There Was A Time When There Were Two Submarine Forces

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

I came out of Great Lakes a freshly minted bluejacket, everything I owned in a big canvas bag, and ready to take my bite out of the center of the pie. I was heading for New London to become a member of the elite Submarine Force.

When I arrived, I was greeted with a welcome that made it gahdam clear there was not one big happy family Submarine Force, there were two… The modern pampered and catered to, whiz bang sub force and one where lads with second class Dolphins rode extinct equipment and were arrogant enough to refuse to lay down, rollover and die… The serfs who rode antiquated hulls and got the castoff handouts of the uptown boys. The sad and sickening part of it all was it was a cold, calculated intentional policy of exclusion.

When I stepped down from the bus that hauled me from the train station in downtown New London to a parking lot next to Dealey Center, it began.

"Okay, line up, drop your gear… You ain't in the gahdam radioactive Navy and I ain't your sugar tit wet nurse."

The Chief's tirade went on for the better part of a half hour. I remember parts of that wonderful oration… Things like,

"You worthless, good fer nuthin' sonuvabitches will be standing fire watches and falling out for any other shit detail we get handed from the First Lieutenant's Division… Read the gahdam Watch, Quarter and Station Bill… You see those old wornout barracks up there on the hill? The ones that look like Salvation Army homes for bums? They are for you 'soon to be obsolete' idiots. Gentlemen, you are going to school for ten weeks to become fleas on a dying dog."

It was right there that I learned that it was not all one big 'Brothers of the 'Phin' boatservice.

There were the pampered lads who lived on the same hill and ate off porcelain plates with shiny new knives and forks and there were the skid row diesel bums who ate off stamped out stainless steel shingles with utensils that looked like King Kong had scratched his ass with them.

Since I was part of the disenfranchised white trash side of the United States Submarine Service… Being groomed to ride the oil-sucking dinosaurs, I was not allowed to visit the (quote) Nuclear Power School or gaze upon the climate-controlled four man cubicles with individual desks and lamps. You know, the really neat stuff you see Rickover showing you in old film footage on the Discovery Channel.

We lived in an open bay barracks. We slept 'head to foot' in steel two-high racks on mattresses that looked like Grapes of Wrath salvage. Our climate control was 'Windows up, windows down'… 'Flies in, flies out'… 'Mosquitoes in, mosquitoes out'.

In lieu of individual desks with lamps, we had a lighted shower and heads with no privacy panels that allowed guys to sit next to each other and study 'trim and drain' drawings until their feet fell asleep and they got a bad case of 'Pinocchio legs'.

This is just a simple statement of historical fact about an era conveniently forgotten in the kissy-hug lovefest, of the modern myth 'all for one and one for all' submarine force…The history old mellowed out smokeboat boys figure they would be roundly condemned for mentioning… But still laugh about among themselves at boat reunions.

I rode with a damn fine bunch of proud submariners. We lived in conditions worse than the penal system imposes on mass murderers awaiting lethal injections, and loved it.

Never saw a nuke boat sailor in Bells… Or any diesel boat dives that were finishing schools for seagoing pool shooting, Slim Jim consuming, underwater smokeboat rodents.

Used to sit on an empty five-gallon MEK can topside in ratty previously issued foulweather gear with sewn up rips and watch the fashion parade of nukes belch forth from visiting nuke boats.

"Hey Stuke… Look at those nylon foulweather jackets the uptown folks are wearing this season."

"Yeah… 'll bet no boatsailor ever wore one of those sonuvabitches listening to Tokyo Rose on the R.B.O."

I'm proud of my service in smokeboats… I can watch John Wayne in Operation Pacific, Cary Grant in Destination Tokyo, all the Silent Service episodes… World War II submarine programs on the History Channel and fondly remember the sounds, smells and air so gahdam dead, you couldn't light a Lucky Strike.

I remember the honor we felt and the respect we gave our fine officers… And the way we loved the old boats and the hull numbers that were our movable saltwater street addresses.

The father of the nuclear navy it seems, did not want to infect his new professional force with the nonsensical foolishness he felt characterized the happy-go-lucky diesel force… And it appears he was successful.

Many lads who rode the low-numbered oil-eaters visited visiting nuke boats and returned with the glow of little sharecropper's kids who had been visiting the rich man's big house.

"Dex… There's no dirt… They smell like the inside of a new car… Everybody gets their own bunk… And man, their bunks have bunk lights that work, a multi-channel music system that allows you to listen to whatever kind of music you like, through your very own headset… They have privacy curtains so you can read after lights out."

The guy telling me this was a member, like me, of the white trash side of the SubLant house, who, unlike his nuke paygrade counterpart had to hunt an empty rack every night and crawl up on a stinking flash pad, pack his foul weather jacket up under his head and pull a ratty worn-out blanket over himself.

"Dex, they have these nylon one-piece jumpsuits… And they all look alike."

"My gahdam girl wears nylon… Called panties."

At the time, the two of us were wearing paint spattered dungarees, redlead-flecked G.P. boots and whitehats that looked like they'd been used to clean a Mexican Texaco men's room.

"Screw'em… The damn things sound like negatively buoyant sorority houses."

At times, ragging nukes was the only entertainment we had sitting topside on a balmy summer evening, catching a smoke and watching the pier strollers. Especially on nights when the movie being shown in the Crews Mess starred bastards who died ten years before you were born… You know, guys like Sidney Greenstreet… And on nights the evening meal tasted like B.F. Goodrich retreads. You'd just pull up an empty zinc chromate can… Bum a Pall Mall and a light… Join your brother bums and start the conversation with,

"Screw the nuke navy and the horse it rode in on."

That was usually good for a half hour of creative complaining and laughs. But, deep down inside we all knew that the old iron monsters we called home, were terminal. The old gals were simply scrapyard cheaters waiting in line for a date to be turned into razor blades and bra hooks. Those big ugly boats with the pixie dust boilers were the future and intuition told you that after you tossed your seabag over the brow, they were going to be selling a helluva lot more shoe polish to guys wearing silver twin-fish and nobody would be soaking themselves with Aqua Velva to survive water restriction.

Wouldn't have had it any other way… It was the life I came to know and love. I served in the 'other' Submarine Force… The one that has no recorded history after they launched the 571.