Making a Submariner – Fifty Years ago

In January of 1973, my education as a submarine sailor began.

I had already graduated from Machinist Mate “A” school and my original path to nuclear power school was diverted because of my inability to master the math and chemistry that was tested upon completion of “A” school. I was a bit disappointed. Instead of automatically advancing to petty officer third class and entering the advanced training that I was scheduled for, the Navy offered me another path on submarines. So I found myself leaving Pittsburgh and flying on an incredibly small plane into New London. And it was cold and snowy all the way in.

I arrived late in the day and was shuttled to an old barracks up on top of the hill overlooking the submarine base. In those days, we still lived in open bay barracks which really looked a lot like the boot camp barracks I had lived in just a few months before. Little did I know at the time that I was about to become part of a changing scene for all of the Navy’s training programs.

In 1955, the Navy had begun the idea of looking at a single control for training. Since the end of the Second World War, all of the Navy’s platforms (air, surface, subsurface, shore and Seabees) had their own methods for training. But in the early fifties, technology was advancing much quicker than the old methods of training could keep up with. With nuclear power, advances in jets and aircraft in general, weapons systems like missiles and electronic warfare, the need for more comprehensive training became clear.

By 1972, the Navy saw the need for a new system. From the January 1973 ALL HANDS MAGAZINE:

“For the first time, under a single command concept, a true training system had been established.

“THE NEW SYSTEM, according to Admiral Cagle , consists of four basic elements : first , requirements and resources identification ; second , training and education program development ; third , their application and , finally , evaluation .

It works like this: People, some with, some without high school or college – level educations, are received into the Navy from different parts of the country with varying backgrounds and various degrees of experience. They are placed into the training system and given a military – oriented education. Then they are placed into jobs aboard ships, in air squadrons or at shore installations where they apply what they have learned. Finally, through a feedback process, the results of the training effort are analyzed and adjustments made accordingly.

“This complete system did not exist before; besides being fractionary, there was no meaningful evaluation of the training process.

“For such a training system to function, Admiral Cagle stated, three resources are needed: people, material, and, of course, money. People are needed as trainees and trainers.

Equipment, such as textbooks, examinations, tape recorders, instructional television systems, computers and advanced, expensive simulators are all needed.

Of considerable importance are resource dollars required to support the entire system, including funds for construction of military barracks, mess halls and the schoolhouse itself. Overshadowed by all these needs is another important factor – time.”$c164050&view=1up&seq=5

Of course, I didn’t know anything about this at the time.

I just knew that I was in Groton to learn about submarines and prepare for my new life on the boats. And I knew we walked everywhere we went on base in the snow. The submarine school had existed in one form or another since the early 1900’s. But in the early 1970’s it was growing in technology and infrastructure,

The school was pretty well organized. Each day was a series of classes and labs that included testing. We did pressure tank testing to determine our ability to withstand pressure in a confined space. We did the dive tower to learn how to escape from a sunken submarine. We were poked and prodded in every way possible to determine our physical weaknesses. I don’t believe I have ever been in as many dentists chairs in my entire life. Apparently having bad teeth is a national security risk of some kind or another. (Just kidding about that. If you think about it, they don’t want some kid with an abscess tooth getting infected in the middle of a patrol or spec op).

One of the most amazing things was operating the dive trainer which simulated operating a submrine. The one in sub school was on hydraulic lifters so as you steered the boat and dove it, you really felt like you were underway. The casualty drills would pay off very much later in life. Most importantly, you got a sense of what it was like to trust the men around you.

And they tested us psychologically. I am not sure if being crazy was a prerequisite to being a submariner but it didn’t hurt. I would meet some very interesting characters over the next twenty years.

The two boat platforms that we studied were 637 class fast attack submarines and 640 class boomers (Fleet Ballistic Missile submarines). I am sure they discussed diesel boats but by 1973, most of the men in my class would never see a diesel boat except on the water front. The Navy was already transitioning to an all nuclear platform so I am sure that drove the type of training we did. Our training materials were all classified so we could not take them with us out of the building. I have to be honest and tell you I do not remember a single thing about the boats we were trained on. After leaving New London, I was sent to another series of technical schools in Charleston South Carolina and my brain really struggled to retain much of anything we were taught.

But I do remember the instructors. They were all from the fleet and they had the most interesting stories to tell. I would later model my own teaching style after them and include my own stories to use as examples. I am sure it was a large part of becoming a Master Training Specialist and to this day, I still use some of those stories when I get the chance to teach.

The New Navy

The second part of that ALL HANDS magazine included a listing of the latest and greatest boats entering the fleet. The challenges of the Cold War were driving the Navy’s construction program. An aircraft carrier called the Nimitz was being built that would become the prototype for all future aircraft carriers. But submarines were being built at a rapid pace.


New Construction in Today’s Navy: It never Stands Still

“THE NAVY’S UNDERSEAS FLEET has also grown considerably in the past few months. New commissioning’s include USS Archerfish (SSN 678), USS Pintado (SSN 672), USS Drum (SSN 677), USS Sand Lance (SSN 660), USS Pogy (SSN 647), USS Silversides (SSN 679), and USS Batfish (SSN 681).

Recently launched were the submarines USS Cavalla (SSN 684), USS William H. Bates (SSN 680) and USS Tunny (SSN 682).

When Archerfish was commissioned late in 1971, she became the 95th nuclear-powered submarine of this class to be placed on the Navy’s active duty rolls. She carries a crew of 12 officers and 108 enlisted men and is the second ship to bear the name Archerfish, a fish which “shoots” small drops of water to knock down and stun insects. The first submarine to bear the name operated in the Pacific in WWII.

Pintado is another submarine whose namesake was a WWII fighter. The first sank or damaged 132,900 tons of enemy shipping. Today’s new nuclear-powered Sturgeon-class boat is 292 feet long, with a beam of 31 feet and displaces 4600 tons submerged. She is armed with long-range torpedoes and the Subroc missile.

ALSO IN THE STURGEON – CLASS with a WWII name sake too, Drum was commissioned on 8 Apr 1972 at Mare Island, Calif.

Another Sturgeon – class submarine joined the fleet in September at Groton, Conn., as Batfish was commissioned. She has a crew of 12 officers and 108 enlisted men and she, too, carries the name of a WWII boat with a long list of combat achievements.

Pogy, the ninth nuclear attack submarine completed in Pascagoula, Miss., was commissioned in 1971. She has a 292 – foot length, a beam of 31 feet and displaces 4200 tons. She has a crew of 12 officers and 98 enlisted men, and can reach a speed in excess of 20 knots.

Silversides, another member of the Sturgeon – class, can travel at speeds and depths comparable to Pogy.

William H. Bates, named in honor of the late member of the House of Representatives from Massachusetts, was launched late in 1971. She carries the latest in detection gear and armament.

Launched in Groton was Cavalla, the 12th submarine of this class to be built in the Connecticut shipyard. She bears the name of the WWII fleet submarine which is credited with sinking the 30,000 – ton Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku.”

An advanced undersea platform was being developed in the early 70’s that would replace these workhorses. The 688 Los Angeles class would come into being within a few years as would the 726 Ohio Class. I would gain even more advanced training as I helped build and operate ships in both classes. In all, I attended over 60 technical and leadership classes. I also taught quite a few in my tour as a naval instructor. Looking back, I hope that I was a better trainer than I was a student.

I never did serve on either the 637 class fast attacks or the 640 class boomers. I had requested a diesel boat out of Florida on my dream sheet. And of course the Navy felt a 598 class boomer would be a better choice. In Hawaii… but that is for another day.

Fifty years ago I entered my submarine journey. It seems like yesterday.

Mister Mac

4 thoughts on “Making a Submariner – Fifty Years ago

  1. I attended Basic Nuclear Power school at Mare Island and, as you spoke of, struggled with math (not my best subject in high school). Halfway through my division officer called me into his office to offer me a voluntary drop as we were about to start calculus. As my grades in math were barely squeaking by the minimums (and back then [1971] anyone failing out would be transferred to NIOTC (Naval Inshore Operations Training Command for eventual assignment with the Riverine Navy in Vietnam. I was pig-headed enough to stick it out and as I was leaving his office, the officer tossed me an English-Vietnamese phrase book. Amazingly enough, once we started on Calculus, the light went on and I did fine.

  2. I was in the last class at Basic Enlisted Submarine School to live in the open bay barracks. Spring 1982.

    Of course, we still had to field day it before we left.

  3. Proud to see my first boat listed in the quoted article – USS Tunny (SSN 682). We had a few nukes that had gone to sub school on her, although I wasn’t one of them. But Navy training hasn’t really changed much in that 50 years. One of the few times I can really see, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

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