Watches in the military have been around since the beginning of recorded time.
The Jews, like the Greeks and Romans, divided the night into military watches instead of hours, each watch representing the period for which sentinels or pickets remained on duty. The proper Jewish reckoning recognized only three such watches, entitled the first or “beginning of the watches,” La 2:19 the middle watch, Jud 7:19 and the morning watch. Ex 14:24; 1Sa 11:11 These would last respectively from sunset to 10 P.M.; from 10 P.M. to 2 A.M.; and from 2 A.M. to sunrise. After the establishment of the Roman supremacy, the number of watches was increased to four, which were described either according to their numerical order, as in the case of the “fourth watch,” Mt 14:25 or by the terms “even,” “midnight,” “cock-crowing” and “morning.” Mr 13:35 These terminated respectively at 9 P.M., midnight, 3 A.M. and 6 A.M.
You have the next watch
The Navy submarine force is experimenting with a new concept – the 24 hour day. Since the earliest days of the 1960s, submariners have been operating primarily on 18-hour days while deployed. This schedule created a very unique way of living for the thousands of submariners who fought the Cold War in their steel boats. Their world was ruled by a direct relationship with six hour watches punctuated by scheduled meal times and the ever present fluorescent lighting. There were only two breaks in the lighting scheme. First, crews berthing was darkened and the only punctuation to that darkness was the red lighting that was carefully shielded. The second break was the hours that matched the passing of the night in the control room where rig for red ruled until periscope depth was approached.
“Chief of the watch, rig for black”
In those days, the use of an optical periscope was critical to safe operations when the boat came above its operating depth. There were lots of reasons to come that far up. Communications, basic housekeeping, periodic updates with the command structure all dictated the planned and orchestrated breaking of the stealth the boats were known for. The officer of the deck needed to be acclimated to the lighting conditions he would face as the periscope raised to the surface, It is a rue of that age of submarines that whose eyes are the two most important eyes on the boat at the time. Truthfully, it was only one eye that stood between success and failure.
Meanwhile, down in berthing…
The only rest and the only respite you get is the time you spend in your bunk. As a young man, I found out that rack choices were ruled by a “caste” system. The longer you were on board, the more qualified you were, the closer you were to the ruling power (affectionately known as the Chief of the Boat) the better your sleeping arrangement. Frankly, for an enlisted guy on any submarine of the day, your best hope is to get a rack that doesn’t suck too much. 21 man berthing, the nine man, and the general berthing areas all have their own special charm. All of the bunks were essentially the same from a size perspective. They were little more than a ¾ steel coffin with a bunk pan below and an EAB space behind your shoe locker.
If you weren’t hot racking, you had some reasonable chance of sleeping under a wool blanket surrounded by mostly clean white sheets. I liked a couple of standard Navy pillows since I have always struggled with how my head should be. I still struggle with that today. The little air register was an important feature too since once my curtain was closed, it provided a steady source of air to my face. I am not sure about others, but that little air vent actually became my early warning device… when the ventilation system was shut down, it was a precursor to the drill or actual casualty that was just about to be announced on the 1MC speaker (conveniently located a few feet from my head on any of the five boats I served on).
The only barrier between you and the intrusive and ever present world of the boat is a small cloth curtain. I think it was fire resistant. I know it was strong enough to keep my dreams away from the rest of the people in my berthing area. Some of the dreams I had were so powerful. About halfway through the patrol when I was still sleeping soundly (between drills) I had some of the most powerful dreams a person could have. I can almost remember some of the more intimate ones… and certainly some fo the scariest ones. That curtain was like a shield. There were many times you prayed. There were many times you prayed that they would contain the sound coming from inside.
The sound you most feared and came to learn to hate was the sound made as the messenger of the watch as they pulled or ripped the curtain open. I can’t write a word to describe that sound but anyone who was ever woken from a dream about riding in a Mustang on a blue sky day with a hot looking blonde in a tube top next to them needs no explanation. Or the shock of waking up to a little flashlight in your eyes that wipes out the kiss you were just about to connect with. Maybe you had spent the last few days working on a failed piece of equipment that was vital to the operation you were engaged in. I can honestly admit all these years later that there were a few times when I wanted to reach my hand out and grab the throat of the poor messenger. It is good that their training included a healthy sprinkling of fear for the men who they were bringing their greetings too.
You have the next watch
A submarine on patrol or mission did not have an “off time”. The mission was critical and the boat was far away from home and family. The blonde in the Mustang would have to wait. The guy before you had been doing his job (regardless of what it was) for the past six hours and was ready for relief. Sometimes, it was longer than six. Port and Starboard watches were also body breaking events that were required from time to time. In either case, it was your turn to man the watch. In an age old custom that dates to the beginning of the sea services. You can’t shut the boat down. You have to keep moving forward.
You get up, you might put on your poopy suit (or whatever you called it) and drag yourself to the head for the basic functions. Maybe you just wandered out in whatever you slept in. Shit shower shave. Okay, maybe skip the shave. On most days, skip the shower too. It just took too long to get past the guys who really needed a shower. Then off to the mess to see what was cooking. All the while thinking, how long can this go on? How long can I keep this up?
Eventually, you make it to the place where you will relieve the watch. A mumbled turnover. Tasks done. Tasks to be done. Repeat backs where needed and then a report to the Chief in charge.
This is Petty Officer ^^^^^ . I have the watch…
I have no idea what a 24 hour day will do for the men and women of the new submarine fleet. I am sure that smarter people than me will give it some study and thought. I wish them all well. But deep in my heart, I know that the sound of a curtain being ripped open will ultimately be a hated sound no matter what the length of the day.
When I hear some of the guys I work with now complain about how hard their lives are, I try not to chuckle. The truth is that unless they ever took a watch, they will never know how much of a sacrifice my brothers made to defend this country. To the younger generation, our countries future depends on a great part to your efforts and your ability to stand that watch. I pray for your safety and your success.