Each generation of Submariners benefits from the work of the precious generation.
As a young man, I had no idea what it would be like to serve on a submarine. Despite growing up in the Steel Valley of Pittsburgh and its suburbs where the birth of the nuclear Navy really occurred, I had no one in my family to talk to about boats. So when I got orders in December 1972 to go to submarine school, I only had a vague idea of what I was getting into.
I had a reasonable understanding of the Navy since I was a third generation navy volunteer. Grandfather Mac served on a coast defense monitor on the east coast in the First World War and Dad had sailed away to the western Pacific in the closing months of World War Two. Joining at seventeen seemed like a natural thing to do. But I think my mind was set on something closer to McHale’s Navy than Operation Pacific. Frankly, I wasn’t even sure I could pass the tests since I had been claustrophobic as a kid.
But as Christmas 1972 came and went, I prepared for my role as a future submariner. The coming months in New London would certainly open my eyes and get me ready for my small role in winning the Cold War.
Long before I was even aware of what a submarine was, the Navy was building a force of men and machines that would change the game completely. The renaissance of submarine warfare began in the late 1950s while I was still a very young child. The technology of the day would test submariners in ways never thought possible before the advent of nuclear technology. But no matter what the technology, the need for good men was never more obvious.
This small excerpt is from the January 1958 ALL HANDS Magazine.
Vice Admiral Momsen was one of the pioneers of the force and a man with tremendous vision. The United States Submarine force owes him an eternal gratitude for his work and his passion. This small story about his life says so much and captures the essence of a true pioneer. The time line he presents is fascinating and really shows how difficult the early submariners lives were.
Life in Submarines: Circa 1958
BY THE TIME he’s qualified, the individual has become accustomed to the submariner’s way of life.
He’s gotten used to the idea of seeing nothing but the inside of the ship for days or weeks at a time; he’s learned to get along with his shipmates; he’s had considerable practice at acey-deucy, checkers, chess, reading or whatever pastime occupies his spare time; he’s found room for his gear; he’s come to regard a big, perfectly prepared steak dinner as just another meal; he knows exactly where to find the dividing line between grim, business like efficiency and the spot for a bit of relaxing banter; and he’s amused at the outsider’s notion that sub- marine life is like living in a telephone booth with 10 or 12 other people and a St. Bernard dog.
Of course, in the newer subs—and especially the SS(N)s—things aren’t quite that crowded. But, as one Submariner said: “They’ll come up with something that’ll take up all that living space.”
Even the oldest sub now in commission is practically a floating palace compared to those the real old timers knew.
Here’s how VADM C. B. Momsen, USN (Ret.), described those days at the recent commissioning of USS Barbel (SS 580):
“IT was NEARLY 38 years ago that I volunteered for submarine duty.
“The captain of USS Maryland informed me that only the scum of the Navy go to submarines.’ I soon found out that there was plenty of scum all right, but it was not in the hearts of those stout submariners that I found in New London.
“Words fail me when I try to give a true picture of those early submarines.
“They were slow. They were clammy. They smelled. The engines were rickety. The batteries looked like a Fourth of July sparkler. There was no refrigeration, no bathing facilities, no toilets. Torpedo fire control methods were primitive and navigation facilities were almost nil.
“We submariners started a long hard fight to improve our material. It took seven years to get electric ice boxes . . . It took eight years before we got an angle solver with which to aim torpedoes. It took 14 years to get air-conditioning and 18 years to get a diesel engine that could operate reliably—and 32 years to get a true submarine.”
One thing that the modern submariner has in common with the old timer is esprit de corps. From the time a submariner starts his initial training until his retirement, this rubs off on him. Despite the fact that the Navy’s underwater arm is fairly young, the submariners have a lot of tradition and a fine record—and they make sure the newcomer knows it.”
I think Momsen would be thrilled to see the progress that has been made. Submarine duty today is one of the premier jobs in the Navy. The inclusion of women has been a demonstration of the character of the submarine leadership. Today (December 28th 2018) I received word that one of the female pioneers has received her “Fish”. I met this young lady at a Navy Ball Dinner in Pittsburgh a few years ago and spotted the Patrol Pin on her dress blues. After I introduced myself to Sam, I found out that she was planning on becoming a nuclear engineer. Within a few minutes of talking to her, I was absolutely convinced that she was part of the future.
Hard working, bright, more intelligent than I think I could ever aspire to be, this woman would someday do something amazing.
She has proved all of us correct that know her. She has taken on the monster of qualifications as an officer on a nuclear submarine and bested the monster. She also informed us that she will be gaining a new assignment that is near and dear to our hearts.
I never had kids. I have had a lot over the years that I considered my kids and I love them all dearly. But I have never been prouder of any of my sailors than I am of Sam today. She is part of the future and I am honored to call her friend.