Submarine Warfare Insignia
One way to distinguish a United States Navy Submariner from any other sailor is to see the dolphins predominantly displayed on his or her uniform. Officers wear a gold version and enlisted wear a silver version. I have seen many stories over the years about the origin of the insigne but this article from the Navy’s All Hands Magazine seems to sum it up nicely.
The common name for the insigne is Dolphins although in my time, they were also known as “Fish”. That’s interesting in some ways since a dolphin is a mammal and not a fish.
Dolphins of course are mammals because they have all of the major characteristics of mammals; they breathe through lungs, they are warm-blooded, they produce milk for their offspring and they have hair. They also have blowholes and must return to the surface for air.
Where did the “Fish” come from?
I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that the name fish came from a smartass Submariner who was making a snarky comparison to the men who were fishy enough to volunteer to be locked up in a steel tube that submerges for extended periods of time. Submariners have a quirky sense of humor which can either be endearing or annoying depending on who is on the receiving end of their brand of humor.
I have heard many times that once you wear the dolphins, they are forever emblazoned into your heart. I can’t speak for all submariners, but it is certainly true for me. I am proud of the American flag and I am a humble servant of the Risen Lord. But there is a part of me that will always be a part of a very unique family known as Submariners.
One caveat: Like all good Naval Yarns that are passed along, this one probably has some elements of truth to it and some conjecture. I will leave it up to historians to decide which is which.
Little did I realize when I posted this that it would generate such “critical” acclaim.
This is now the first of a two part article. The rest of the story is found here:
ALL Hands Magazine JANUARY 1961
“A high point in the career of many a Navy man occurs when he becomes a qualified submariner. At that time he is authorized to wear dolphins.
The correct name for the dolphins is submarine insigne. It is one of the items of uniform included under the category of breast insignia, including naval aviator, aviation observer and parachutist insignia, among others.
The submarine insignia came into use in the Navy nearly 37 years ago. It was on 13 Jun 1923 that the commander of a New London-based submarine division, took the first official steps—by way of an official recommendation. That officer was Captain Ernest Joseph King, USN, who later became Commander-in-Chief U.S. Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations.
Captain King recommended that a distinguishing device be adopted for qualified submariners, both officers and enlisted men. With his recommendation he submitted a pen-and-ink sketch of his own. The sketch showed a shield mounted on the beam ends of a submarine, with dolphins forward of, and abaft, the conning tower. The recommendation was strongly endorsed by Commander, Submarine Divisions, Atlantic Fleet, the following day and sent on to the Chief of the old Bureau of Navigation.
Over the next several months the Bureau solicited additional designs from various sources. Several were submitted. Some combined a submarine-and-shark motif. Some showed submarines and dolphins. Some used a shield design.
On 20 March 1924, the Chief of BuNav recommended to the Secretary of the Navy that the dolphin design be adopted. A few days later the recommendation was accepted by Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Acting SecNav.
The final design shows the bow view of a submarine proceeding on the surface of the sea. Her bow planes care rigged for diving. Flanking the submarine are stylized dolphins in horizontal position with their heads resting on the upper edge of the bow planes.
As with other breast insignia (and enlisted distinguishing marks), qualifications are outlined in the Bupers Manual, while the method of wearing, a description of the design and an illustration of the design are to be found in Uniform Regulations.
The submarine insignia in the early days were awarded only to those officers qualified for submarine command. Later the criteria became “Qualified in sub- marines.” Also in the early days, the insignia were worn (both by officers and enlisted men) only when attached to submarines or submarine organizations. Under current directives however, once qualified, the insignia may be worn regardless of the duty being performed.
As first authorized, the insigne for officers was a bronze, gold-plated metal pin. Later, both a gold embroidered insigne and a gold-color metal pin became authorized.
Today enlisted submariners may wear either a silver-color metal pin or an embroidered dolphin. The latter is either white or blue, depending on the uniform worn.
Originally, the embroidered insigne was worn on an enlisted man’s right sleeve, midway between the wrist and elbow. To day it is worn on the left breast.”
ALL Hands Magazine JANUARY 1961
Update from 2022:
This was the first of four parts to this story. The following links will take you to the other three: