Rig for Dive

Rig for Dive

What an unusual year this has been. The Wuhan Virus has certainly taken its toll in so many direct and indirect ways. In my lifetime, I don’t think I can remember any other health emergency that received this much attention or caused so much angst.

But I do see the human cost now more clearly. We live in a fairly rural area but all around us, people are suddenly being swept up in the spread. Maybe we thought we were not as vulnerable since we live in an area where the population density is so low. But here we are. Hopefully the emergence of a vaccine and some additional precautions will help contain the stupid thing. It would be nice to know the origin and what could have been done differently by the originators to not kill so many innocent people around the globe. Maybe even some justice.

Humans are kind of fragile if you think about it. I learned this lesson on my first submarine. Now don’t get me wrong and start pinging on me, I am not claiming that bubbleheads are fragile. They are among some of the most resilient and resourceful creatures on the planet. You almost have to be that in order to survive months of being underwater with 100 plus other bubbleheads.

But our systems are the same as civilians when it comes to viruses and germs. I am not a doctor and only trained as a med tech long enough to put bandages on for triage. But I got a firsthand look at the spread of disease just as my submarine was getting underway for my first patrol in 1973.

The boat was the USS George Washington and at that time it was still a boomer. I was assigned to the Blue crew and we lived in the barracks on Ford Island in the Off Crew Period. In early October, the Chief told us to pack our bags and get ready for the crew flight to Guam. We would fly from Hickam Field on a semi-commercial flight to Guam and wait for the boat to pull in.

I remember very little about the flight except that it was long and the stewardesses were very generous with the inflight drinks. (It was 1973… and stewardess was still an allowable term for them. As I remember, they were also in very short skirts.) But we were very closely packed in. The plane would have been a 707 or equivalent so it didn’t have as much space as one of the modern planes of today.

Don’t let the blue skies fool you… the rain was never very far away

We arrived in Guam and it was a typical Guamanian day. Hot. Sticky. Wet. We left the beautiful air conditioned jet and were immediately overcome by the effects of the weather. And we crowded into the un air-conditioned busses for the ride to Polaris point, it was obvious that they were not prepared for as many of us as showed up. Shoulder to shoulder and feeling the effect of the heat, I am sure a few of the boys were also starting their alcohol detox from the plane ride. Frankly, some of them probably started their alcohol upload a few weeks before the long plane ride. But that is for another day.

We got to Polaris point and stood in line on the brow (again in the rain) and eventually ended up in the temporary berthing area set up for incoming crews. The bunks were probably the same ones that were installed when the Proteus served in World War 2. I am relatively sure the sheets had not been changed since the fifties. And of course, there was no air conditioning. Just ventilated air from the outside. We would call this home for three days since the boat was delayed returning to port.

Once the boat did come in, we went to work right away. As an A-ganger (Auxiliaryman) I was assigned to fix a number of broken pieces of gear with a more experienced guy. This often meant climbing in and out of the boat and shuttling up to the tender with broken parts. Inside the boat, the air conditioning was working to keep a cool atmosphere despite the humidity. But once you got back topside, the “refreshing” monsoons were always waiting to dampen your spirits and your clothes. This cycle repeated itself over and over again for about twenty days.

Around you, you would hear other guys coughing or sniffling from time to time. But frankly, during refit you were so tired, you really didn’t think about that. You just looked forward to any moments of rest and alone time. Besides, I was 19. Everyone feels bullet proof when they are 19.

The boat came back together. Stores loads were manual (and in the rain) but by that time you were used to not having a dry piece of clothing. The slight chills and fevers were manageable and you started to notice that everyone was moving a little slower and sniffling a lot more. And the tiredness never ceased. After a while, you were just going on energy. We had a corpsman on board (HM1/SS) but it was almost a sign of weakness to seek him out. Or so we were told.

The day finally came. Rig for dive is the final process where all the valves and equipment exposed to sea water have to be checked and double checked before the first big dive following refit. This was really important since uncontrolled flooding is very bad for the reputation of the ship and career ending for all hands. I was under instruction at the time since I was so new, but I learned where every valve and instrument was from the torpedo room to shaft alley. That is a lot of crawling and seeking.

Finally, the boat got underway and out into the harbor. I had not started my tour as a mess cook yet so I was on the dive team (again under instruction). When the boat finally took its initial dive, the control room was pretty cramped. By this time, people were openly sneezing and coughing. We didn’t really have tissues so Kim wipes were used a lot.

I remember having a pretty good fever by that time and the Chief ordered me to go see the Doc. Stubby was a pretty good corpsman. One of the best I met in my many boats. He also had a remedy and issued it pretty quickly. The choices at that time were Sudafed and Actifed. The weapon of choice was Actifed. That stuff rocked. It was only a day or two and I had my symptoms under control. Probably good since I went mess cranking right after that. I think working in the overheated scullery also helped. And not having time to think about it. There was never any time to do that.

Within a few days of getting underway, most of the crew was showing some signs of a cold. It spread like wildfire. I would find out for the next three patrols that this pattern was nearly the same. The older guys explained it was always like this. Then suddenly in a week or two, it would wear itself out and people would just go back to normal. Almost as if we developed some kind of immunity. Interesting.

I am not a doctor and have never attempted to learn all there is to know about immunology. But as fragile as our systems are, we just seem to adapt.

The pattern for Covid 19 has serious impacts on people. I just wonder if we will get to the point where our collective systems just adapt once more.


Mister Mac

Post Script:

I had a really nice chat with the wife of a thirty year submariner shortly after this post was published… I am including her comments here. You can tell she has been there and done that!

8 thoughts on “Rig for Dive

  1. I have many happy memories of the time my family called Agana home (my Dad was a crew chief on a Neptune). Right after breakfast my two brothers and I were out the door wearing nothing but a swimsuit and made a bee line to the jungle where we played and explored until sunset. When we became hungry, there was always plenty of pineapple or sugar cane to be pilfered. Never got back there.

    1. Debbie and I had a honeymoon on Guam. The 711 boat was in the middle of a West Pac and stopped there. She flew from Hawaii and joined me. It was one of our best memories together.

  2. I am Mel Denis ET19ss) aboard the GW blue crew 1965-1969 before it went to the pacific. I loved the story and especially the picture of the crew’s mess. It brings back a lot of memories.

  3. I remember the precautions taken back in the early 50s over the large polio virus outbreaks that were occurring nationwide. Many kids my age as well as adults were crippled by this all before any vaccine was available. Outdoor summer activities like swimming and baseball were shutdown. Our town in Minnesota went around with trucks spraying DDT everywhere because they thought that polio was being spread by mosquitoes. Long story short, with the introduction of the first polio vaccine (Salk) shot in 1954 things pretty rapidly got back to normal. With the oral vaccine (Sabin), public health folks stayed on top of the problem well into the 60s. We did it once, with patience and determination we can do it again. -> Reimer FTB1(SS)

  4. I too remember how most of us got sick when we came back from patrol. Usually by the time we left holy lock a bunch of us had the sniffles. I also remember that while on patrol when we got a cut or a scrape it hardly ever scabbed over. I have scars on my hands from those wounds that never had a scab. I enjoy the blog. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

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