A Bubblehead's Life - Volume 4
The ceremony where my Dolphins were "pinned on" is one of those never forgotten events. After the Commanding Officer, CDR Jim Shew, performed the formal aspect of the ceremony, most of the crew lined up behind him.
If I hadn't been forewarned, I might have assumed this lineup was for the purpose of shaking hands. Unfortunately, this line had nothing to do with handshakes. These guys, all qualified submariners, were waiting patiently to take part in a long-standing tradition.
Each one, in turn, punched the newly placed pin (along with my upper left chest). After the fourth or fifth punch, the pins poked through the backing, making direct contact with my chest. The two little holes paled in comparison to the black and blue outline of the Dolphin pin, and it lasted for almost a week and a half.
I didn't mind, though. The process of getting them made the pain of having them seem minor by comparison. Besides, the next time a new guy qualified, I'd get to take my place in line!
That aside, I wanted to talk a little about some of the more interesting aspects of this unique service.
When most people think of submarines, they think of dark, cramped, noisy, and smelly surroundings. Trust me when I tell you I have worked in offices that were darker, more space constrained, and smellier than the USS Stonewall Jackson ever was.
If you picture an office building with round walls and all of the building services (wire runs, cables, and piping) exposed, you've pretty well captured a modern ballistic missile boat.
The unique aspects of this type of service mostly deal with how normal functions have to adapt to an extended period in an undersea environment. Take food service, for example.
We take a lot for granted when it comes to our eating habits. The boat had very limited storage space. When we loaded out for a patrol, we could only take a limited supply of fresh fruit, vegetables, milk and eggs.
Lettuce salads were a premium, and were only around for the first few days. Fresh milk was replaced with powdered after the first two weeks, but since it was dispensed from a milk machine, it was like roulette as to when the switch had occurred.
No such mystery when it came to the eggs, though. The bright yellow and white of "real" scrambled eggs was dramatically contrasted with the bland yellow of powdered egg substitute.
Otherwise the food service was outstanding. I'm amazed when I think about what those guys did in a small kitchen with very limited resources. Cheeseburgers were a regular on Friday or Saturday nights, and at the midway point (halfway through the patrol), we were treated to surf and turf.
One of our cooks was an accomplished baker, and had even won a major military baking contest. His fresh breads, rolls, and desserts rival anything I've eaten since.
In an earlier edition, I spoke about movies and the library. I forgot to mention the music. Prior to my second patrol, I volunteered to run the boat's music library and sound system. Located in the rear of the crews mess, a large, locked cabinet held a reel-to-reel deck and several cassette decks. The system allowed for six channels of music broadcast, and all of the bunks had a headphone connection and a switch to change channels.
We got our audiotapes and movies through the Armed Forces Entertainment System. While the movies weren't first run, they were recent theatrical releases. A small team of officers, chiefs, and enlisted ranks selected the movies.
Action/adventure was always the most popular choice. If it had a car chase, kung fu, or shootouts, we'd probably have it aboard. Horror was another popular choice, and I recall large crowds cheering for Satan in The Exorcist.
My passion for reading was encouraged in my time on the Stoney J. While I mentioned that the library was small, the number of titles was substantial. Each of us had the ability to add titles to the complement, so after the first patrol, I made my mark.
My qualification allowed me to move into a more substantial work assignment. I had been fascinated with the sonar systems, with the idea that while we were technically "blind," our sonar systems allowed us to hear everything around us.
I qualified to operate the passive hull-mounted systems, and spent hundreds of hours listening to whales, shrimp, dolphins, and other organic noises. Recorders run 24/7, so everything we heard was saved for posterity.
Not everything we heard and recorded was organic, though. Several times we encountered sounds from other submerged contacts, a development that caused serious consternation on a vessel intended to remain undetected for the duration of the patrol.
We were able to determine the class of boat we were listening to each time. Additionally, we knew exactly where they were, and they NEVER knew we were there.
It was important for us to head towards the surface several times each week. The purpose of these jaunts was to obtain radio traffic and navigational information. Given our need for secrecy, when we headed up, it was essential to control our ascent to avoid a "broach," or sticking the sail out of the water.
Since the Officer of the Deck (OOD) would be required to scan the horizon for surface craft, he would need to raise the periscope and start looking for shadows before the scope broke the surface.
If the trip to the surface was going to occur at night, the Control Room was ordered "rigged for red." All of the fluorescent light fixtures were switched to a red light well before the maneuver began, so the OOD's eyes could adjust before having to look through the scope.
No one, not even the most seasick among the crew, minded these short trips upward. If the sea state was above 5, the wave action could be felt at periscope depth. No complaints were heard, though. These trips included an opportunity for the boat to receive those Family Grams, as well as the latest national news and sports scores.
Funny how important it was for me to know if the Phillies, Eagles, Redskins, and Flyers were winning. Those box scores, formatted like a formal naval message, were another connection to life back home. The little things really did mean a lot at several hundred feet below the surface!
Next up: Battle Stations Missile!