Going, Going, Damn Near Gone

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

If you rode smokeboats, go pour yourself a stiff one… This one will make you bleed in your sea boots.

Gentlemen, the places we knew and were a part of us, are slowly being removed. One by one, to be replaced by stuff with no history, no memories and no tradition… Just new stuff.

They did away with the escape tower at the Sub Base at New London. Funny thing though, it is still part of the base insignia. Kids today must look at their insignia and wonder why the damn thing has a grain silo on it. The damn place isn't even called 'New London' anymore… It's 'Groton'… Same place, same location. But like everything else in the boatservice, the idiot bastards changed it for some dumb reason known only to God and Rickover, the flag rank ferret.

Seven Brothers, once the official watering hole of the Atlantic Submarine Force… Gone.

The Basic Enlisted Submarine School, whose alumni turned the floor of the Pacific into a naval junkyard and the bluejackets of Hirohito's once powerful navy, into fast food for crabs. If any structure anywhere ever cried out for historic preservation, it was that building. It reeked of noble purpose… Now it's gone.

The Submarine Base at New London was once a beautiful place in a magnificent setting on par with an Ivy League campus or a mini-Naval Academy. It was a very impressive location, the center of the submarine universe.

Now the place looks like an industrial park full of look-alike sterile modern structures. Once again, a deprecating trade-off where small-bore leadership has traded the time-tested and meaningful for the fast pop expedient of accommodating immediate and often temporary need. The immediate need justifies the obliteration of the structures of historical value to those trying to reconnect with their time and place in the expanding timeline that is and always will be the United States Submarine Service… The Force.

Norfolk was my home port. During my tour C.E. (Convoy Escort) Piers became DES SUB (Destroyer and Submarine) Piers.

In 1960, the city fathers closed and destroyed the infamous East Main Street. We missed Sodom and Gomorrah and damn near missed East Main. Most of the vice and inappropriate conduct in the Western Hemisphere was invented on East Main. When East Main was in full swing, all the breweries on the east coast worked three shifts… It raised the standard for hell holes. If a bluejacket couldn't find it on East Main, it had to involve gay penguins or nympho sea turtles. We must have been having too much fun, so they shut it down and leveled it.

What was left of the movable feast, hauled out to Hampton Boulevard.

Just outside the main N.O.B. Gate, there were two blocks that provided John Q. Bluejacket most of his transient pleasures… Wine, women and Slim Jims, Beer Nuts and hard-boiled eggs… Indigestion and athletes' foot of the esophagus. The place was so bad even the Shore Patrol thought nothing about taking a leak in the alley.

It was a mess, but it belonged to us…The Big'O', Loveys Krazy KatThe Victory… and Bells Bar and Naval tailors… The recreation room of Subron Six… Home of Thelma, the queen of draft beer and unladylike conduct…

"I'll have the left nut of the sonuvabitch that tosses a quarter in that damn thing and plays La Bamba, The Lonely Bull or that gahdam, Don't Take Your Guns To Town."

Well, you can still pee in the street because that's all that's left. The rest is gone… Gone to Honky Tonk Heaven.

They set fire to the Ocean View Amusement Park and flattened that… They demolished Camp Allen, the big brig… I don't think that'll upset a lot of folks.

The Hampton Roads Tunnel is free now… They either paid the damn thing off, or got sick and tired of sailors tossing peacoat buttons in the coin hoppers

I visited the place recently. The place is crawling with sandbagged machine gun emplacements and jarheads in camouflage uniforms, crouched down behind belted M-60 machine guns. It would not be smart to wrap a rag around your head and run down Hampton Boulevard yelling "Allah be praised!", unless you wanted to test your Blue Cross policy to see how good the bullet removal part holds up.

The Metric-Built Blonde and I dropped in to the Visitors' Center. You won't believe this, but honest-to-God, in a glass case on display they have a set of thirteen-button blues… The uniform we loved… The trou has the buttoned flap and the gussets in the back. I guess they have it there as a reminder of the good ol' days before they had to say, "Let the adventure begin." Back then, no Madison Avenue pencil neck had to tell us the adventure was beginning… A foot in your ass at Great Lakes served as the starting pistol.

Damn, it was weird to see that old set of blues behind glass… Poor lads of today, will never know the feeling of pride those wonderful outfits gave a true seagoing sonuvabitch.

But the saddest part was yet to come… Let me take you back to the previous day.

Before the Metric-Built Blonde and I left home, we received an e-mail from 'JDAWG' (John Cadell RMI(SS) Ret.). He gave us his phone number in Virginia Beach. When we arrived at the Oceanside Holiday Inn, John met us at the door. My dear wife is in awe of the generosity and hospitality she has had shown to her by submarine sailors she is meeting for the first time. John offered us the hospitality that has always been the hallmark of true submariners.

John returned and took us on a tour of the base. It looked a little different, but I could still find places I remembered. They renumbered the piers… That must be important, but for the life of me I can't figure out why.

So, we drove down to where Pier 22 was supposed to be. Since they changed all the pier numbers and bought up the old Fertilizer Piers, the whole base is contiguous… Meaning a drunk boat sailor can walk from where he's tied up, all the way down to Pier One, yell "AIRLANT SUCKS!!!", be chased home by some 5,000 aviation rates, and never leave the gate. In our day, we would had to have gotten into dress canvas or taken up a collection to send a telegram to AIRLANT's quarterdeck and signed it 'Chief Master-at-Arms, USS Orion (AS-18)'

We found the old Des Sub Piers entrance drive. In the late '50s, every totally inebriated submariner in Six, knew that no matter how loaded you were, if you crawled down the Des Sub Piers entrance Road, Pier 22 was at the end of it. If you were on your hands and knees and you failed to recognize that you had passed the dumpsters, the Orion's lower brow and our ASR the Kittiwake, you fell off into the Elisabeth River and recognized immediately that you had reached the end of Pier 22.

22 was not like the other piers. They appeared to be well regulated, neat and folks seemed to have established priorities and appeared to know what they were doing. 22 wasn't like that… The damn thing looked like Dodge City on Saturday night. Folks getting up posses to chase down fuel hose thieves… Master at Arms trying to convince those who weren't listening that ballcaps with seagull feathers stuck in the vent holes were not officially approved naval headgear… This was subsequently followed by an impromptu speech on how the term "get fucked, you idiot" and "get your ass outta the way" were not officially approved naval forms of addressing a Chief something-or-another's mate.

You spent most of your time stepping over loose crap all over the pier. Most of it not worth stealing… Some of it orphaned by boats that had shoved off two days ago. Stuff stolen from other piers that wouldn't fit into the boat full of thieves who made off with it. Supplies… Abandoned hawser… Big chunks of metal crap only God and the Orion machine shop knew what it was.

You could find sailors in paint spattered dungarees stretched out on top of a pile of supplies with a white hat over his face, dead to the world.

"Hey kid…"

"Stop kicking me, you gahdam idiot."


"Sorry, didn't see you Chief."

"What in the Hell's up with you? Somebody tell you to knock off for siesta?"

"No Chief… I have a narcolepsy authorization chit."


"A narcolepsy chit, Chief."

"Is that some kind of secret submarine shit?"

"How would I know Chief, it's your damn Navy… You tell me, I'm a dumbass E-3."

"Well sailor, you do whatever the fellow who gave you that 'Whatever-in-the-hell it is' chit told you to do, when he handed the damn thing to you."

Yes sir, Pier 22 was the main street down the middle of diesel boat town. It had been washed by the tears of many departures. It had seen the last remains of boatsailors who died aboard ship or had been lost at sea and recovered, taken off boats in honor. It had felt the excitement of little feet racing to the arms of a returning dad… It had sensed the removal of panties and heard the snap of a pocket book clasp as they found a new home for the duration of a personally delivered 0200 'Welcome back Jack' to some poor bastard in the duty section.

Pier 22… By the time you read this, it too will be gone. Another victim of the wrecking ball that leads the march of progress.

"Robin, go tell the Merry Men some simple-minded idiot just burned down Sherwood Forest."