Once Upon a Time

There Was a Sub Base New London

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

It's been 45 years since I stepped down from a big gray bus in a parking lot beside Dealey Center... Me and a herd of idiots just like me. I had a fresh green seabag full of what in those days was called 'original issue'.

Most of it was still covered with little white stickers that read...'Inspected by number 19'... It smelled like I was peddling mothballs and contained two things I never fully understood or appreciated, a flat hat and something that looked like a squirrel lariat ... Called 'clothes stops'.

"OK listen up and when your name is called answer 'Aye'. In case you haven't noticed, I ain't your gahdam mother. I won't explain stuff to you jaybirds and I'm not in the habit of repeating. If you don't get it the first time you'll accept the consequences. When I ask you a question the only proper response will be an affirmative, 'Aye'. Am I fully understood?"


"Now answer up..."

"Murphy, A.C."


"Rubenstein, R.J."


"Cummings, P.J."


"Cummings, see me after this formation... And consider yourself to be the first idiot bastard in Class 182 to make my Grommet Squad."

Grommet Squad was a polite inoffensive way of saying anal sphincter detail. In my ten weeks I became the undisputed King of the Grommet Squad.

"OK, let me put you stupid sonuvabitches in tune with your present relationship with the rest of the universe. You dumb bastards have volunteered for service in diesel submarines. You have, of your own stupidity, signed up to become fleas on a dying dog. Volunteering for diesel submarines following the dawn of the age of nuclear power is the same as leaving a Ford dealership with your ass parked in a donkey-powered buckboard."

"They are turning smokeboats into razor blades and bra hooks as fast as humanly possible. After you toss your gear aboard your first 'SS' boat, don't be surprised if that beady-eyed ferret Rickover doesn't jerk the sonuvabitch out from under you before you get to Trim and Drain on your qual card."

Note - This was 1959, prior to Rickover being elevated to sainthood. To the old petroleum burning boatservice he was simply 'Rickover, the beady-eyed ferret.' The diesel force was never big on proper etiquette, decorum and civil expression.

"Now ladies, pick up your gear and this Second Class skivvie-waver Archer will take you up to Barracks 141 and 142, issue your racks and show you where to stow your gear. Mess deck opens at 1130 hours for noon chow. Be there. Uniform of the day, undress whites. That'll be it for now. God, you're a sorry-ass mob."

Then this red-headed, freckle faced, loudmouth bastard, Second Class Signalman with fresh dolphins, took over.

"My name is Elbert Archer and I will be marching you to all your various assignments. Now sling your gear."

'Archer The Marcher' was a sawed off mental defective with an exceptionally shrill voice who visualized himself with power equivalent to the Emperor of Mongolia... Up until week three, when Jack Banks, a former 'All Philadelphia' High School tackle, punched his nasal passages into his colon. After that Archer The Marcher became most polite and deferential.

The old basic Sub School is gone now, victimized by the wrecking ball of 'time marches on' progress. That of course is total and absolute horse manure.

There is something called historic preservation. Rich folks are out there standing on top each other to preserve everything from Dolly Madison's corset to Davy Crockett's outhouse.

That architecturally ugly brick building was the enlisted alma mater of Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation of submarine sailor. Graduates of that brick stucture went to sea and torpedoed the heart out of Hirohito's Navy and Merchant Marine. They, and they alone are the principal reason that the floor of the Pacific, looks like Sanford and Son's front yard. If any structure in this fair land deserved restoration and preservation, it was the Basic Enlisted Submarine School.

When they tore the old girl down, John Wynn... The overgrown shoemakers' elf of 40 School Street, sent me a brick. On a good night, when you can get good reception from Hell, I can hold that brick up to my ear and hear Chief Bates tell me what a worthless excuse for a bluejacket I am. Makes me feel wanted.

So, Archer The Marcher led us up the five million concrete steps, past the old brick Sub School, past Rock Lake to Barracks 141 and 142.

We got assigned aluminum lockers the size of your mothers' breadbox, and racks that had "head" and "feet" stenciled on each end. I thought, if this course is geared to the intelligence level of idiots who don't know that their feet are on the other end of their body from their head...this thing should be a cakewalk for a guy from East Tennessee.

A lot of guys "devolunteered" a bullshit term for quit. Some lads, who had the heart without the ability to comprehend, flunked out. I had no use for the quitters. They wasted a lot of people's time before popping out of the weak sisters closet.... but, I bled in my socks for the lads sent packing who truly had their heart set on becoming submariners. I hated to be present when they cleaned out their lockers...turned in their bedding and rolled back their mattresses. Some were good men we never saw again.

I won't bore you with the details of the training. You were there. It must have been outstanding, because we never forgot it.

There are a few questions I have about New London.

How difficult was moving the base from New London to Groton? And, was that trip absolutely necessary?

Next, why, on the finest Sub Base on the entire planet is a submarine sandwich called a Hoagie or a Grinder?

What ever happened to "Seven Brothers" and Rhinegold beer..."My beer is Rhinegold the dry beer ...think of Rhinegold whenever you buy beer." What in the hell is dry beer?...Do you pee dust"? Who stole the Raghat Club or did it fall off the truck when you nukes moved the base to Groton?

How bout Mrs. Martha's' down in Old Saybrook where Mrs. Martha and her girls marketed carnal delight in increments of thirty minutes for damn near a half months' E-3 pay?

Anyone ever figure out why Yankees put cheddar cheese on apple pie and why a kid from St. Elmo Tennessee couldn't find grits for breakfast? How bout scrapple? What in the hell is that stuff, possum Spam?

What happened to the Coast Guard Station out on the point? I think it was some kind of shallow water sailors' boot camp.

In 1959 E-3s made $34.00 every two weeks. That damn near doubled when you were assigned to a boat. At that kind of money you wore out shoes instead of automobile tires. Three Slim Jims and four draft beers was one helluva night on the town.

We were young...bulletproof twenty feet tall. Most of us went on to become qualified sumariners. We got no signup bonuses ...no prospect of future education benefits...Nobody told us or promised us anything but the opportunity to become submarine sailors...We didn't get a shoebox load of geedunk ribbons and meaningless badges.

What we got was right to sit in smoky bars drinking beer with our own kind, listening to scratchy juke box music and telling stories about high seas, cold weather and rough times spent inside worn-out boats with the finest men we would ever know.

What we didn't know at the time was that damn near half a century later, we would return to where it all began...older, hauling a helluva lot more lard...gray...gray haired with the best women ever made by our sides to do what we always did best ...drink beer and lie to each other.

We can use terms like MBT, SSR, UQC, ten pound blower, BLR mast, GDU and After Trim knowing that every sonuvabitch in the house knows exactly what we're talking about.

Proud to be here with my fellow Deepwater U. Alumni here. Here in New London, Groton or somewhere over the rainbow or whatever they call this place now...to share our history and remember, using memories known only to those of us who lived it. When all is said and done we are the only keepers of our history and traditions. With us the history of cold war diesel service will fade into obscurity.

We rode the boats at a time long ago when corpsman cured everything with an APC.... when you could identify boat sailors by the hydraulic oil stains in their raghats...When the old grizzly bastards who won World War II wore nekkit lady tattoo's, drank cheap whiskey wore bellbottoms with gusset lacing and carried belt knives in working dungarees. Back when the Chief of the Boat sitteth on the right hand of the Father and had been given "walk the plank" authority by the United States Navy. Back when barmaids wore pop-up bras and Radio-Girl dime store perfume and would sell you a twenty-five dollar "welcome home" after a Northern Run.

Back when nobody had to tell us we were the finest damn submarine sailors on the planet...We knew it because we were the direct descendents of the giants who stomped Hirohito flat.

We had survived the firey sheep dip of the New London School and gone forth to scare hell out of old women and small dogs.

That brings us to tonight's burning question. There is something we old smokboat bastards would like to know...you nukes can share your secret with us...we won't tell. How in the hell did you guys figure out how to burn down a 150 foot steel tank full of water? And now that you have accomplished that...how does a drunken E-3 find his way back to the base? And last what do you tell new guys that contraption on the base insignia is? .