“Why do Navymen volunteer for Submarine Duty?” one story from 1967

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).

(Photo taken 5 July 1967 At Yokosuka…boats are inboard to outboard: Catfish (SS-339), Bashaw (SS-241), Redfish (SS-395), Diodon (SS-349), Salmon (SS-573) and Bream (SS-243).)

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.

Mister Mac

25 thoughts on ““Why do Navymen volunteer for Submarine Duty?” one story from 1967

  1. In 1978 my Sub Pay was $55 a month. Trust me when I say that the money wasn’t a reason for me.

    1. Hi Marcus. In 1972, the $55.00 was huge since we weren’t getting paid a whole lot more than that every month. Plus, I was 18. I also remember the big jumps in the 1980’s and the incredible increases in sea pay. Those ended up being very big incentives for many of us.

  2. A lot less chicken shit. An emphases on how well qualified you were. Brains. Family atmosphere that continues today (50 years later).

  3. I can’t remember when I decided that I was wanted to be on a submarine. It had to be when I was very young. When I came of age to join the Navy it wasn’t a slam dunk for me after FTA school I got assigned to a DD and had to wait a year to request Sub School. That began some of the best part of my life. I qualified on the Redfish and later served on the Salmon. After that I got assigned to SSBNs. The Diesel Boats were the best.

  4. I can’t remember when I decided that I was wanted to be on a submarine. It had to be when I was very young. When I came of age to join the Navy it wasn’t a slam dunk for me after FTA school I got assigned to a DD and had to wait a year to request Sub School. That began some of the best part of my life. I qualified on the Redfish and later served on the Salmon. After that I got assigned to SSBNs. The Diesel Boats were the best.

  5. To this day there is a group of us who server on the USS Sennet SS408 which was decommissioned in 1968, that get together for lunch the third Friday on each month here in the Charleston area. Most are in there late 70s and some early 80s me I am one of the babies at 73 QM3

  6. I feel the best life decision I ever made was volunteering for subs. I was blessed to be part of a crew of like minded, dedicated shipmates aboard UUS Trutta, SS 421, for three plus years. We had the finest Captain, “Smoking” Joe DiPace for two years, and consecutive E’s, that shaped a fantastic and cohesive crew for his tenure. He is the highlight of our boat reunions, loved so much by those who served under his amazing tutiledge. I was lured by the extra pay, but came to find the crews and the food to be the ascertainment of my decision.

  7. In 1972, my Navy boot camp senior chief took me aside and explained how this new nuclear power technology would be a great career when transitioning to civilian life, and the Navy would send you to school for two years. But I had to reenlist.
    That chief was right. I received a good education, operated submarine nuclear power plants, and worked in the civilian nuclear industry until my retirement.

  8. My first ship was a Bath (ME) Iron Works built Gearing class destroyer. I served in it three years. It was a good ship. It being a smaller vessel with fewer in the crew than, say, an aircraft carrier or a cruiser. That provided me with a similar experience to serving in an even smaller vessel with an even smaller crew.
    My “tin can” was selected to be FRAMed; to be converted into one sporting a helo hangar and deck. After standing seemingly endless fire watches (standing by with a fire extinguisher while a welder or burner did his thing), a shipmate doing the same said he was vol-ing for sub duty. Two weeks later after several more fire watches, the same appealed to me, too.
    Once accepted, sub school was exciting. I met many sharp sailors and a sense of camaraderie and pride in being “in the boats” started right away. My one and only diesel boat cemented that sense and I was hooked. Certainly the increase in pay and better food were factors, but it was the experience of being a member of a tight crew, a smaller crew that appealed most to me, especially because it was a “smoke boat”!
    I was an FT2 and was very happy to be one. I enjoyed being the only FT and the responsibility of being charged with the maintenance of the TDC, the periscope bearing transmitters, the interfacing with the torpedoes and also being in charge of the armory and pyrotechnics!
    Little did I know that my time in a diesel boat was to be less than a year. The Polaris Missile was developed by Lockheed faster than expected and the service had few Missile Technicians, especially enough to serve in the two crew FBM concept and there was a great need for higher rated petty officers in their ranks.
    Much against my preferences, I was summarily converted to MT, but that turned out to be fortunate for me later because it turned out that my chances of making Chief as an FT was slim and none.
    Nuke duty was okay, but diesel boat duty was the best. I think it was because of the connection with the WWII boats that was the underlying attraction.
    After almost twenty-four years in the “canoe club” I retired, having tee’d off too many “superiors” to ever be advanced beyond CPO. Even at that, looking back on it, I would have enjoyed staying in ‘til they threw me out, but I had only one offspring and I wanted to try bonding with him more than I had, so when he was about to be a HS junior, my wife and he returned to my home state.
    My training, especially submarine related training and experience, landed me a good position with a defense contractor.
    Now eighty, I’ve lost many shipmates and the number of those I knew are dwindling. I learned a couple of years ago that one of my sub school classmates was in Thresher. Since it could have been me receiving orders to that boat, his fate has struck me even more lately than did just the loss of that boat with no one I knew aboard. I have attended the Thresher memorial ceremony in Kittery, ME nearly every year since, but nowadays the connection with my classmate makes that tribute even closer to home.
    God bless all my Brothers of the ‘Phin who have made that sacrifice for the rest of us and, most of all, for the folks back home.🇺🇸🙏🏻

    1. You get my personal endorsement for best comment of the week Chief. Thanks for your amazing service, thanks for sharing your memories. You and others like you are why I do what I do with the leansubmariner. God Bless you and stay well

  9. The boats were supposed to be challenging, and boat sailors the best, plus my IC company commander said it was a Shit job on subs and he was kind of an ass, So I figured it had to be the place for me. Being an engineman and coming into the navy in 76 at the end of the diesel boat era, I ended up doing multiple tours of the last Boat the country built, The B girl, USS Bonefish SS-582 who had a battery well Fire April of 88 after I had left and went to recruiting duty. I will be seeing many of these shipmates this Nov as I live in kings bay ga and am involved with the Submarine Memorial programs the first weekend of each November since 1988. AS I had heard way back in bootcamp, Being on boats (The Diesels especially) was challenging and they challenged me as a man, and the crews were awesome and friendships we made were tight, and many of us still are tight through social media. I know the B-Girls as you refereed to in your story, the last diesel class built and the first teardrop shaped hull class, we have the b girl association on facebook and every 2 years we have a reunion, this year in kings bay. Great story, thanks for posting it out there. George Mahieu, EN1(SS) Ret.

    1. George, I appreciate your comments and I really appreciate your perspective as one of the men who sailed in Harm’s Way. The world is a better place because men like you took a chance and did something others only thought about doing (or avoided because it was too dangerous).

  10. I have the honor to have been on the Bonefish SS582 during the battery well fire we had a crew of 92. We only lost three crewmen. This was only possible due to the high caliber of men in the submarine service.

    1. Bill, I can only imagine in my worst nightmares what it must have been like. I was on two boats that had smaller underway fires (galley) and I can assure you that even those minor fires got my blood pressure jacked up pretty high. I remember reading about the fire and thinking how horrible it must have been to see what happened to your shipmates firsthand. I am so very sorry. Thanks for reaching out.

  11. Served on the USS Redfin SS272 and USS Requin SS481 from 7/64-12/67 as an electrician. Loved the old diesel boats.Made several trips to the med. Went thru the panama canal and sailed around South America and made several trips to the Caribbean in the winter to pick up rum.

  12. Mr. MAC: Brother Harry Yockey turned down ADM Rickover invitation to attend officer training for nuclear subs; saying, “Admiral, I believe my career path should continue with diesels.” And it was and then program manager for the Tomahawk Weapons System (cruise missile.) Testing, development, successful launches surface ships and submarines 1983.

  13. Q: Why did I volunteer? A rather silly reason. A. I was going through ET “A” school in Great Lakes NTC/SSC, and my ample “social life” was back in New England (I’m from the Boston area). Volunteering for the “boats” would get me to Connecticut. In reality, I was more than a little ‘homesick” in Illinois, I suppose. I’m glad that I volunteered. I picked a good nuke boat to be assigned to. I do wish that I had been assigned to a diesel boat first, though. I’d volunteer all over again, 43 years later!

  14. I didn’t really give it much thought. I couldn’t afford
    to continue in college and dropped out after a year. I had signed up for the Marine corps PLC officer program. When I dropped out I got a letter from the Marines telling me that since I dropped out I was obligated to enlist. I went to the recruiter and asked what type of schooling I could get so I’d have a skill when/if I got out after my enlistment. They said they could offer tank school, artillery school, or rifleman school.
    I then went to the Navy recruiter, took the tests and was offered nuclear power school. That was 1962, nuclear power looked like it had a very bright future. I went to boot camp, EM A school, sub school, basic nuclear power school, Nuke prototype training, and Westinghouse Bettis Atomic laboratory. Then 3 years on a boomer. I left the navy after 6 years used the GI bill to get a bachelor’s and a masters degree in finance.
    The Navy submarine program was the best decision I ever made. I served with great crewmates. They were smart, dedicated, and great team members. We had high morale, discipline, and less formality. I thought the food was great. I made all three meals plus mid rats!!

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