I belong to a number of very fine military organizations that all have special purposes. The Navy League for instance is a group that supports and promotes the sea services. I think this is important because of the dangers still present in the world at large. The American Legion and VFW both focus on active duty and veterans benefits so they are also near and dear to my heart. MOAA (Military Officers Association of America) is a fine group of leaders who help to ensure Congress doesn’t spend all of its money giving themselves haircuts and special deals that average citizens will never imagine.
I have belonged to the group for a number of years but wasn’t very active until recently. Work and home obligations have kept me pretty busy but this past year I have had a chance to remind myself that I really like being around submariners. While I share strong bonds with a number of people for different reasons, being a part of this brotherhood has been the strongest of all. Its not a military thing. Most of the submariners I have known through the years are strong patriots but while on active duty probably bristled under the yoke of a militaristic setting. Submariners are actually pretty individualistic in their own way bordering on a bit rebellious against some kinds of authority. But they put that all on hold when it comes to the mission. If I were ever in a bad place, I would want to be surrounded by submariners.
I know from speaking to men of different generations that their journey was slightly different than mine. Some will tell you it was harder and some will tell you it was not hard enough. Its a funny phenomenon that as you get older, the “kids” that come behind you have it so much easier and no one’s journey is as tough as yours was. I chuckle a bit when the Diesel Boat Forever (DBF) crowd talk about their hardships. I don’t chuckle because I think they are exaggerating. Its only because many of them think that nuke boat sailors lived in pampered luxury boats that rarely encountered sacrifices. After serving on five boats that had their share of challenges, I can assure you that each generation has been tested and proved well qualified.
It depends. Most of the guys I knew and served with were already on the high end of the gene pool. They tested better during classification, they seemed to adapt to unusual lifestyles with ease, and they had the ability to suspend their fears long enough to sign not once but twice as a volunteer. While I am sure there are some who will claim that they were “drafted” or “forced” into the pipeline, the rule has always been that only volunteers were able to be trained and tested as potential submariners. Submarine school and technical specialty schools were one way of getting to your first boat but back in the day that also included testing (both physical and mental). By the time I got to my first boat, the Navy had 73 years of experience in weeding out the wannabes from the will-bee’s.
Getting there is only half of the struggle. Staying there is quite another. From the minute you get there, you are an air stealing nub that has not yet proven yourself worthy of even the simple pleasures like having your own bunk or watching a movie. Your job is to do the most menial tasks like peeling potato’s or scrubbing the shitters in the head. Depending on your rate, you may even find yourself inside a shit tank or even worse a potable water tank crawling around and doing tasks that are indescribable. Torpedo men routinely found themselves inside the long cavity where a water slug had just met its demise, rags in hand while the ocean was a mere few feet away on the other side of a valve. You had to be careful where you sat on the mess decks so you didn’t incur the wrath of some “Qualified” man who could make your life even more miserable than it already was.
Salvation came from the ink in a standard Navy ball pen. As you learned more and more about the many systems that made the submarine a killing machine, you gathered more and more of the precious signatures on your qual card. Hand over hand, piping systems were traced, valves were memorized, electricity was diagrammed and damage control became not just a second nature but a first. This whole effort ended up with you facing a Qual Board made up of men who had themselves been tested. Grizzled old Chiefs and an Officer would be the deciding factor of whether you would remain lower than whale shit or could stand up tall with a new set of silver dolphins on your chest.
My board was probably the hardest test I ever could have had. I had the A gang chief, the TM chief and the Navigator. At the end of the two hours, I had two lookups. By midnight on that day in 1974, I had a completed qual card with all of the required signatures attached. Shortly after that, I received my dolphins and was a Submariner. Men who had been my tormenters now were my brothers. There was alcohol involved at one point after the boat returned to port. My chest was a bit sore from the “anointing” those poor fish received at the hands of a number of sailors.
In all the years since, I have had many fine things in my life. A beautiful wife. Some great successes that were personal as well as professionally satisfying. My Zombie room is flanked with certificates from a lifetime of service in and out of the Navy. But the one thing I am proudest of is those silver dolphins. I am also proud of those who share the honor and distinction. While it may be difficult to understand to an outsider, every man who has ever earned his “Fish” knows exactly what it took.