Jim Gorman served ill USS PARCHE (1984-88), then worked in Ocean Engineering with NavSeafor five years. He holds a master’s degree from the tile University of Illinois and is a Chicago Coordinator for tile “Reach for Tomorrow” program, taking inner-city students to Annapolis for a week-long learning experience. Mr. Gorman lives in Chicago and lectures high school students and veteran groups on submarining and the Navy experience.
The centennial of the submarine is upon us and it is nice to see so many celebrations across the country recognizing the significant role the submarine played in our nation’s defense. The Naval Submarine League and the Naval Institute keep us up to date on some of the issues effecting the fleet today, mostly covering the daunting technical aspects involved in maintaining the fleet’s readiness for action and our warfighting capabilities. The role of the submarine has changed significantly over the first 100 years making it difficult to imagine what the next 100 years of service will bring. On a national level the role of the submarine is unmatched in preserving our nuclear deterrent and we should be very proud of our accomplishments. The technology incorporated to keep submarines pushing the envelope of stealth to operate in the littorals is unmatched. However, the role of the submarine has impacted our society in ways that go beyond simple deterrence and effect every aspect of society. I’d like to take a moment, however, to discuss the environment submariners are exposed to while serving in the Silent Service. Creating an environment that promotes learning is the submariners forte; it is what embodies the heritage of the submarine community and is what I’m most grateful for and jealous of.
Some questions people ask when they find out you served in a submarine include the usual, like “do you have windows” or “have you heard any whales”. These questions are easily answered and can be recited on demand. “What kind of training did you get?” is a question I find the most difficult of all to answer. I’m afraid that if I were to start to answer that question, I would be unable to stop myself. “Oh, you get a lot of skills that help you when you get out”, is how I usually leave it.
The old saying “First impressions are remembered as last impressions” seems especially true when talking about submarines. As I stood on the pier looking at the most ominous thing I’d ever seen, I wondered how I ever let myself get involved in submarining. The smell is one of the most unique in the world and I would recognize it immediately. I stood topside watching as we prepared to get underway. As the mooring lines were being thrown to the pier, I watched as if my umbilical cord had been snapped at that very moment. Nothing can prepare you for getting underway on a nuclear submarine. The experience would forever change my life.
I was escorted to the crew’s mess and quickly formed my first impression. I was told to take a seat in the comer and wait for the yeoman. I sat and quietly observed those around me. Some of the better advice my father ever gave was “Shut up and watch when you go someplace new” he would say, referring to working at a new job. I looked around trying to get my bearings as people barreled up and down the ladder. It was way too quiet. I looked at the men who worked on this amazing war machine, expecting the macho, swashbuckling type covered in tattoos. Looking around I saw the complete opposite: almost everyone was sitting with a book, quietly studying. Yes, studying. To a man, they all had some sort of book in front of chem and were taking notes and discussing things that sounded much like a foreign language.
I wasn’t one for studying when I was in school. I joined the Navy to see the world and get away from an academic setting. I only lasted one semester in college, preferring the deliberations offered in taverns instead of the classroom. I played college sports and we were required to attend study hall during the week (I was kicked out many times). Now here I was, of all places, back in a study hall. Everyone was studying. It was like I was in a library that had no Dewey decimal system and the books were scattered all over the boat instead of in one place. The COB was like a librarian who you couldn’t get away from. My COB, Howard Swain, was one of the best COBs in the fleet and could have been a great librarian I’m sure. He made sure I was studying every minute of free time I had. In this study hall, you didn’t want to be kicked out because there was no place to go. “Get your face in a book nonqual” would be not-so-subtly suggested as I fell asleep reading a ship’s piping manual. There were never any grapes handed out, even when nobody was looking. I quickly learned there was a code within the hull and I would be expected to follow its traditions. Submariners put a lot of pressure on new guys, but it’s a pressure to get smart as quickly as you can. Inherent within the submarine community is the pressure to be an expert at your job-no matter what that job is. It is the greatest asset submarines have, that pressure to learn and use your head. As a teacher in a school in one of Chicago’s Southside barrios, I struggle everyday to create the same environment in my classroom and I can’t tell you how difficult it is. Submarines instill this quality almost immediately.
The significance learning plays in the submarine community is quickly recognizable. It didn’t take long to realize that prestige was awarded to those who knew their jobs and knew them well. Knowledge was the commodity that would help smooth the rough edges of being a nonqual. I needed to learn the boat and I needed to learn it fast. I’d be spending a lot of time in the library, the exact place I wanted to get away from. Within weeks I recognized who was known as a heavy and I knew I wanted to be like them. The submarine world changed my scholastic outlook into something that four years of high school and one semester of college couldn’t do. I wanted to learn. Nothing would deter me from getting the knowledge I needed to get my submarine dolphin pin. My mind drifted back to afternoons in the recruiter’s office, glaring at the posters on the wall, never expecting to be seated in a floating library. As a group, submariners are a rather pale, skinny, nonthreatening group. Nobody would ever confuse Jessie Ventura with being a submariner. Admiral Rickover seems more appropriate in more ways than one.
When you think of enlisting, you are drawn to the catchy phrases in the recruiter’s office. The SEALs promote themselves with sayings like, “The only easy day was yesterday”. Marines are always looking for “The Few and the Proud”, while submariners occasionally chirp in as some kind of oddity that gets a small spot on recruiting posters, usually under the bright blue sky with Navy jets streaming overhead and a carrier barreling down the seas in a way that makes it look like they will crush the submarine below. We seem so small. We need a motto, something as catchy as the other branches have. I thought up a few. Some seem to have hope; others just don’t.
“Join Submarines-Study ‘Til It Hurts”
“Don’t Be a Non-Qual on Brains-Join Submarines”
“Submarines, We May Sink, but We Learn How to Soar”
“Submarines-Always Looking for a Few Good Men
Who Like to Study”
[Editor’s Note: See the PRESIDENT’S LETTER in this issue.]
You get the point. The posters would need work too. It’s hard to compete with the visceral response of the Marine climbing a rope ladder, straining with sweat, aching to get all he can out of himself. The sub poster would show a couple of skinny, rather pale-looking fellows focused on a manual in front of them labeled Reactor…Plant Manual. The sight somehow doesn’t seem as inspiring. I don’t know if we’ll ever fix that.
Submarines are really a kind of school-in a way the best school the country has. Within the academic environment, generally speaking, there is a subtle contempt for any military experience. Most of my time in the military was spent learning new things and getting along with others-skills welcome in any business. I’ve been at my current school for almost five years and a woman I’ve been teaching with all that time recently came up to me saying, “Hey, I didn’t know you were in the military. You could never tell. “I didn’t even ask what she meant by that. I guess I hadn’t marched around yelling orders to my students or something. How does one begin to say how much time is spent studying within the submarine world. I never, in four years on the boats, marched anywhere. You were simply too busy for a lot of that stuff. That perception will be hard to change.
As a teacher, I continually run across students who are bright enough, can handle the work, but lack confidence. I often think the submarine is the ultimate confidence course; a course that gives you the confidence you need to learn anything. This is where the submarine community should be the most proud. I’m grateful for the exposure to some of the best role models a young adult could be around. Within the submarine community and the Ocean Engineering world, there were plenty of people who continually provided a great example for a young man to follow. The technical innovations are impressive to say the least, but I’m impressed- much more impressed now as an educator, with the quality environment created within the hull. I read scores of educational journals where schools are attempting the latest theories to foster a learning environment within schools. I’ve never read one that points out how successfully the Navy does it, especially within the submarine community. We’ve all heard that inch-for-inch the submarine has more technical innovations then any moving machine created, including the Shuttle. I say, inch-for-inch, the submarine has more positive role models then anywhere else in the world. The bar is set high within the submarine community, as it should be, because mistakes can cost peoples’ lives. The hostile environment is continually searching for a place to invade the people chamber and ruin your day. It takes vigilance and attention to detail to keep everything working. Everyone has to perform to his best at all times. I believe I recently read where the Secretary of the Navy said that we have over 17 million miles of accident free nuclear propulsion. This doesn’t happen because of luck. The guys out there know what they’re doing and they do it well.
Riding around the oceans, submerged, mixing a cocktail containing a nuclear reactor and weapons of unbelievable destruction while maintaining an environment that sustains life is impressive in itself. Space is a much friendlier environment. In the world’s oceans we navigate knowing that the only thing that keeps all this running smoothly is knowledge. It’s as if the motto, “Forward…From Under the Sea” should be followed by, With Books in Hand“. That is the true culture of the submariner. Propulsion plant technology, stealth enhancement, and sensor and weapons advances are all crucial to providing a stable platform that operates in harm’s way for extended periods of time. But when the boat sets to sea there really is only one piece of equipment that matters: the little seven pound mass that keeps the wind from blowing through our ears. Submariners use that as a Marine relies on his weapon. Submariners use that as a SEAL relies on his ability to push himself beyond physical fatigue. Submariners use it the most.
Many pundits believe the submarine doesn’t currently have a mission. Without ever firing a shot, submarines have forged men who have gone on to help this country in fields from nuclear power plants to presidents. CNO Admiral Jay Johnson called the strategy for the 21st century a “naval century”. By that admission, I’m sure he was considering the impact submarines have made.
Living in Chicago, a major traveling hub, I have a chance to see many old shipmates and friends I used to work with. I’ll get a call from someone passing through on business and I’ll usually talk them into staying for an extra day. I’ve come to notice something about the guys who pass through. Most of them are doing quite well in their jobs and have since settled down with children. As I spend some time with them I notice the edge is still with them. The submariner isn’t the guy who just does enough at his job; he’s the guy who gives the extra effort that makes him vital to the company. The guy isn’t the loudest in the crowd, but he’s the one others turn to when things need to get done in a hurry, and they need to get done right. I wonder how many companies have a guy out there who outperforms the others. That person, possibly, somewhere tucked back in the bottom of the closet, has an old shirt that has a symbol pressed above the chest-a symbol few people under – stand-the submarine dolphins. He doesn’t reminisce about those days underway as the high point of his life. Instead, he uses it as a source of strength and looks for new challenges in his current career. I’m grateful for the confidence submarines provided me. Though I don’t have an old shirt tucked away in my closet, I do put a PARCHE pen in my pocket before I speak at any education convention to give me that little extra confidence.
My roommate and I had no clue what we wanted out of the Navy. We got something we never thought we’d get. Growth. I mean the most valuable growth-the kind that comes from within. The belief that you can do anything you want if you try hard enough. He’s currently a practicing lawyer in Wisconsin. I visit him once a year and can tell by all the phone calls he receives that he’s a pivotal player within the office. Other former submariners work in banking, education, construction and finance and I usually recognize the same traits. I knew it would work out that way. Their greatest strength comes from the shirt they have tucked in the closet. That is the submarine’s greatest asset and from where they draw my admiration and gratitude. I’m jealous that I can’t create that same learning environment in my current teaching position. I sometimes daydream of the learning environment created on a submarine being replicated in a school. I can only imagine how successful the school would be. When I speak to parents, I mention that if they want their young son to be surrounded by an environment that fosters learning and self confidence like no other place in the world, look to submarines. I’m sure 100 years from now, the role of submarines will be quite different from today. But the atmosphere of learning and doing your best will still be at the core of the submarine community.