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Submariners, without question, do not represent society’s norm. They speak differently, with a rich, jargon-filled vocabulary. Their sense of humor is sharp, but with a macabre flavor. Most striking of all, however, is the submariner’s selflessness. The submarine service, more than any other seagoing branch of the Navy, truly embraces the concept Ship, Shipmate, Self.

This degree of selflessness and simple civic virtue is missing from American society today. Submarine service brings out this virtue in all those who venture beneath the sea. A submarine is more than a 360 foot pressure vessel-it is an anvil against which men are forged into a team-a team without individuals. The first necessity of undersea life in close quarters is an ethos of unselfishness, so subordination of self to duty is inculcated in the submariner from the day he steps onboard. Here are the methods by which submarining instills such selflessness:

Team Recognition

Individual accomplishment is rarely recognized in day-to-day operations onboard a submarine. Instead, it is teamwork that is recognized. The Engineering Department is lauded for getting the ship underway, not just the Engineer or the Engineering Officer of the Watch. The Sonar watchsection earns praise for finding and classifying contacts, not just the Sonar Supervisor or the individual watchstanders. The time for individual recognition is traditionally reserved until the end of a deployment-just as is true for the surface and aviation communities.


Submariners are cross-trained in all areas. Crew size simply does not allow the luxury of an ADP division, for example, and so the need might be filled by a mechanic who is a computer hobbyist. Nuclear propulsion plant operators often go forward to assist in target motion analysis (since there are no Operations Specialists).

Torpedomen (now Machinist’s Mates) handle small arms, elsewhere the bailiwick of Gunner’s Mates. Crewmen are also cross-assigned to miscellaneous duties throughout the ship. Everyone, from department heads down, participates in stores loads. Damage control parties draw from the entire ship, not just from selected ratings. Every man onboard the boat feels he has a stake in the mission.

Furthermore, every bluejacket shares in the watch standing duties. The rating for which men are trainoo becomes of little importance when there is work to be done. Since everyone is part of the team, there are fewer feelings of individuality and more of an urge to work for the team.

Close Quarters

The first thing outsiders notice about a submarine is how small it is, and the close quarters in which the crew lives. You can’t get away from your shipmates onboard the boat. You work together, sleep together, and very importantly, eat together. There is much cohesion between groups that share meals. This closeness usually leads to inter-divisional friendships, and a furthered respect of each other’s contribution to the ship’s mission. A submarine crew’s camaraderie is only rivaled (in the surface fleet) by that of the Chief’s Mess.

This mutual respect breaks down barriers between divisions and dampens the elitism that can drive crews apart. Shipmates truly become friends, not just fellow passengers or co-workers. A man will give a lot more for a friend than he will for a co-worker.

Small Crews

In a similar vein, the size of the crew, although sometimes an operational disadvantage, is an asset in building a selfless team. Everyone knows everyone else. If an aircraft carrier is a city, and a destroyer a small town, then a submarine is an extended family. A submariner is on the boat with what feels like all bis cousins and uncles.

Men will give up much for their family. When a crew is like a family, there is a certain synergy that is missing from the larger, more spread-out crews of the surface fleet. With a large crew,there’s always someone else to take your place-you don’t feel as vital to the mission. With a small crew, you know how much everyone else counts on you, and feel pressure to perform.

Damage Control

Finally, every submariner knows how strongly damage control is emphasized. Every man onboard is required to get his dolphins; every man onboard undergoes rigorous damage control training. Everyone. Not just selected departments, or selected ratings, or those who choose to earn a breast insignia. Everyone onboard has a stake in damage control, and they know it.

When a fire is called away, everyone onboard responds. Again, every man feels a stake in the mission. The entire crew must at least wear emergency air breathing masks, and crewmen throughout the boat put on firefighting apparel and attack the fire. Contrast this scene with a fire aboard a large surface ship. A fire party is called away, and everyone else goes about their routine.


Submarine life is a life of constant stress. Sharing this stress, meeting challenges together, and depending on each other is what submariners do. Shared accomplishment is what makes a group of men into a crew.

The selflessness of a submarine crew is a rare commodity outside the Silent Service. Circumstances conspire to form an outstanding team-building atmosphere–where teamwork is literally necessary to survive. Individuality is unrewarded. Men are brought together to share meals and to share hardships, and this small close-knit group discovers that without each other, each man is nothing. These men truly live the adage, Ship, Shipmate, Self.

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