You can go back home again-if you’re very lucky. I was Y lucky. And home for me is the submarine service.
Our son Jim is XO of the Trident submarine NEVADA (Blue crew, if that makes any difference), and was thoughtful enough to invite his old man for a five day ride. (He gets his thoughtfulness from his mother, like most of his other fine qualities.)
In this case, old man means his father, not his skipper. The CO, John McMacken, needed no invitation. And I accepted on condition that the skipper understood that I would be in charge. No problem!
It was the best five days of my post-Navy retirement life. It gave me a singular opportunity to remember what it was like to be a submariner, to see what it’s like today, and to glimpse what it will be in the future.
And this piece is mostly about submariners, not the boats themselves, for our most valuable and constant asset is the man, not the metal.
But first, the differences: As a reminder of my seniority, I could find only one other person aboard who had served in diesel boats (and he was only two-thirds my age). I qualified in BASHAW. The lead auxiliary-man had served in several fine diesels, including DARTER and one or two B-Girls.
Another difference: space. Volume. Habitability. Accessibility. I mean, you could actually get to a hydraulic accumulator for maintenance without having to rip out four other systems.
Having never served on a SSBN (1 SSK, 4 SSNs for me), I had a baggage load of preconceived notions about ship’s routine, most of which proved wrong, as preconceptions are wont to be.
(I’d like to say that I never even sailed on a SSBN, but truth be told, as a SUBPAC staffie I was once faced with the Hobson’s choice of riding one for 30 hours or losing a month’s submarine pay. Tough choice, but my practical left brain won out over my idealistic right brain, and I spent an overnight at sea adjacent to 16 SLBMs. They declined to award me the patrol pin.)
I anticipated five days on NEVADA steaming at minimum turns in large circles at a modest depth with a group of serious people who did nothing but stand steady-steaming watches, eat, qualify, and read books. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but not by much.
At any rate, since the ship was undergoing a training mini-DASO, with the training team (out of SP, and highly professional) and some of the Gold crew aboard, plus mids, plus staffies, plus reserves, plus another non-producing fellow traveler and myself, I found the ship out-SSNing most SSNs. Drills, surfacings, drills, dives, drills, snorkeling, and drills.
By drills, I mean not only for the weapons, ship-handling, and navigation teams for which the DASO is designed, but for every gang on the ship, and for the whole ship. Hand dives, fire, loss of power, jam dives, flank speed maneuvers, flooding (and EMBT blow). You name it-we did it. Hardly time for meals and movies, let alone sleep.
I attribute this regimen to an aggressive and self-confident CO (backed up by a like-minded XO, I might add) who commanded two 688s before NEVADA. It was a pleasure to observe his skill and leadership style.
The captain was typical of the one factor which I found unchanging from my days on the boats-the environment, the atmosphere, the ambience, the professionalism, the attitude, the camaraderie, the fellowship that is clearly a collective function of the people and their mission, and that still gives unique meaning to the word shipmate.
No one who has not gone to sea, particularly on a submarine, can understand or appreciate the bond which develops between men sharing a like experience of total inter-dependence. It is the reason that warriors become what they are, and is not easily explained to those outside the service.
The author, John Keegan, in his excellent book A History of Warfare, offers several descriptions of a soldier which I submit are applicable to the band of brothers who man our submarines:
“As those who know soldiers as members of a military society recognize, such a society has a culture of its own akin to but different from the larger culture to which it belongs, operating by a different system of punishment and rewards-the punishments more peremptory, the rewards less monetary, often, indeed, purely symbolic or emotion-al-but deeply satisfying to its adherents.
“The warrior hero is admired by both sexes for running real risks; but the man of soldierly temperament-how blinkered social scientists are to the importance of temperament-will run risks whether admired by the outside world or not. It is the admiration of other soldiers that satisfies him-if he can win it; most soldiers are satisfied merely by the company of others, by a shared contempt for a softer world, by the liberation from narrow materiality brought by the camp and the line of march, by the rough comforts of the bivouac, by competition in endurance, by the prospect of le repos du guerrier among the waiting womenfolk.
“… the Roman professional soldier did not serve for the monetary rewards enlistment brought him. His values were those by which his fellows of the modern age continue to live: pride in a distinctive (and distinctively masculine) way of life, concern to enjoy the good opinion of comrades, satisfaction in the largely symbolic tokens of professional success, hope of promotion, expectation of a comfortable and honourable retirement.”
Aside from the fact that one can’t compare the relative comforts of a Trident submarine to the bivouac life of a Roman soldier, it takes only a few technical changes to rewrite the above to apply to sailors in general, and submariners in particular.
That”s what I meant about remembering how it was and glimpsing how it will be. The technology changes. The boats change and improve. But the sense of shipmate that had underlain service in our earliest pioneer boats, in our World War II fleet boats, in our Cold War diesels and nuclear attacks, and in our strategic ships is a constant that I am grateful, if only for five days, to have felt again.