead and my Dad spent most of his life as a civilian engineer in the Polaris to Trident missile programs. Nothing but respect for what you guys do down under!

    1. Larry, I think you for yours and your families contribution to the country’s defense. We are all a team and I don’t believe that the country at large understands the sacrifices so many have made to keep them safe.

  9. I really enjoyed your article. I’ve always felt that getting ‘Qualified’ was one of the proudest moments of my life. Your article brought back many memories for me. Thanks for your Service and for writing this. I am a member of USSVI, Long Island Base for 40 years. I road the USS Trout SS566 and Qualified in 1971. I was a TM and proud of it. Thanks,again.

  10. As to how hard it was to become a Submariner,
    I went through 3 EXTENSIVE interviews BEFORE i was invited to join the rest of the recruits in the NORMAL recruitment process……….

  11. Excellent writing. I qualified on the Groton SSN694 in 1989. My closest friends are guys I served with and their families.

  12. Great article! I have always called submariners :”THE BREAVEST OF THE BRAVE”! One of the greatest moments of my life was to have Thanksgiving dinner on the USS ALABAMA as a very proud father. GOD BLESS YOU ALL!

  13. Outstanding brother – I was able to serve on surface ships then after seeing the light I was on diesels boats (Redfish)- then on nuke’s (plank owner on Kam).. Pride Runs Deep…

  14. USS Nathan Hale SSBN 623 1980-1981, USS Thomas Jefferson SS(B)N 618 1981-1983, USS L. Mendel Rivers SSN 686 1983-1986. EMC(SS-DV Larry Strickland. Best of times, worst of times. Still live lessons learned every day from growing up in submarines.

  15. Good Stuff MSTRMAC711, you come from a long line of the finest.
    Qualified 1966, USS Ronquil SS396

  16. Mister Mac….great article…USSVI Life Member….Member in the Holland Club..qualified Nov 1964 USS way to COB on USS Bonefish (SS582) MMCM (SS/DV) much continued success in your writings…

  17. I miss hearing the old stories and all of my fellow shipmates who moved on or even passed away.
    Thank you to all of the men who sacrificed their lives and family time for us to be free.

  18. Loved the article. I am really feeling old here as I qualified in 1959 on the USS TIRANTE (SS420) in Key West, Fl. I had to swim to the bottom of Pier 1 at KWEST to retrieve my Dolphins. Served on USS JOHN MARSHALL (SSBN611)(B) in 1966 (YN2). Left the Navy in 1969 (YN1) for personal reasons. Loved every minute of the nearly 12 years. Ranks right up there with the best times of my life. I also want to thank you and all the other readers for your service.

    1. Was on-board Feb 1959 – Aug. 1960. My 1st Dolphins.. then on to (plank owner) SSBN608, SSBN624….. last Boat SSBN641

  19. Well said. I spent 24 years in as an ESM Technician. Retired as a ETC(SS). Qualified in 1982 on the USS Honolulu (SSN-718), Also served on the USS Louisville (SSN-724), COMSUBDEVGRUONE Detachment Sierra, USS Puffer (SSN-652), USS Richard B. Russell (SSN-687), USS Finback (SSN-670), USS Columbus (SSN-762), USS Olympia (SSN-717), USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23) Plankowner and USS Santa Fe (SSN-763). This was a well written article. I am a life member of USSVI Groton Base.

    1. Bi Nancy. I can’t really answer that question. I belong to Sub Vets because we have a pretty active chapter in Pittsburgh. I am also pretty active in the Pittsburgh Navy League. To the best of my knowledge, there are no local chapters for SL.

  20. Well written – well said! I qualified in 1963 on USS ROCK(SS-274) – subsequently served on USS SEGUNDO(SS-398); USS DIODON(SS-349); USS CUSK(SS-348); USS TROUT(SS-566); and retired from USS GUDGEON(SS-567). Very rewarding career – would do it again if called upon.

  21. Great article! Outside the boat community, few can understand or much less appreciate, what the “qual” process is about. Just being assigned to a boat does NOT make you a submariner. Just joined USSVI a few months ago; already belong to VFW and Legion. ET1 (SS) SSN 673 (coner). Note: Try explaining what a “coner” is to someone who asks what you did in the Navy.

  22. I had dinner last night with my phin brother. We both qualified on Grampus (SS523) in ’67. Wives hoped we could limit talking about those times. We couldn’t and didn’t. Proudest and best times ever. They linked me to this sight. Great Stuff. Thanks.

  23. Great writeup. I also have returned to my submarine brethren in the recent times. Reading your post brought back a lot of memories. MM1 (ss) SSBN 609 Blue, got my dolphins in Dec. 1978.

  24. Great article; I volunteered for sub duty in 1962 and went through the nub life until 1963 when I drank my fish in Gitmo. Fought to change rating from Steward to Machinist’s Mate. Then became a Navy Diver an ALPO,, a Chief Survival Instructor and plank owner of two SSN’s. Life has been GREAT as a submariner and will do it again in a New York minute. After navy retirement, worked at General Dynamics as chief Trident Logistics Analyst program.

    1. Linda, thanks for raising a son that knew how to choose well. Serving this nation will always be one of my greatest honors.

      Mister Mac

  25. Blue crew SSBN-601 USS Abe Lincoln 1961 after nuc school, qualified in 1962 USS Skipjack SSN-585. Member of USSVI, Holland Club.

    You are correct that “wanting” and “getting” are two entirely different exercises in the Submarine Navy. Takes effort and a long dose of healthy abuse before you are considered “Crew”–as it should be! Saw several seabags on the pier because they “couldn’t take it anymore”, whatever that meant? Didn’t want them responsible for my life anyway.

    This is where the rubber meets the road–every man out of the 100 or so on board is responsible for each other’s life. I know i don’t want someone not capable looking after me. In a serious event (and they happened) I want total commitment, focus and complete knowledge of the issue handling the process.

    Submarines forever!

    Fred Ferguson
    MM-1(SS) ELT

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