The USS Orion (AS-18) Revisited

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

Tenders are great big contraptions that are a lot like buildings that sit in the water, loaded with folks who don't go anywhere and containing guys called Master at Arms whose sole purpose for existing is to pin hell on E-3s. They wear sheriff's badges and from the size of damn near all of them, they had to be hauling dead horse allotments to Budweiser.

The characteristics that distinguished tenders from the architectural structures at DES SUB piers, like warehouses, were (a) they were sitting in saltwater, (b) they rusted, and (c) having a thirty-foot gangway, separated them from shore duty.

From time to time, they took in submarine orphans in transit awaiting the return of their assigned boats. They billeted these unfortunate sonuvabitches in a place called 'T' Division. 'T' Division was a hell hole up forward near the bow on Orion. It was hot, the head stunk and it was full of hand-me-down mattresses rescued from a slum dump. It was where all the flies in North America held morning quarters. 'T' Division on the AS-18 made those cages in Gitmo look like the Hilton.

The Orion must've had some kind of propulsion because it actually moved every now and then. But between these rare occasions, they would muster the enginemen and machinist mates in the messdeck and show them pictures of mechanical equipment so they didn't forget what the stuff looked like… And grown men sat around trying to remember exactly what it was that all that gear did… Something like a quiz show at a nuthouse.

Rumor had it that the machine rooms on Orion had been actually taken over by animals resulting from evolutionary mutation… Twenty-five foot pier rats and cockroaches that ate sheet metal… So it was perfectly understandable not to want to go in there.

Somebody told us that the Chairman of Communist China once lodged a complaint with the United Nations, that roots from the Orion's hull had grown completely through the earth and were coming up in China and wrecking the streets. We called it communist propaganda, but it might have had some truth in it.

The main agricultural product of this big metal idiot farm was clean white hats. They had men called radiomen… Guys who parked their butts in a nice, quiet air-conditioned compartment, did crossword puzzles and watched paper emerge from weird machines. Every now and then, the transmitted wisdom that came out of the mechanical crap in the radio palace had to be conveyed to the wardroom. Such trips required that the personnel hauling these gems of naval thought process, be attired in the manner depicted on recruiting posters.

Every non-rated bluejacket riding submarines knew that every radioman owned at least four hundred clean, starched white hats and had a burning desire deep within his heart that boatsailors would look sharp on liberty. All we had to do was periodically harvest them… Which we did.

Going back to the MAAs… Master at Arms. Tenders were literally crawling with these characters. I don't know where the Navy found these guys. I suspected that most of them spent their formative years living in trees, eating bananas. E-3s spent a lot of time being accosted by these giant hulks and being asked stupid questions, like…

"Son, what in the hell are you doing?"

You were smart enough to know that "Stealing you bastards' blind" was not a good answer…

"Oh sir, my duty officer sent me over to pick up a hydro caniffling retractor coupling from Capt. Rice, up in Squadron."

The secret was connecting your mission with officer stuff. These dumb bastards knew instinctively that their 'Handmaiden from Hell' status depended on not tangling up officer stuff.

"Well son what'n the hell are you doing up here in the radio shack?"

"I'm lost."

"Lost? You're... WHAT?"

"Lost. Some guy gave me this up ladder, down ladder, thwartships, midships… Frame thirty-two, starboard passageway shit… And I got lost."

"How long you been in the Navy, son?"

The bastards always asked that. Guys that have been in the Navy a hundred years, love to lay that one on a non-rated guy.

"Six months, Chief."

That was a sure fire 'Get out of the bucket' answer. It was like having 'DUMBSHIT' tattooed on your eyelids.

"Six months? Jeezus kid, didn't you learn anything at Great Lakes?"

"No sir… I'm a two-week reserve from Possum Fork, Alabama."

The words 'Two-week reserve' can give a Master at Arms total cardiac arrest.

I had done postgraduate work under the best leading seaman in the submarine force... Adrian Stuke. The Stuke method of E-3 survival told you that when you were snorkeling around in ever increasing hot water, 'Get stupid fast' was the best course of action. The words 'Two-week reservist' could turn your dumbass credentials into a cement job in two seconds. Old salts usually threw back the stupid fish.

"Son… Just get the hell outta here."

Tenders were really neat places to get lost in when you wanted to waste time and pick up stuff they didn't issue to pigboats. It was like Bum's Night at Buckingham Palace… You could roam around and see what the good life was like… And fill your pockets with stuff that wasn't bolted down or welded to the bulkheads.

That was what submarine sailors did… Because that is what they had always done. Wholesale tender theft was an integral part of the Naval Supply System. If you couldn't lay your hands on the proscribed material, you had to make do. You could usually go lightfinger something off the tender that with submarine ingenuity, you could make work.

I once sat in the after battery messdeck and cut gaskets out of a stolen hot water bottle we got off of Orion's sickbay… Using a tuna can for a pattern. The whole idea was to keep stuff working… At least that was the way it used to be. It was not criminal from the way we saw it, because nothing left the pier, except white hats.

We once unscrewed a CRS metal panel from a head stall… Took it down to the sheet metal shop and had a shield made for the DRT (dead reckoning tracer) in the conn.

Tenders were a lot like Noah's Ark, the damn things had two of everything.

Old Mother Orion is now parked in the bone yard for old worn out, no longer needed ships… Her paint is peeling away… She's rusting away and has a thirty to fifty-foot gash in her side nobody gives a damn about. She is being cannibalized for parts. In a way, that's like going to a nursing home and taking the old ladie's eyes and kidneys before they are completely dead. Sad in a way… Most of her children, the subs that nestled along her side, have already made their trips up the river to the scrap yards and a few went to the taxidermy shop, got stuffed and put out to pasture as amusement park attractions... And the lads who rode them have gray hair and get up to pee three times a night.

Something that all true boatsailors know is that we only rag those we love. In our hearts we know that Orion left the light on for us and met each arriving wayward child with fresh milk and mail. She nursed us when we were sick... Put money in our wallets… Scolded us when we were naughty and turned a blind eye to having her pockets picked.

When ships grow old, the system either eats them or lets them decompose out of sight. No storybook endings… Just one day the only thing left are old men's memories and a name and hull number on the Navy's 'stricken list'... And, old fools make jokes and rag their fellow bluejackets because that's God's gift to 'Once upon a time', long ago sailors. That's the way it has always been and hopefully always will be.