USS Requin (SS-481)

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

I rode Requin. Today the wonderful old gal sits out in the Ohio River at Pittsburgh all dolled up looking one helluva lot better than when I rode her. They gave her a total battery hysterectomy and ripped off her screws... She's also a little light in the rack (bunks) department. But, like the gahdam stuffed owl you have perched on your mantle, she looks the same. Looking at her sitting in quiet water securely fastened to a green riverbank... Out to stud, so to speak... A floating jungle gym for school kids. You only have to close your eyes and it all comes back.

It's '60 and the old girl is slicing throug the North Atlantic with a bone in her teeth. It's nighttime, phosphoresent water smashing through the limber holes, sliding aft through the superstructure then sliding down over the tanktops and cascading back into the sea, creating a million twinkling stars passing the screw guards. Cutlass (SS-478) was somewhere up ahead. The lookouts couldn't raise her light so she had to be hull down over the horizon. Her voice call was "Cabbage" and ours was "Rocketwolf"...(the trivial crap you remember forty gahdam years later). On the bridge, two lookouts and the OOD. Night baking smells floating up from the open conning tower hatch. The only sound other than water slapping at the limber holes and doing its damnedest to pop our line locker lids, was a breeze making weird sounds with the whip antenna.

"Cabbage, Cabbage this is Rocketwolf...Rocketwolf..do you read me?"

"Rocketwolf, Cabbage we read you two by two... Too loud and too often. What'cha need Rocketwolf?"

" Halifax Radio says rain your direction; seen any?"

"That's affirmative. Coming down like a cow pissing on a flat rock."

"Flat rock, aye... Much obliged. Rocketwolf out."

"Bridge, conn... We should be hitting a low pressure front with heavy squalls any minute now. You want us to send up rain gear?"

"Conn, bridge... That's affirmative. Have whoever is camped on the trim manifold run us up some gear... And a black and bitter, two blond and sweets and a load of whatever the night baker is pulling out of the oven."

"Very well."

The lieutenant turns toward the lookouts... They've been a team for damn near two years. A watch section... Smallest bloodbrother fraternity on earth. Born by COB assignment, but a union consumated in ice and saltwater.

"Hey, either of you guys want to slip down into the sail and take a piss, catch a quick smoke and screw up your night vision?"

"You bet, sir!"

"Conn, bridge. Wake up whoever is playing radarman down there... Have him take a couple of sweeps around and report anything in our area."

"Bridge, conn... Just the 'Cuteass'... She hasn't changed course for two hours."

"Any aircraft?"

"That's negative."

"Very well."

"OK gentleman, quick smoke and a whiz... One at a time... No screwin' around. The old man or exec come up, get rid of the butt and the usual cover story - Checking the running light connection, thought it was flickering. You know, the standard 'smoke'n pee' cover story."

It's O.K. to tell this stuff now. The statute of limitations has run out on screwin' off on lookout. At the time, catching a smoke down next to the snorkel defuser required an oath involving the future health of your mother and the drinking of chicken blood. The Navy frowned on less than three men on the bridge...The old multiple eyeball theory. We had junk bolted to the bridge that could pick out people in Scandinavia and tell the boys from the girls, but John Paul Jones said three man minumum. J.P. Jones was an officer who obviously never understood the raghats appreciation for a pee and a Pall Mall. Capt. Jones was also surface navy. Once, I saw a painting with Jones standing on the deck of an old sailing ship. He was up his knees in dead bluejackets, 70% of his guns had been dismounted, busted masts, collapsed sails. tackle, rigging and aloft gear littered the decks. What was left of his gunnels were dished in and there was blood all over the place... And here was John Paul standing in the middle of this painting looking like he had just stepped out of a naval tailors, yelling, "I have just BEGUN to fight!"

Remember the old saying, "Ten percent never get the word"? Classic example.

Where in the hell were we? Oh yes... Some clown would bring up the foulweather gear. Salvation Army dumpsters and Pakistani P.O.W. s got better issue than we carried in our foulweather gear locker. The gahdam rubber boots were designed for some monster with rhino feet. We had eight right boots and two left boots. Didn't matter, you could wear two rights, two lefts or any combination thereof, it just didn't matter. The gear was ripped and had become rather gamey. In the winter, the North Atlantic gets a tad chilly. To survive, diesel boat sailors played the "lets see how much gear I can laminate my body with" game. Muliple layers of foul weather pants can turn urination into a never to be forgotten skill... A real olympic event when you add 14 degree rolls and the bow chopping. The inside of our gear needed Dr. Scholls odor eaters. Rumor had it that somewhere in our gear locker there was a dead mule no one could find.

Once the rain hit, all the fun went out of being a lookout. Webster could use the following example to illustrate "miserable"; Being on lookout north of Halifax, late January in heavy rain. Cold and wet the basic ingredients of a long night. But long nights are where lasting friendships are forged. You don't recognize that at eighteen or nineteen... It hits you in your fifties when you stand on the deck of your old boat welded to the dock in Pittsburgh and peer through recently acquired glasses for some old sonuvabitch who shared long nights, strong coffee and wet gear with you many years ago. The fraternity has no expiration date... We get older... We get uglier , but we've left too many beer glass rings on too many tables in weird places to forget each other.

When your tour was over you'd turn your binnoculars over to the poor half asleep sonuvabitch who relieved you, and you turn over your visual contacts, collect coffee cups and head below. Our control room doubled as a clubhouse for clowns. Senior petty officers were rewarded by the gods of underwater service by being given watch assignments where you got to sit in the control room on a padded locker where it was warm and dry and you could drink coffee and smoke while you talked about something called "The good old days where they rode wooden submarines and plugged the leaks with various body parts ripped off messcooks and lookouts." We figured if bullshit ever got to five cents a pound, we were going to sell anything assigned to a manifold watch.

"Hey sweetheart, how's the weather out tonight?"

You and your watch mate are standing there trying to light soggy cigarettes dripping water all over the deck and now Mr. Submarines wants to play Mr. Comedian...

"Great Chief... Back in the old days when me, Noah and all the animals went to sea, this was a shower. Just think, if we had just killed all of the monkeys, there would be no gahdam Chief Enginemen or machinist mates."

When you got tired of batting horsemanure fore and aft with the elderly set, you would head into the crews mess and draw a cup of whatever was passing for hot coffee on that particular night. We called it "Boiled Yugoslavian army sock." You always could find something that would pass for food in a third world country, on a messdeck table. They called the stuff midnight rations... "Midrats"... Usually a couple of loaves of fresh baked bread, some navy mayonaise and cold cuts. Navy mayonaise healed itself. It came in a labeless can... You zipped the lid out of the can and damn near immediately, a vulcanized scum formed on the top like a self-sealing tractor tire. To get to the damn spreadable mayonaise, it was like trying to punch your way through the side of a weather balloon. Nobody ever recognized what-in-the-hell the cold cuts were made out of, or cared. Could have been Cocker Spanial for all we knew. But it made a sandwich and no diesel boat sailor passed for a gourmet. Once you had wrapped yourself around a couple of mid rat sandwiches, you pulled a couple of cups outa the rack and drew coffee for the oiler and throttleman in the forward engine house. Then you worked your way through the snoring mob in the after battery.

The A.B. was like 25 bums living in a refrigerator crate. When we got to the engine room and handed out the coffee, we pulled off our wet foulweather gear and draped it over the Fairbanks engine covers. All throttlmen had the straight poop on everything. Never knew why... Some kind of underground telegraph, probably. We always figured the engineman could hypnotize the yeoman, or had an 8x10 glossy photo of the exec checking into a motel with a sheep. Whatever it was, enginemen always knew what was happening. After a while, you returned to the after-battery to look for an empty rack to turn in to, and some sound sleeper whose blankets you could steal.

I loved the boat. Great crew. Great wardroom. Best damn cooks and our corpsman, Master Chief Rohr was better than anything you'd find at the Mayo Clinic. I love kidding boat sailors. Aside from marrying my bride and the birth of my kids, the highpoint of my life came on the morning Cdr. Ed Frothingham pinnned silver dolphins on my wet dungaree shirt.

I hope I don't step on too many nuke toes... Those of us who rode conventional boats put up with a lot of nuclear power tribal bullshit. We didn't initiate it... Some idiot planted a seed that going nuke was going first class... Diesel boat sailors were inferior - less than desirable folks. Jet pilots never treated prop fliers like trash... Marines who arrive by helicopter don't trash fellow Marines who arrive by landing boat. If a nuke boat sailed up my storm sewer, I wouldn't walk across the street to see it. I know it's wrong to feel like that. Hell, I've always blamed Rickover... He was in charge. He not only condoned it, but pushed it. I've never felt comfortable about that kind of thinking.

Keep a zero bubble... Dex.


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