1967 – Five years before I raised my right hand for the very first time
This article was written for the Navy Magazine ALL HANDS. As I look back at the history of the submarine force and what was happening during 1967, it is easy to understand why the Navy would want to put such a positive spin on submarine duty.
There had been an incredible push to build not only the ballistic missile submarines in order to counter the Soviet “threat” but many fast attack submarines were entering the fleet as well. Along with this expansion, conventional diesel boats were still the workhorses of the seas in trying to counter a growing Soviet fleet.
I can only imagine that finding enough men willing to volunteer had to be a challenge. The war in Vietnam was beginning to make all service life difficult as more and more men were drafted into the Army and the country was slowly turning its back on the military. By 1967, the daily news broadcasts were being swamped with negative stories about Southeast Asia and the rest of the news was just as bad since it told stories of a growing Civil Rights movement that extended form the streets of the big cities to the college campuses.
The FBM fleet by 1967 required a growing commitment of men and resources. In less than ten years, the country went from having a few ships like the Halibut that could clumsily launch five Regulus missiles for short distances to having 41 ballistic missile submarines that could each launch 16 missiles over a thousand miles. Plus, each of these boats were designed for extended patrols that lasted months instead of weeks and required two crews.
Life on submarines had always been challenging and certainly dangerous. But the introduction of these new giants added whole new levels of complexity and need for resources.
Finding this article on why Navymen volunteer for submarine duty was a real joy. The article was written by a Journalist for the Navy who interviewed and recorded the reactions of actual submariners. What was most surprising was that according to the article, all of the men interviewed were submariners from diesel boats.
Why Do NAVYMEN volunteer for the Submarine Service?
What makes a sailor willingly submit himself to the rigors of the confining and often uncomfortable life of a submariner?
The men of the U. S. underseas fleet claim they put in longer hours, are separated more from their families, must perform more diversified tasks and take greater risks than their surface counterparts. They live in an atmosphere where there is not enough water for daily showers at sea, where sleeping quarters are sparse and overcrowded, and where daily living can be rigorous as well as demanding.
Yet each year thousands of Navy men – seamen apprentices and veteran salts alike—volunteer for submarine duty. What’s more, those who volunteer seldom change their minds. The dropout rate is practically nil. Why?
Here are the opinions of men in Submarine Flotilla One. It is a sampling of some 35 crewmembers from the following submarines: USS Bream (AGSS 243), Baya (AGSS 318), Caiman (SS 323), Diodon (SS 349), Razorback (SS 394), Redfish (AGSS 395), and Salmon (SS 573).
Most of the men who took part in the survey decided upon the Submarine Service after studying all the Navy’s programs. More often than not their initial interest was sparked by friends who had served in—or were at the time serving in—submarines.
BUT what brought about the ultimate decision?
Most gave more than one reason.
Some were lured by the call of adventure, and the opportunities available to seek greater challenges and to tackle more responsibility. Others sought a more rounded career.
For 20 per cent, the idea of being part of an organization so well endowed with prestige, esprit de corps, and high morale was appealing. That image is the result, they say, of the need for team-work and close-living compatibility, coupled with the reputation built through the deeds of their WW II predecessors.
And it is significant to note that nearly 46 per cent were attracted by the higher pay afforded submariners, as well as for some of the foregoing reasons. That extra pay, it goes without saying, was a motivating factor.
What with life the way it is aboard a submarine, how does one adjust?
The overwhelming reply was that submariners must first learn to adjust to their unusual environment, then do their best to get along with their shipmates. Many indicated that the problem of adjustment is an individual one.
Keeping active is important, according to one underseaman. He claims that if a man earnestly tries to contribute to the over-all effectiveness and betterment of the ship, he can forget his own discomforts.
“Experience in human relations is helpful,” states another. “Even if you have none to begin with, you soon become an expert—otherwise you won’t stay in submarines.”
Another submariner feels that adjustment is no problem because those who are unable to adapt are weeded out before or during their Submarine School indoctrination.
WHAT DOES a submariner like most about life aboard a submarine?
By far the most popular answer to that question is “esprit de corps.”
More specifically, the submariners cited “competent personnel,” “a family atmosphere,” “teamwork,” “working with highly educated people,” “good-natured crews,” “friendly association with other crewmembers,” and “informality.”
In addition to the informality, the submariners preferred the less rigid adherence to regulations, greater challenges, and more responsibility. Still others regarded highly such benefits as better food, all-night movies, training programs, and submarine operating schedules.
On the opposite side of the scale, the submariners referred to over-crowded living and working conditions and lack of stowage space as what they liked least about their undersea life. Nearly 50 per cent indicated they would be more comfortable if there were enough bunks to go around, more privacy, and greater storage space.
Long patrols, long hours, and personnel shortages rated next on their list of dislikes, followed by the lack of laundry facilities and enough water for daily showers at sea. One submariner volunteered that most of his sub pay is used for laundry expenses, which, he said, puts him in no better financial position than a surface Navyman who receives free laundry services.
Ever since the crew of USS Holland was formed in 1900, submariners have boasted about their food.
Since no survey of submarine personnel would be complete with-out a query on the subject, an attempt was made to support or refute that long-standing claim.
About three-fourths of those questioned upheld the traditional boast. A few were undecided. And a few more said, “It depends.” One replied, “Not necessarily,” and one opposed the claim altogether concerning meals in submarines.
The affirmative replies were due to a variety of reasons. Some praised the high caliber of food and supply personnel, and their pride in their work. Others reasoned that a smaller crew permitted a more personal touch. Then, too, many approved of the family-style dining atmosphere, as well as the quality and quantity of food.
One dolphin-wearer had the final answer. He couldn’t make a comparison, he said, because he had been in submarines so long he had forgotten how it was in other segments of the Navy.
—W. J. Thomas, JOC, USN
Within a few years of this article being written, there would be a large movement away from diesel boats and a new focus on nuclear power in all areas. The “B” girls were built around 1959 (the same time as the first boomers) and would all be out of commission by1990. An era had passed. But submariners, surprisingly were still very much the same. As I read the article over a few times, I kept thinking that I recognized a lot of what they were talking about.
Hand salute to all those who wore the fish.