The Smokeboat Navy

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

During one of those 'Big Cheese' visits… You know, when the Chief of the Boat made the announcements for the day and said,

"At 1300, we've got a big cheese coming aboard… COM 'pain-in-the-ass' LANT. By 1245, I want all you jaybirds topside in dress canvas… Any questions?"

So by 1300, there we were. Two lines of idiots aft of the fairwater, waiting for some overpaid member of the 'I ain't been to sea in ten years' naval nobility to come down the line and ask some poor, yet to be determined, sonuvabitch the obligatory questions.

"Where you from, son?"

"Dead Dog, Arkansas, sir."

"Good town… Went through there in '56."

Most likely high level of bullshit, but nobody cared.

Some top-heavy cheese with more stars than a dark night, stopped in front of Adrian Stuke.

"What'z yer name, son?"

"Adiran Stuke, sir."

"Where ya from?"

"Quincy Illinois, sir."

"You like the navy?"

"No sir… Hate the chicken shit, uniform-of-the-day navy… That's why I joined the sub force, sir."

That about summed it up for all of us. Every Thanksgiving, the thing I am truly most grateful for is that God did whatever it was that he did that kept me out of the regulation, horseshit surface craft, uniform-of-the-day, write you up navy. The navy that was overly concerned with stuff like all of the stencils in every part of your uniform being the same name. Since clean white hat theft was a sub service practical factor and 'lucky bag workin' uniform' was always the 'Uniform of the Day' known as Raggedy Andy issue, we found ourselves causing sparks and smoke to come out of Bosun Mates' ears.

To say that the lads who rode smokeboats didn't care about the regulation navy isn't true. We were glad they were there. We were proud of them and wished them all the happiness in the world…we were just damn glad we weren't a part of it. The little periodic taste we got of surface navy life on trips to the tender was more than enough.

The surface navy felt the same way… They treated us like you would treat a bunch of old guys who went around with their fly open and scratching their butts all the time.

Once SUBLANT wanted to take a photo of a couple of brand new whiz bang nuke boats… A pair of low-mileage boats with hull numbers with still wet paint.

They made an entire nest of nasty-looking diesel boats shift berths to the outboard side of the tender to keep the photo nice and neat. You know, like your mom sweeping the dirt under the rug and sticking her dirty dishes in the oven when your Aunt Tilly came for a visit. Like moving skid row out of town during the State Fair.

I know that they make the flat-chested cheerleaders stand in the back row for the yearbook picture but they don't make 'em go hide in the woods. Once the nuclear navy showed up, we all got to know what the plain looking gals in Dolly Parton's class felt like. We didn't care… In my day, there was still enough of the poor white trash smokeboat navy left that we sure as hell didn't get lonely and Hyman Rickover acted like he didn't know we were there and that had to be a blessing from God.

The Naval Supply operated under the assumption that if ninety-year-old hookers no longer needed tampons, twenty-year-old diesel submarines must no longer need hatch gaskets. So we cannibalized, stole and made do to keep 'em seagoing. We have no history because the navy just stuck our worthless butts out of sight… Outboard the tender and pretended we didn't exist… Except for ping-time targets and crappy North Atlantic response trigger decoys.

Being ignored has its positive advantages, though. Not being the focal point of attention, allows you to pee on the tank tops, steal heaving lines, wear acid-eaten dungarees and hydraulic oil-soaked raghats topside… And form committees of tit evaluators topside to pass judgment on every set of knockers that walked down the pier. It allowed you to adopt the lighthearted attitude of the free spirit and the freedom to apply methods beyond the restrictive boundaries of prescribed regulation to get the job done. And, it went a long way to form the lifetime bonds of being a part of what is now known as 'the submarine community'.

I don't know what it felt like to have been a member of the brotherhood of pirates, but it had to have felt something like being a fully inducted member of crab can community… The seagoing society of swashbuckling smokeboat sonuvabitches..

I loved it… Wouldn't have had it any other way. You name any other military outfit where you could have spent six years needing a haircut with your shirt-tail hanging out and still be known as 'the elite of the fleet'… A service where a kid saw your Dolphins when you were trying to sleep on a Greyhound bus and woke you up to ask you what it was like to ride the boats… A service where old long ago bluejackets called the waitress over and said,

"Hey sweetheart… You see that kid at the counter with the silver pin over his pocket? I know what the crazy sonuvabitch does for a living… Put his breakfast on my tab and bring me my check."

All of us were blessed. We got to ride the boats that left the American people the unmatched record of World War II enemy maritime destruction. We bunked in the same bunks as the guys who filled shiploads of Jap sailors with saltwater and packed 'em off to hell with Mark Fourteens. Could there possibly be anything better than that?

Sure, we ragged the nukes… We knew that John Wayne would never star in a movie as a nuke skipper… Neither would Cary Grant, Clark Gable or Burt Lancaster… They were raggedy-ass diesel boat sailors. Hey, the nuclear force was the future… It had its history to make… We were history. Our boats were all waiting for their appointments with the scrap yard, like cattle in line at the slaughterhouse door.

The national memory of this nation is all of fifteen minutes long. Boats that had returned in triumph in 1945 to a welcoming and grateful nation, died slowly… Unheralded, un-noticed… Silently cut up out of sight. Today, with the exception of a few boats slowly oxidizing on display for the public and a few being kept alive by artificial means by foreign navies, they are only names and hull numbers on the list of stricken naval vessels. They are gone and only kept alive in the memories of those of us who had the good fortune to ride those wonderful old girls. Men who will grow old remembering rolling decks… Some of God's finest sunsets… The sound of a creaking pressure hull and the forgotten art of jackassing fuel hoses down a pier loaded with 'gear adrift' crap.

And their Dolphins will grow tarnished in a dark corner of their cufflink boxes.