Maybe it’s pan of the human physiology or maybe it’s just me, but there were sounds that I heard so often aboard SPINAX that burrowed their way deep into my soul. Sounds that while I was aboard became so commonplace that they were just part of everyday life, and now spring out at me in unguarded moments.
One of the most profound, of course, was the roar of the old Fairbanks Morse diesels coming to life. I can remember being topside handling lines when the old gal would cough forth her billowing clouds of smoke and the low rumble of 1600 horsepower diesels would vibrate through every plate and bolt of the old gal. What a rush! Here we go! We’re leaving now! Off to see the world, coming back who knows when? Rumble, rumble …
Of course this sound meant different things to me, an old hairy· knuckled Torpedoman, than it did to an Engineman. I’m sure the snipes were busily checking gauges, opening valves, and squirting oil in a weird sort of mating ritual dance with their pistoned slaves, their ears being tuned more to the subtle nuances of clattering valves and worn bearings than to the overall feelings of power from the mighty four. But for me it was “Feel the power! We are headed your way with 6400 horsepower of screaming diesels bulldozing us through towering waves at 16 knots, all ahead full and damn the torpedoes!”
Of course this was before the stick your nose in the air and smirk nuclear boats came along that could run circles around us without even breaking an atomic sweat. But I bet the nukes never experienced the thrill of waking up to the mighty roar of diesels in the morning. They just wound up the key and quietly snuck out of the harbor to run in underwater circles ’til it was time to come home for a rewind. Nothing personal against the nukers, they are, after all, submariners, and are carrying on the tradition … only in a quieter, more gentle way.
Riding and living in the Forward Room, I naturally relate more to the sounds from that area especially as heard from my bunk. Submarine sailors spent a lot of time in their bunks simply because if everyone were up at once, there would be a lot of uncomfortable body squeezing as the crew fought for standing room. One sound that will stick with me to my dying day and beyond is the clump of somebody’s right foot coming through the forward room hatch and hitting the deck plate. Now there is an art to going through sub compartment hatches that becomes second nature in no time at all. You approach the hatch varying your steps so that when you are at the hatch your right foot (or left for those with south feet) comes up at the same time as your head ducks down and your hand grabs for support. You then follow through with your right foot and clump it down with some force in the designated next compartment and follow through with your body, then your quieter left foot. This sound was usually followed by mumbled greetings, or loud hoots and wisecracking, depending on exactly who had invaded the room.
Each room had its own particular sound. The Forward room was usually fairly quiet underway, especially submerged. The only sounds normally being heard were the snoring of the off duty personnel, and the murrr-murrr sounds of the hydraulic pump pushing the bow planes up and down.
Of course at Battle Stations Torpedo it was a different story. The room was now packed with sweaty Torpedomen and others that were hijacked for the reload party. The hiss of air, the flush of water, the whirr of outer doors opening, all mixed in with pulleys being rigged and the grunts and cursing of the reload party trying to push a 2100 pound torpedo into a 21 inch hole (nothing Freudian here). This all was combined with the typical grab-assing that goes along with such serious events.
The Forward Battery was also fairly quiet. This was where our officers made their nests, so the crew usually moved through on tippy toe. But it also got rambunctious at chow time, or at movie call, and the Acey Ducey tournaments could be heard all the way back in the Control Room. The loudest snores to be heard came from the Goat Locker where the senior chiefs slept. The Goat Locker was also where you could locate COB MacFarland piecing together his old Kodak after breaking it yet again on liberty.
The Control room was the heart of SPINAX (the Captain was the soul). Here was where all the excitement took place. This is where you would hear the words you had come to love from the movies. “Clear the Bridge! … Dive! Dive! Aoooooogah, Aooooogah!” The Thwump! Thwump! of the lookouts hitting the deck, “Green board sir!” “Green board aye! 5 degree down bubble, full dive on the bow planes.” “Pressure in the boat.” “Pressure in the boat, aye, blow negative to the mark!” Whooooooooosh! “Negative blown to the mark, sir.” “Very well!” … and on until the boat was settled comfortably at 100 feet or whatever the depth of the hour was. The frantic but controlled excitement over, hands would reach for their mugs of coffee, bodies would settle back into the curves of the boat, the flicking sounds of lighters snapping shut as the control room air settled back into its normal state of opaque smokiness, and the sea stories would continue, seemingly uninterrupted by such nonsense as diving the boat.
Up the ladder from the Control Room was the little 8’xl2′ space known as the Conning Tower. This was where the brains of the boat (depending on who was up there) stood watch. This was also the Captain’s favorite haunt. The old man was in charge here and everyone knew it. This was where the Captain wore his crown and his subjects bowed. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time there, but here in my later years I can still hear the Captain’s voice snapping “Up scope” or “Come right to 155” or “Black and bitter to the conn.” The conn went from moments of extreme calm, with the hydraulic creak of the helm punctuating the whispered murmurs of the Navigator and Quartermaster trying to figure out where the heck we were, to the tense but clear … “Bearing … Mark!, range … Mark!” “Open doors on tubes one and two!” “Outer doors open!” “Fire one” “One fired electrically sir!” “Fire two!” “Down scope!” “Make your depth 200 feet! All ahead flank, and hold on to your cajones!” Ah yes, the good life.
Leaving the Captain to his castle we sneak back to the After Battery. Stomping through the hatch, avoiding the bustling mess cooks, we step into the mess hall. Here we find the big-bellied cooks squeezed into the tiny galley, sweating bullets and trying to ignore the raucous crew insulting the cooking and harassing the mess cooks. The mess hall was the social center for the crew. Here is where you learned to cuss and brag about your latest conquest. You could hear about the little blonde gal over and over, marveling how she changed from a tattooed bar lady to the prettiest of movie stars in just a few tellings. The sounds here were of the clinking of silverware, the pouring of coffee and milk, the continuous outflow of put-downs and laughter, and the cursing as the boat took a huge srarboard roll and everyone had to grab their plates. It was also the place of movies. The roar of John Wayne shooting down Jap Zeros, the gaudy trumpets of the parade of Cleopatra, and the laughter as the latest comedic genius joked his way across the screen. The best and the worst of movies-we had ’em all. It was amazing how every member of the audience could, at the same time, spot and cheer an errant naked breast in a teeming crowd of thousands!
Right below the mess hall was the Sonar room. You accessed it from a hatch right in the middle of the passageway. To leave the Sonar room you had to sound a buzzer. and whoever was in the mess hall would yell “Come up!” if it was clear. Oft times the Sonarmen would jump the gun and get a foot in their face as they opened the hatch.
The Sonar Room was the compartment of sounds. Here is where the professionals sat listening to all the sounds of the vast sea. I was only down there a few times, but I will remember to my dying day the mournful sounds of whales singing off somewhere in the lonesome depths. There were all kinds of sounds, from the snapping of shrimp to the whistling of dolphins, and even the sound of a ship’s propellers swish-swishing off in the distance. The Sonarmen could always tell what was going on. That’s what they were trained for, but to me they were just lonesome sounds in the deep.
Continuing aft we go through the door to the main crew’s quarters. Usually fairly quiet here, snores and quiet conversation from the bunks were the general rule. Of course in port you had to learn to tune out the returning drunks, and you never gave anyone a real bad time, because you might be the next returning drunk.
The next compartment we’ll skip through fairly fast, because the sounds here we’ve learned not to discuss in the presence of wives and kids. This was the main head area. This is where the crew lined up to shower and shave (in port), and they waited their turns at the two shiny metal doors. These doors led to the main Freckle Makers on board. And the sounds emanating from within, we don’t need to discuss. Hell, we were all there, we know what they were.
The Forward Engine room was next. Here was the Kingdom of the Snipes. The Bubba Smiths and Goat Lydells reigned supreme in their oily castle. If they weren’t checking gauges, they were sitting on a diny stool puffing a greasy cigarette and drinking oily coffee. I’m not poking fun at the snipes, it’s just the way it was when you spent your time in the engine rooms with the monstrous diesels puffing forth smoke and dripping oil on your shoes. I cannot describe the sounds here. It’s called overkill. When you are in the same room with the engines it’s like sitting in the middle of an active volcano or having someone exploding dynamite all around you. I can’t relate to it, it was just noise and a whole lot of it. The Engineering wore large ear mufflers to help block the sound and, I guess, were in tune with it to a large extent. All I know is that it didn’t seem to bother them and that they had a genuine love for their big engines. This was also a dangerous area for some Torpedomen, but that’s another story.
The After Engine room was pretty much a carbon copy of the Forward. The only changes were the faces and the number of dirty coffee cups lying around.
Maneuvering room was a strange little room that I never really understood. Oh, I know that it was where you controlled the main motors, pushing them to all ahead full or starboard back one third. This was done with a blurring dance of levers and valves that I never could figure out completely, qualified or not. Two Electricians sat here with their shiny levers, one port and one starboard (Electricians not levers). I remember that I could still hear the engines in maneuvering room, but I cannot for the life of me remember the sound of the motors. I’m sure some Electricians from long ago will help me trip my memory on this.
Last, and probably least, was the Stern room. This room on normal boats would be the After Torpedo room, but when SPINAX converted to a Radar Picket sub, all the tubes were replaced with shiny new radar equipment. When she was no longer useful as a Radar Picket, all the fancy equipment was removed and it became just the Stern room. It was mainly a sleeping and storage compartment, and had a neat little horseshoe type bench and table in the after section. This was the SPINAX Casino. Gambling was, of course, illegal on boats, but nobody seemed to mind the friendly games of poker, Acey Deucy and Backgammon, and under the watchful eye of the COB, no one was ever bun. I always think of Reno when I think of the Stern room. The clink of chips, the puffing of smokes and the poker talk that goes with any game … -“Hell, you’re bluffin’, Chief!” “Cost you a sawbuck to find out, Toadface, didn’t anyone tell you that Chiefs don’t bluff?” “Ante! Who the%$$ didn’t ante?” “Gimme a smoke, Pigpen!”
The Stem room, in it’s quieter moments always seemed to vibrate and kind of hop crazily around. It was right by the screws, so it picked up a lot of wayward motion. At least it seemed that way to me. I preferred the bounce your stomach on the overhead then bounce it off the deck movement of the Forward room.
There were the loud noises … the Aooooooogah, Aooooooogah of the diving klaxon; the musical chimes of man battle stations, the wonderful sound of first call to chow popping over the lmc, and the sound I was to become more than familiar with-the vooooom, phoooosh sounds of torpedoes being shown their way out of the forward room, or the horrible clatter of flying objects as the boat took a 60 degree typhoon roll or a stuck stern planes 50 degree down angle … or the clanketyclank of someone coming down the forward escape trunk after liberty …
And the quiet noises … The sounds of the movie playing in the wardroom, the gentle sound of swells hitting the boat and lulling me gently to sleep, … or the muttering of non-quals as they climbed over torpedoes and under deckplates looking for the mysterious and elusive Golden Rivet.
Finally, the sound that I feared the most, the sound that woke me out of a deep sleep sweating with terror. The sound of number one sanitary tank being blown while submerged … because I knew what was coming next .. . “Venting inboard!” … The horror!!
Sounds are something we live with all our lives and take for granted. It feels good to let the memories of my ears open, and recall sounds almost lost in times past, those Sounds of the Silent Service.
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