I liked popping the hatch at the top of the sail (submarine’s bridge) at sunrise and being the first to savor the scent of fresh air for the first time in 8 weeks… watching dolphins race in the bow wave on the way back home to Pearl… the tear-drop hull of the boat beneath me silently slicing through the sea.
I liked the sounds of the submarine service (sounds that we alone could hear, as we were the Silent Service where others were concerned) – the ascending whine of the dive alarm sounding, and the haunting echos of “Cayooogah, cayooogah… Dive! Dive!” from the boats yesteryear, the gruff voice of a Chief headed aft… “Down ladder; Make a Hole!”, the indescribable creaking sound of hull-steel compressing at depths that remain classified to this day.
I was impressed with Navy vessels – bracketed in the aperture of Periscope #2, the crosshairs gently rising and falling across their silhouette on the horizon, while obtaining range, bearing and angle off the bow.
I liked the names of proud boats of every class, from the “pig boats” of WWI to the sea creatures of WWII, like Barbel, Dorado, Shark and Seawolf, and the Cold War boats that bore with honor the names of these and 48 others that are “Still on Patrol.” Boats honoring national heroes, statesmen and presidents: Washington, Madison, Franklin and more. Whole classes of boats honoring cities and states: Los Angeles, Ohio and Virginia.
I liked the tempo of opposed piston diesels and the “pop” in your ears when equalizing to atmospheric when the head valve first opens to ventilate and snorkel. I miss the “thrill” of riding an emergency blow from test depth to the top at a nice steep bubble.
I enjoyed seeing places I’d only dreamed of, and some of which I’d heard from my grandfather who had seen them under very different circumstances and conditions… places like Pearl Harbor, Guam, Truk Island and Subic and Tokyo Bays.
I admired the teamwork of loading ships stores, the “brow-brigade” from pier to boat, and lowering them vertically through a 24” hatch to the galley below. I relished the competition of seeing who could correctly guess how many days underway before the fresh eggs and milk ran out and powder prevailed upon us henceforth.
I loved my “brothers,” each and every one, whether their dolphins were gold or silver and regardless of rate or rank. We shared experiences that bonded us evermore, and knew each other’s joys, pains, strengths and weaknesses. We listened to and looked out for each other. We shared precious little space in which to live and move and work, and we breathed, quite literally, the same recycled air.
After weeks in cramped quarters, my heart leapt at the command, “Close All Main Vents; Commence Low Pressure Blow; Prepare to Surface; Set the Maneuvering Watch.” When safely secured along the pier, the scent of my sweetheart’s hair evaporated the staleness emanating from my dungarees.
Exhausting though it was, I even liked the adrenaline rush of endless drills, and the comfort in the knowledge that any dolphin-wearing brother had cross-trained just like I had… not only on basic damage control, but to the point of having a basic working knowledge of every system on the boat, such that when real emergencies inevitably arose, the response was so automatic and efficient they were almost anti-climactic.
I liked the eerie sounds of “biologics” through the sonar headphones, the strange songs of the sea in the eternal night below the surface of the deep blue seas.
I liked the darkness – control room rigged for red or black, the only illumination that of the back-lights compass and gauges of the helm and myriad of buttons and indicator lights across the BCP. I liked the gentle green glow of the station screens in the Sonar Shack and Fire Control. I grew to like coffee, the only way to stay awake in the numbing darkness of the Control Room with the constant rocking of the boat during countless hours at periscope depth.
I liked “sliders” and “lumpia” and pizza at “Mid-rats” at the relieving of the watch. I liked the secure and cozy feeling of my rack, my humble little “den,” even when it was still warm from the body-heat of the guy who just relieved me of the watch.
I liked the controlled chaos of the Control Room, with the Officer of the Deck, Diving Officer and Chief of the Watch receiving and repeating orders; the sound of Sonar reporting: “Con-Sonar: New Contact, submerged, designated: Sierra 1, bearing: 0-1-0, range: 1-0-0-0 yards, heading 3-5-0, speed: 1-5 knots, depth: 4-0-0’.”
I liked the rush of “Man Battlestations; Rig for Quiet” announced over the 1MC, and the “outside of my rate” role I played as CEP plotter during war games, and later… SpecOps – the window to another world that I was allowed to peer through… the tactics, stealth and tenacity of our Captain making prompt and purposeful decisions to see us safely and successfully through the mission.
I appreciated the fact that I was a 19 year old kid, entrusted with operating some of the most sophisticated equipment in the entire world, and the challenge of doing those tasks in a 33’ x 360’ steel tube, several hundred feet below the surface, in potentially hostile waters.
I admired the traditions of the Silent Service, of Men of Iron in Boats of Steel, where you were just a NUB until you were “Qualified” and had EARNED the respect of the Officers and crew. I revered past heroes like inventor John Philip Holland and innovator Hyman G. Rickover. Such men and those that followed, both Officer and Enlisted, set precedents to follow, standards to uphold, and examples of bravery and self-sacrifice like the world has seldom seen. We were taught to honor these traditions. Somewhere far below the ocean’s surface, I became a man… and not just any man. I became… a Submariner.
Decades now have come and gone since last I went to sea. The years have a way of dimming things, like looking at the past through a smoky mirror. I went, as many others, my separate way… raised a family, and moved on… but a part of me, my Sailor’s Soul, will always be underway… somewhere… in the darkness, in the deep, making turns for twenty knots and a pushing a hole through the water.
Written By: Jody Wayne Durham, MM2/SS
USS Los Angeles (SSN-688), ’85 – ‘88