My first submarine was a World War II Diesel Boat home ported in San Diego. It was late January 1961 when the event described here came to be. After reporting aboard I had to very quickly get qualified on a few basic underway watch stations so that I could become a contributing and useful member of the crew. One of my first qualifications was as a Lookout. Now even that seemingly simple qualification was difficult. Most of the senior enlisted crew members, the ones that had to sign your qualification card, wore World War II Submarine War Patrol Pins, and they were very demanding to say the least. As a new guy, a non-qual, one had to prove yourself to them every day with everything you did. They were tough and there was no free ride on anything. There was never a situation where your performance could be signed off as good enough. For these old World War II submarine warriors, there was only one right way and everything else was the wrong way. Everyone in the crew all the way up to ship’s Captain seemed to hold these old war-hardened sailors in special regard and I’m ashamed to say that I never fully understood it at the time. The Chief of the Boat, the senior enlisted man on board, was an old World War II Torpedoman who everyone called Blackie, and he was the absolute god ON THAT SUBMARINE. In the eyes of a young enlisted man, he absolutely ran the ship.
When I give my mind free reign to drift through the pages of my old memories, I can easily slide backward to one particularly significant instance on that old boat when I was still a green kid. As one of my special duties, I was assigned as Bow Lookout on the Special Fog Detail. Now this assignment would not normally amount to much as the Special Fog Detail was rarely called out other than for a training evolution.
Alas, as luck would have it, one night soon after my qual card was signed off for that evolution, we did a night surface in the open ocean, off the coast of San Diego into a heavy fog bank. The Special Fog Detail was immediately called away and I had to very quickly get my gear assembled and get on station which was topside, on deck, way out on the bow. My gear consisted of a set of sound powered phones, a heavy leather belt with a four foot piece of nylon line attached and a C shaped metal fitting on its end that would mate with an imbedded T shaped rail (we called it a railroad track) built into the submarine’s deck, and of course a pair of high quality marine binoculars were around my neck suspended by a sturdy lanyard.
Thus equipped, I reported to the control room prepared to ascend the ladder into the Conning Tower. After receiving permission from the OD, I climbed up the ladder through the access hatch to the Bridge, then down an external ladder from the bridge onto the deck. This was a tricky position to be in for until I located the deck rail with my right hand and latched my C fitting onto it, I only had my left hand with which to hold onto the waist high safety rail that ran around the base of the exterior conning tower. Any slip of my hand or a wave or swell that I was not prepared for could send me into the sea in an instant, never to be seen again. This was dangerous stuff. Needless to say I quickly connected my harness fitting to the deck safety rail as I had practiced in training, many times previously in daylight and good weather. I knew right where it was.
Now I could relax just a bit as I was firmly tethered to the deck but I still needed to find the sound powered phone jack on the front of the conning tower and plug my phone headset to it. I had to assume that the IC Electrician down in the control room had flipped the right switch connecting this particular jack into the phone system. Connecting my phone was in itself a difficult task in the dark and mostly done by feel and knowledge of where the jack box should be located. This too had been practiced in the daylight (while blindfolded I might add). While these activities were going on of course the boat continues rocking back and forth while it’s rising up and down with the ocean swells. Sure is difficult to maintain your balance out there in the dark as there is really no point of reference for your eyes to lock onto.
With my phone hooked up, and communications established with the bridge phone talker I had to now move forward in the darkness as quickly as possible to the bow. This was accomplished by holding my harness line in my right hand and sliding the C fitting along on the safety rail as I slid my now soaked boondockers along on the deck and slowly felt my way forward toward the bow. Once on station I had to report in to the bridge. Now situated in my final position I could sort of make a triangle with my feet and my tether which gave me a degree of stability. Even so, I continued using one hand gripping my tether while the other held my binoculars to my eyes. Fortunately the sea was relatively calm with little or no wind, but the slow moving swells were huge relative to little old me.
Now this particular boat was a special purpose AGSS and she had a very large Bow Buoyancy Tank. This is the forward most ballast tank and is flooded full of sea water when the boat dives along with several other tanks along the length of the hull on both sides. The tanks of course are then blown free of water when the crew desires to surface. The boat had surfaced tonight using the minimum amount of high pressure air (as was commonly done to conserve the high pressure air) and the low pressure blower was running to blow out the seawater that remained in the tanks (I could vaguely hear it running).
Suddenly a large slow moving swell passed over the bow and I gasped as the unexpected coolness of seawater rose up my pants, up to about my waist. So there I was up to my waist in sea water, in the foggy darkness. I could see nothing and my only point of reference was my feet that were firmly planted on the deck of the submarine below me. My tethered harness tightened around my waist as I leaned against the swell. I was scared, really scared, but I had a job to do that was important to the ship and the safety of my shipmates so I continued to do what I needed to do, what I was trained to do. I prayed there in the dark that the sensation I felt was in fact a sea swell and not the submarine slipping below the surface from a loss of depth control, for if that was the case, I was done for.
If the boat did not continue to slowly rise out of the sea, or if the swells changed direction, or if the crew in operations lost a bit of depth control, the boat could yet partially or even fully submerge and I would be pulled below the surface and surely drown. I could not easily disconnect myself from the safety rail at my feet nor remove the large leather belt around my waist. You see, in my location there on the bow, there was no provision on the rail that would permit me to unhook. With the darkness and the fog this created a very frightening situation. From my position, looking in the direction of what I though was aft, I couldn’t see the bridge, the conning tower, the shears, or even the mast light. The boats horn (or whistle as it is commonly called) would be sounded periodically to warn any others out there of our presence. The chatter in my earphones was at least reassuring but still, it was like I was out there in the middle of the ocean, in the dark and heavy fog, all by myself, and in my state of mind, that is exactly where I was.
My only contact with another human was through my ear phones and my only real security came from my own confidence that my shipmates were indeed there with me, carefully guiding and directing that piece of steel to which I was fastened. In all my days as a submariner, I was never truly frightened to that extent again. At that time in my career, I was a long way from being Qualified in Submarines but as I look back on that situation, I think I became a Brother of the Pfin that night. I learned under fire just what it meant to have shipmates that I could depend on. I also realized the mindset I had to develop if I was ever to be a qualified submariner and wear those coveted dolphins on my chest. I absolutely had to keep my head straight for if I panicked, well, I wouldn’t be here today, would I? If I had lost my head and became separated from the boat for any reason, my body would never have been found in the darkness and fog (and of course I knew this all too well).
Now in this scared to death situation for a young inexperienced submariner that I have described, one might ask why I did not refuse, for safety reasons, to go out on deck under the conditions that were present. Well, I guess I could have refused but, if I had, it would have been the end of my submarine duty. I would never be certified as Qualified in Submarines and receive those coveted Dolphins for no one in the crew would trust me to do my duty when the situation got a little rough and therefore there would be no more signatures on my qual card. In short, I would have been an outcast to say the least and soon transferred out of the submarine community to some old clunker surface craft to serve out my enlistment. Those old WWII guys that were my mentors and teachers would never have stood for any crewmember refusing to do his duty. And going out there on deck that night as a bow lookout was my duty for I was on the watch quarter, and station bill for that assignment.
All of this happened over 50 years ago, yet even today, I am never more comfortable, relaxed, and at peace with my surround- ings as when I am in the company of my Brothers of the Pfin. We are a very small specialized fraternity, very open and friendly with others of our kind. Submariners by nature often appear secretive to those outside our community (a hard lesson learned during wartime) but there are seldom any secrets between us. Anywhere I go while wearing my SubVets ball cap, if there is another submariner in the vicinity, he will always approach and strike up a conversation and I do the same thing, for we are all forever Brothers of the Pfin.