They’re long forgotten, but the old After Battery Rats of long ago remember them. Today’s atomic boatsailor has no idea what his ancestral brothers were given to stand winter watches in.
I visited New London recently and was given a tour of one of the modern leviathans tied up in a lower base slip. Adjacent to the brow was a glass-enclosed structure where two modern day undersea warriors sat in air conditioned comfort, standing access control duty. It took me back.
It kick started memories of lonely hours standing (emphasis on the word ‘standing’) midwinter topside watches in ‘brass monkey’ weather. A four hour tour of feet stamping, hand rubbing, freezing deck tours.
They… Who in the hell ‘they’ were, I have no idea… But they created a contraption known by the lower rated animals as a ‘topside watch dogshack’. The damn things were made out of paper-thin plywood along the same architectural lines as a one-holer outhouse. The flimsy things had a hinged door with one Plexiglas window and a screen door latch.
They could be jackassed from the pier pallbearer fashion by two non-rated lads and placed on the designated boats upon arrival. Once the boat was secure and all of the obligatory routine followed by returning boats had been taken care of, two Orion Jack-in-the-box IC Electricians popped up and rigged a telephone in the plywood dogshack and handed over a Norfolk area phonebook that was two or three years out of date.
The inside of the wooden box was decorated with primitive Neanderthal inscriptions like the walls of prehistoric caves…
‘Great pizza………METRO 4-6985’
‘Trailways to Philadelphia
The plywood warped. Idiots carved holes in them out of stupidity and boredom. In short, the damn things were far from being airtight. In frigid weather, they gave you a little heater. But every time you had to tour the deck, check the lines and make sure that space aliens hadn’t boarded the ship in the intervening fifteen minutes since your last ‘turn of the deck’ with the constant opening and closing of the flimsy door, heater or no heater, you still froze your butt off.
You could wrap yourself up in a foul weather jacket, pull on two pairs of foul weather pants and a bridge parka, and still feel ice cubes forming in your veins. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have never been as cold in the rest of my life as I was as a non-rated boatsailor.
I spent many an hour stamping my feet and watching the vapor of my breath, both on the bridge at sea and standing topside watches. Oddly enough, I think I became a better and stronger man for having endured it. You see, that’s how the sub force built submariners. The system sorted the weak from the tough and sent the weak packing.
The contrast in our service is mirrored in microcosm in the way we stood winter security watches and the accommodations we were given… The way we lived and the love we had for the ships that took us out and brought us safely home.
Someone needs to write our story. It needs to be told. We were not a footnote to naval history. We were not a bunch of raggedy bastards nursing worn-out, submersible hardware. We were a helluva lot more than ‘has-beens’ relegated to the backwaters of events.
I refuse to be characterized as such and will do my damnedest to capture as much of it as I remember in these old man’s memories.