Every submariner who has spent a summer at sea knows the high premium the sub community places on quality mid-shipman cruises. This is especially true for CORTRAMID, which is most midshipmen’s first exposure to the Silent Service. The goal, as many know, is to encourage as many mid-shipmen as possible to choose to train on submarines during their subsequent summers. As the Midshipman Training Officer aboard USS WYOMING (SSBN 742)(BLUE) during the summer of 2003, I was tasked to coordinate the boat’s entertainment of legions of rising college sophomores. That summer, WYOMING inaugurated 200 midshipmen into the ways of deep.
Being the Midshipman Training Officer wasn’t a ride in the hay. First, I had to face the enmity of my fellow junior officers for being removed from the watchbill. “Cruise Director Julie”-1 believe that’s what they called me. Second, sailors were routinely displaced from their bunkrooms so the mids have a nice warm pillow on which to rest their heads. Further, the crew’s off-watch sleep was certain to be interrupted by the large up and down-angles the middies enjoyed so much. I was the obvious lightning rod for crewmember grievances about such things.
A “dog and pony show” was one euphemism I heard for our two-day stints with prospective Naval Officers. While still on the surface, in transit to the dive point, we had them use markers to decorate Styrofoam cups-later to be stuffed into a mesh bag and left in the sail (outside the pressure hull) to experience sea pres-sure at test depth. When we re-surfaced the next day, the cups were returned to the students, now much smaller and more solid due to the air that had escaped. “I bet we’re the only community to give you guys shot glasses!” I joked to the mids, who also trained with the Surface Warfare, Aviation, and Marine Corps communities during the summer.
Pizza and hamburgers comprised their meals, hard-pack ice cream their desserts. Each midshipman got the chance to dive the torpedo tubes and man the periscope, as well as an opportunity to assume the role of helmsman/plantsman under instruction. Before we debarked our young men and women, we administered a survey to each to find out the highlights of their encounter so we could make the next group’s ride that much better. Most cited the food, meeting WYOMING’s sailors, or angles and dangles as their favorite aspect of the submarine experience.
But the undeniable highlight, what made the experience worth-while for the crew, the wardroom, and the midshipmen alike, was the swim call. Acrobatic leaps from the turtleback resulted in considerably sizeable splashes, followed by quick scurries up the Jacob’s Ladder to do it all again. At any given time there were no fewer than two-dozen midshipmen, crew, and officers treading in the lee created by the sub, in water deeper than a thousand swimming pools. The skipper, smoking a cigar in his lounge chair in a Hawaiian shirt, called it, ”
Naturally, I felt obliged to put my pasty submariner skin to the test and join in the fun, and occasionally rein in a wayward mid who strayed too far from the boat. Footballs made their appearance from below decks and were tossed to high-flying students as they leapt through the air and down to the ocean many feet below. The experienced sailors, those with many swim calls under their belts, performed deft feats such as cannonballs and flying squirrels, commanding the rapt attention of all who were topside and in the water. Such was your average swim call aboard a nuclear sub-marine -a pleasurable diversion from an arduous business. But not every swim call was all fun and games.
It started when I, treading in the Atlantic on the starboard side of the hull, diverted my eyes away from the next daredevil jumper and towards the sail. There, I saw the rifleman (a fixture for a Navy swim call, and we shall see why) pointing out into the water off the starboard bow. His hand was on the shoulder of the Officer of the Deck, who peered critically through his binoculars. With his free hand, he spoke into his handheld radio. The XO, topside with the Captain, listened intently.
“Everybody out of the water!” the XO yelled down to the swimmers, myself among them. Several people looked up towards him.
“Shark!” an eavesdropping petty officer, by the XO’s side, added emphatically. Those who had missed the Executive Officer’s order were now fully tuned in. I looked back towards the sail, and the rifleman was still pointing -this time with his M-16 and much closer to the boat. Other extended fingers from those topside converged on a position I estimated to be about a hundred yards away in the water.
Anyone skeptical of the critical nature of chokepoints to naval strategy need only to witness what happens when a one-man rope ladder is the only way out of shark-infested waters. The clamber-ing would have been much worse had our crewmen not yielded to the midshipmen first, or if some midshipmen hadn’t thought the many yells of “Shark!” from topside were an orchestrated prank. I knew better. I demanded calmness from the midshipmen jostling for position at the ladder, and I assured the unbelievers that the XO was not a jokester when it came to safety. Of course, any of my pleas for calmness were negated when I turned my attention to the rifleman and, in my next breath, shouted “Shoot the@%#%!” The fingers and rifle were pointing closer still -thirty yards away, at best.
Eventually, order broke out and most of the swimmers stood, dripping and panting, on the missile deck. First the midshipmen climbed, then the crew, until a fellow Junior Officer, “Ponch,” and I were the last two in the water. Well, partially in the water. We had grasped the edge of the superstructure and hoisted ourselves in a way that left only our posteriors immersed. By this point, I may as well have had a fin on my back; the fingers were pointing that close to our position. My heart was pounding so hard and fast that I was sure the sonar men on watch took notice. I would later joke to Ponch that I considered punching him in the nose and leaving him as bait to ensure my own safe ascent. But, of course, we made it onto the submarine unscathed.
The Officer of the Deck would later tell us that the shark was a hammerhead, about the size of a person. Of course, others had vastly different impressions of the fish’s size, some ichthyologically suspect. The XO recounted the repeated requests for permission to fire, all of which he denied, and apparently wisely so. Several other crewmen reminded me of the running joke that the purpose of a swim-call rifleman is to shoot the per-son closest to the shark so the rest can swim to safety.
When the time came, we bid farewell to the latest honorary “Wyoming-ites” and sent them ashore, fat with pizza and sliders, to Norfolk via tugboat. We were well aware that the next batch would arrive in due course. As I reviewed the questionnaires the midshipmen had filled out, I noticed several of the same answers we received so far that summer. The best part of the experience, for some, was the food or the angles or the crew. But the majority had a different answer. Their two-word reply, when asked to name the best aspect of their submarine experience, was simple: “The Shark.”