J-50, A Little Piece of Heaven

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

In the old days when the boats pulled in, there wasn't any place for single guys to go. No place to haul off to for a hot shower, clean sheets… A real pillow and ten hours of uninterrupted sleep in peace and quiet.

In the late 50s... The days when an E-3 could blow his bi-weekly pay on two pitchers of beer, six Slim Jims, a long distance phone call, his laundry and a shoe shine... In the 50s, a bluejacket Seaman First spent a helluva lot of time broke. Big time busted.

Short of part-time bank robbery or selling the wardroom silver, there was no way he could bankroll a room at the Cavalier Hotel... Or even a cheap flea bag motel out at Ocean View.

Sailors today would never believe what a smokeboat non-qualified, non-rated bluejacket lived on... Or that the United States Navy paid less than the minimum wage of Polish potato diggers.

So when diesel boats in Submarine Squadron Six put their lines over and the married animals went bouncing across the brow for a hot shower, clean sheets and an armload of momma, the single idiots changed their mattress covers and went up to "T" Division on the Orion to catch a hot shower... A 45 minute shower... After a sixty-five cent, tender haircut.

But in the summer, with the sun beating down on the boat all day, the inside of a fleet snorkel boat got hot enough to forge horseshoes. There was no way to sleep inside one of the rascals... You could drown in your own sweat.

So after the sun went down we would drag our mattresses topside and rack out aft of the sail. The topside watch would keep guys returning with 'a load on' from stepping on you... And when the Krispie-Creme truck showed up the next morning, he'd get the below decks watch to pass up hot coffee... Wake you up so you could sit up and have breakfast in bed, wrapped in a dew-soaked blanket.

After a couple of cups of coffee and four or five doughnuts, we engaged in a little known evolution known to E-3s as 'tampon drill'... Where you folded up your mattress like a hot dog bun and poked it down the after battery hatch. The morning messcooks would return them to the bunks. It was a little sloppy, but it worked unless it rained. Rickover would have had cardiac arrest if he had ever come waltzing down Pier 22 after dark. Hell, if he had, he would probably have built us a Howard Johnson out in the parking lot. Yeah, you bet.

One night Admiral Elton W. Grenfell, SubLant... The Big Kahoona himself, came down after dark. He came aboard the inboard boat in the forward nest... And spoke to the topside watch.

"Good evening son."

"Good evening sir."

"Why are those men sleeping on deck?"

"With all due respect sir, it's hotter'n two mice screwin' in a wool sock, down below."

"Why don't they go to their barracks?"

"Barracks? What barracks sir?"

"Your Squadron barracks."

"Squadron barracks? We've got a Squadron barracks? Where is it? No one ever told anyone in the Squadron about it… I've been riding boats in SubRonSix for damn near five years and I've never heard about any barracks, sir."

And that was it.

I have no idea if this is true. (Not that THAT has been a major obstacle to the writing in any other part of this literary masterpiece.) But, scuttlebutt had it that the Navy appropriated a wagonload of money to build barracks for each Submarine Squadron. When the money reached Norfolk, it was intercepted by DesLant and used to build a honking big tin can rec center.

It didn't take Admiral Grenfell long to Dick Tracy out the situation.

According to what we heard, Admiral Grenfell went into DesLant and told him that either he came up with some quality barracks space for his lads or he was going to form the damnedest working party Norfolk had ever seen and start tossing pool tables, ping-pong tables, pinball machines, coke machines and any other inappropriate furniture out the windows of his gahdam tin can playpen and fill the sonuvabitch with racks for the men that he or his predecessor had shortchanged.

Grenfell was a salty World War II submarine skipper, tough as nails. A no bullshit guy who wasn't going to play 'Mother-May -I' with any tinhorn can sailor... And DesLant knew it.

The next day we were given the top floor of a modern, brand new barracks on the Main Naval Operating Base... J-50. The first night, Admiral Grenfell came up to the top deck with the Chief Master At Arms in charge of the lower decks.

"Gather' round... For those of you who don't know me, I am Vice Admiral Grenfell, Submarine Force, Atlantic. On behalf of the Force, I would like to apologize for the delay in providing this barracks space. From here on out you'll have a place for your ashore gear, so you can get your civilian clothes out of the locker clubs. I will expect you to police this space and change these racks regularly... And turn in your dirty linen and draw fresh changes at least once a week. I will hold you senior petty officers responsible for maintaining order up here. Any nonsense and your skippers will get a personal call from me and have to make a detailed report on the action taken. Believe me, you don't want that. When I light up a three-striper, he isn't very happy and adverse consequences usually run down hill. Am I fully understood?"


"Yessir, yessir..."


" My advice would be to settle differences somewhere other than here, take care of your drunks, hold down the grab-ass and racket and keep your chippies out of here. Use common sense lads... You're all grown men... Act like it. And one last thing... From here on in, don't let me catch any of you men dragging mattresses topside... Looks like hell. Carry on gentlemen."

I was there... Hemming was there... Stuke was there. When the old girl put her lines over we had a place to go... Place to drown our fleas in 45-minute sessions under water two degrees below live steam. A place to listen to a radio... Play records... Lose money in all-night poker games... Tell lies half the night... Read and catch up on sleep.

J-50 was as close to heaven that a raghat could get without dying.