The following article comes from today’s issue of the Undersea Warfare News, a Navy clipping service that republishes articles of interest to the submarine community. I thought it was a good read.
Opinion/Commentary: Down Periscope
Darryl Manzer, SCVNews.com, May 15
When I tell folks I served on submarines, most of the time I hear, “What was it like?” and “I couldn’t do that; I’m claustrophobic.” Followed soon after by, “Why did you pick submarines?”
I didn’t “pick” the Submarine Service. I enlisted as a musician. I played bassoon. The Navy didn’t want another bassoonist. I also auditioned for clarinet and sax. Passed those auditions, but I didn’t want to play those instruments any longer. I figured I had started on clarinet in third grade at Castaic Union Elementary School and continued it at Peachland. Once at Placerita Junior High, Mr. Downs asked me to play bass clarinet, and in eighth grade I added bassoon. I switched between bass clarinet and bassoon through my senior year at Hart.
But I didn’t want to play a single reed instrument any more, so back at my company in boot camp, following my auditions I asked my company commander, Chief Machinist Mate (SS) Leo Yavarosky, what I should do. His reply was quick and to the point. “Go submarines.”
I did volunteer the next day. I was hooked for 36 years with the Navy and a few more as a contractor. I love the boats.
The Submarine Service isn’t for everyone. I like to think we qualified by flunking our psychological evaluation for the rest of the fleet. You had to be crazy to get on the boats.
Getting on the boats after basic training or, as sailors and Marines say, “boot camp,” was a long process. Schools, schools and more schools. (Even more schools once you were aboard a boat.)
I’ll never forget going aboard my first submarine after that long and sometimes tedious education.
Menhaden (SS377) in the 1960s.
The first submarine is always a special memory. USS Menhaden (SS377) was a modernized submarine built in 1944. I’ll never forget the smell. Diesel fuel. Cooking oils. Perspiration. Cigarette and other tobacco smoke.
Greases, oils and all manner of odors. It got worse if the cooks prepared meals that tended to increase the gases a sailor could produce. My calf barn-cleaning chores in Pico Canyon did much to prepare me for those smells.
I thought when I went to a “nuke boat,” or nuclear-powered submarine, the smells would get better. They really didn’t. I did have a new odor added to all those before: amine. That is a chemical used to remove carbon monoxide and dioxide from the air inside a boat. It leaves its own smell that permeates every article of clothing you take on the boat with you. I’ve got a couple of old uniforms that still have the smell nearly 45 years later.
That first time underway and that first-time dive. Was I scared? You bet. Couldn’t show it, because all of your shipmates would let you know what a “wuss” you were if you did. Plus, you were too busy getting qualified to worry about stuff like a few leaks and weeps.
Imagine a large RV that can go underwater. Depending on the boat, there were 80 to 150 sailors aboard. Crowded? Yes. I was lucky and never had to “hot rack,” meaning I didn’t share the bunk with another sailor. Some guys had to do that. When one was sleeping, the other was awake and on watch or maintaining equipment.
We got fed four meals a day. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and mid-rats. Serving times were 0600, 1200, 1800 and 2400. Up until recently, submariners lived an 18-hour day. Six hours on watch and 12 off to sleep and keep things running. Most boats have now switched to a 24-hour day. I don’t know how that is working out.
Back in the day, we had movies to watch and endless card games of all types. We held “casino nights,” and on long deployments we had “Mid Patrol Follies.” There was always work to do, and when nothing else was going on, we had “field day.” That is the Navy way of saying “housecleaning.” We did that at least weekly.
On the “nuke” boats, on deployment, I spent anywhere from 57 to 87 days underwater at a time. When we got near the surface, we got to look out the periscope at times. Today the periscope camera can be seen all over the boat on flat-screen monitors, but back then we got maybe a minute each to see things … like the surface of the ocean for miles in every direction, and a very special time when we saw Mount Etna, the volcano on Sicily, erupting. That was a great “periscope liberty” time.
Growing up in the Santa Clarita Valley, I could hike or ride up a ridge and see for miles and miles all around. On a submarine, the maximum direct line of sight might be 100 feet in the missile compartment of a ballistic missile boat. So when you get back to port, your eyes have to adjust for distance vision again.
What was it like? I guess I could say it was like being stuck in an RV on a rainy day with a lot of other guys. Now there are women on the boats. Officers. Soon I suspect the enlisted ranks will have women, too. There will be some changes made in berthing assignments and areas and maybe use of the “heads,” or bathrooms, but I don’t see a big problem with women on a boat.
Unless a couple is into some sort of exhibitionism, it won’t be a problem. Surface ships have all kinds of places a couple can get alone. On a submarine, the only place you can be alone is between your own ears.
It is also the only part of the Navy where no matter the size of your ship you still call it a “boat.” Tradition runs deep. Very, very deep.
And for those other questions: Deeper than 800 feet. Faster than 30 knots. Underway as long as there is food. Trash and garbage get compressed in special cans and ejected. Human waste gets pumped overboard via the “sanitary pump.” Oxygen is made on board, and the air is cleaned in any manner of ways. Water is either distilled or made by a reverse osmosis machine.
Even today, we old non-nuke diesel boat sailors like to say: “Every boat still has an emergency diesel generator as a back-up to the nuclear power plant and around 120 tons of battery.”
Gee, my RV has an emergency diesel generator and six batteries, too. Guess that is why I feel so at home in “Billy Bob” – my RV.
Darryl Manzer grew up in the Pico Canyon oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s and attended Hart High School. After a career in the U.S. Navy he returned to live in the Santa Clarita Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and his commentaries, published on Tuesdays and Sundays, are archived at DManzer.com.