Smokeboat Bluejackets

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

A lot of lads who rode or are presently riding nuke boats, tell me that there’s not that much difference between nuke sailors today and the old smokeboat bluejackets.

That’s like comparing thoroughbred racehorses with a broke down 40-dollar mule.

We had no 'blue' and 'gold' crew. No questions of accountability… No finger pointing. Anyone failing to properly maintain equipment was easy to spot on a diesel boat… There was never any confusion. The Chief of the Boat knew exactly which ass to plant his size twelve brogan in.

If the Communists had captured us and pounded bamboo splinters under our fingernails and set them on fire to get us to explain what a gahdam 'poopie suit' was, we would have been snorkeling in deep doo-doo.

Nobody got his Dolphins in the crew's mess. Smokeboat lads got theirs pinned on a soaking wet shirt aft of the sail, by the skipper in front of the entire crew. Prior to having his Dolphins pinned on, the newly qualified man had been ceremoniously tossed over the side… Very close to the time sanitaries were blown.

In my day, no SUBRON SIX skipper pinned silver or gold fish, on a dry shirt.

So, in the ensuing years, the water must have gotten a helluva lot harder. The Navy has become a lot more sensitive to wet clothing colds, or the force gave up a sacred tradition and shitcanned something we all held close to our hearts. It surprises me that no maverick boat skipper with a set of adult cajones hasn’t reclaimed this tradition… Even if the CNO requires that the ceremony take place at the base pool, with a lifeguard to baby-sit the whole thing.

I don’t know if Dolphins pinned on a shirt soaked in chlorinated city-purified fresh water contain the same magic as our old 'twin fish' pinned on shirts soaked in Atlantic salt water, sanitary tank residue and 'Goddess of the Main Induction' pee, but it’s gotta be better than handing them out in the crew's mess.

Next, you guys get all sorts of leave. We got four or five weeks a year and liberty within an allowable radius.

We spent a lot of time bouncing around on the surface getting the hell beat out of us… Freezing in the shears on lookout watch and having ice-cold air sucked through the boat every time the conn hatch was opened. When we were wallowing around in a state-five sea, we got to watch our food cha-cha around all over the place.

We didn’t bang into a lot of stuff at sea… No fender-benders with other submersibles and merchant ships. We just went out, breathed a lot of foul air… Diesel fumes… Second-hand smoke… Punched invisible holes in the ocean… Got PDCs (practice depth charges) dumped on us and had our sleep interrupted by active sonar.

Nobody made any movies about Cold War service on diesel boats… No magazine pieces and no books. There was more attention paid to solid waste disposal, artificial cattle insemination and Swedish sex change procedures than America paid to her peacetime smokeboat riders.

A lot of our really great skippers, including my best one, were never considered for their fourth stripe because their Dolphins weren’t radioactive. This was the saddest part of the whole stinking nuke vs. smokeboat business… That's the part I will never forget.

No, there were very few things that we had in common… Although, we should have. All this reconciliation stuff came later… It came when the fellows you never pulled liberty with… The fellows you never drank beer with… The fellows whose boats you never nested alongside of… Had grown old and fat. The nukes didn't have to share cabs with us or toss down suds with us at Bells.

I visited New London. To be honest, most of what this old diesel electric submariner would have had a nostalgic connection with, has been torn down and carted off to God knows where. The Rickovarian disciples have damn near completed our total ethnic cleansing.

They tore down a substantial brick building that was the 'Alma Mater' of successive generations of smokeboat qualified submariners, including the gallant submariners who covered themselves and the United States submarine force with honor and glory in the Pacific from 1941 to 1945. Nuke urban renewal is hell on smokeboat history.

“Dex, do you know what it would ‘ve cost to restore and maintain that old antiquated brick building? The Navy had to make a decision that balanced restoration cost, use of space and maintenance cost. When the figures were totaled, it was clear and simple… The building had to go.”

If the above makes a damn bit of sense to you, you’re either a nuke or nuts…or both.

I’ll save the Navy a helluva lot of money based on the same logic. Level the old buildings at the United States Naval Academy and put up modern glassed-in high-rise structures based on economical use of space. Be sure to slap the wrecking ball to the Naval Academy Chapel. Talk about waste of space, the entire lower level is devoted to housing a single individual… The Tomb of John Paul Jones.

Break up the 'Constitution' and sell her for apple crate wood. Hell, you could really save big bucks… Level the entire base at New London and teach Nuke School in a tent… Knock down Notre Dame Cathedral (there’s a helluva waste of space) and pop up a Taco Bell and a Burger King.

No, that damn near sacred part of our history was not nuke history so it meant nothing.

Submariners are a funny lot. They scrap the boats we love… Tear down our piers… Change the uniform and replace the life we knew… But we could always return to New London and visit the place where it all began. At least, we could until the Rickovarian handmaidens became the stewards of our historical memory. The mindless slaves of technology need a few lessons in the value of history and tradition and their collective asses paddled with their great big shoulder boards. I for one took my first steps on the road to manhood in the building the callous bastards turned into a load of salvage material.

There is an event called 'Return to Sub School'. Where would I go? Is there a pile of busted bricks somewhere that the smokeboat grads could go to, just to stand around and drain longneck bottles? Or do they just wander around the base pointing and asking each other,

"Didn’t it used to be here?"

I don’t know anything about nuke boats, nuke sailors, nuke traditions, or nuke leadership. I was never embraced by anything in the nuclear submarine force. No linehandlers on the pier when we layed alongside after midnight had 'SSN' stenciled on the back of their sea jackets… No smiling nuke night bakers brought hot sticky buns to me during a midwatch topside. Nothing good that came my way during my naval service resulted from anything done on my behalf by anything on the nookler navy side of my submersible family.

It was a time when smokeboat riders were the red-headed stepchildren of the sub force… Some sort of embarrassment… We were cattle fleas, riding beasts standing in line for the slaughterhouse.

Being a smokeboat bluejacket and knowing absolutely nothing about uranium-powered underwater craft, one thing has always amazed me. The submarine base in Connecticut was called SubBase New London in the old diesel boat days… The nukes picked up the entire base and moved it to Groton.

Amazing. But that’s not all…

The most identifiable architectural structure was a 150-foot steel tower known as the 'escape tower'. It was used to train aspiring submariners in underwater submarine escape techniques… In practical terms, how to get out of a submarine bottomed out in 300 feet of water, or less. Meaning, that if you sunk next to the pier or somewhere between the pier and the Continental Shelf, this was your elevator out of there. Beyond the Continental Shelf, all submarine sailors knew that somewhere around 800 feet or so, you and the entire crew would be wearing your pressure hull like a peacoat.

The escape tower was such a dominating feature of the skyline across the Thames River from the United States Coast Guard Academy, that it was incorporated in the design of the Sub Base insignia… And remains so today.

The nukes figured out how to burn the sonuvabitch down. Quite an achievement, when you figure that the damn thing was a giant steel tank full of water… Something we idiot smokeboat sailors thought was damn near impossible. Nuke school students today probably look at the base insignia and figure it has a big grain silo on it… And probably think that beady-eyed Hyman financed the moonbeam navy with corn sales.

How’n the hell do you light off a giant steel tank containing tons of water?

Okay, you old smokeboat sailors fess up… How many of you took a pee in the escape tank on the 100-foot ascent? Don’t make me go through the rest of my life thinking that I was the only one.

We were not all brothers… We should have been, but sadly we weren’t. They quit making parts for the boats we rode… Quit making and carrying parts for our boats… That’s the truth. We had to scavenge and salvage parts to keep our boats going to sea. We leaked like hell at 400 feet. This is part of our history… The nukes got all of the attention, while we picked the carcasses of our dead sister boats just to stay in business.

The most obvious symbol that will last as the most enduring monument to the division between the nukes and smokeboat blue jackets is the 'DBF' pin. The forgotten lads of our peacetime, cold war diesel sub force… Who had silently endured the hardships of cramped service in outdated, neglected ships, finally faced the final insult… The awarding of the Nuclear Long Range Inconvenience Pin… A continuing unrecognized embarrassment and joke among wearers of the World War II Submarine Combat Patrol Pin and the wearers of the homemade, unauthorized, concocted diesel boat 'screw you' DBF pin. Nothing symbolizes the independent cocky natured pride we had like that goofy damn DBF pin.

It is funny though, when tanks replaced horsemen in the army they embraced each other… Prop pilots who shot the Nazi, Italian and Jap air forces out of the sky were considered good guys and heroes, and the lads who flew props in the Cold War were respected by the fellows who strapped their butts into mach-busting jets. But the slide rule navy took too long in embracing their smelly armpit brothers.

There is too much of our existence glossed over and forgotten. I write these stupid stories for my shipmates and the wonderful happy-go-lucky lads who rode the old worn-out diesel-powered submarines in the twilight of their existence.

I do get a little sick in the gut when a lad of the present generation of boatsailors, implies that it is every bit as rough today as it was when we singled up and took our old beat-to-hell boats to sea. I would never think of comparing the life aboard my Tench class boat to the difficulty and hardship aboard an 'R' or 'S' boat. Being in the downline evolutionary continuous chain, I know that I was the beneficiary of technological development made available by the tough life they lived. To tell those magnificent bastards that the life I lived was anywhere comparable to theirs, would be a cardinal sin, born of the arrogance of ignorance. For a nuke to say, "You don’t know how tough we had it… It wasn’t that different," appears to me an attempt to take away the centerpost of our pride in our service, 'the toleration of hardship'.

It tells me that there is nothing taught about our service… Nobody remembers Task Group Alpha… The old SUBRONs Four, Six, Eight and Twelve… The Orion… Bells Bar. You can’t contact the United States Naval Institute and buy a book about what we did, how we lived and what we were. These silly stories are an old man's attempt to celebrate those days… To wipe away the wrinkles from the long ago smiling faces… To let my mates fill their lungs with smokeboat exhaust and their hearts with the knowledge that as long as Dex Armstrong and my old shipmate, Mike 'Boy Throttleman' Hemming have access to pen and paper and Ray 'Olgoat' Stone provides the outhouse door to write on, the 'Cold War Smokeboat Bluejacket' lives on in our collective memories.

Gentle reconciliation has come, however belatedly, as a result of fine men such as Mike Hemming, Joe Roche, Roger Burleigh, John Clear, and Gary McLaughlin. Jim Christley, John Wynn and John Carcioppolo are the patron saints of the movement with Tommy Cox and Bobby Reed providing the musical accompaniment.

“Blessed are the Peacemakers.”