The World Below the Walking Deck

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

If you never were a deck ape on a smoke boat, you may want to skip this one. There was a world between the walking deck and the pressure hull. It was my world. It is where we did business in port. A hot as hell place in summer… Cold as a witches tit in winter… Where little sunlight penetrated and where rust could get ahead of you if you weren't a heads up bunch.

When an old deck ape visits one of the memorial boats maintained by cities for the tourist trade, he always looks at how they care for his world before he gives them the seal of approval. Damn near all get a lousy score. They paint and maintain what you can see. To them, what the public can't see, doesn't exist. In truth, such neglect will feed an oxidation cancer that will eventually eat from the inside what the poor idiots are slapping paint on, on the outside... Cosmetics on a terminally ill patient.

My love, the USS Requin (SS-481) sits in Pittsburgh looking like a million bucks externally but little telltale giveaways show those of us who lived in the world below the walking deck she's in bad shape and the folks who maintain her are in for one big, expensive surprise… The price rust extracts from those who fail to recognize the destructive potential. I am sure that the non qualified folks who operate the money mill have noticed rust holes in both sides of bow buoyancy tank… The rust eaten edges of the limber holes… And the ½ inch of rust flakes covering the exposed upper pressure hull. When holes like these start to appear, the gauge of the skin that's left is tissue paper thin. God never made a self-healing submarine. The folks in Pittsburgh are just about to learn a lesson that will at the very least have them digging deep in their money belt or at worst, start looking for ways to rid themselves of the visual evidence of their neglect.

We lived in what is known as 'the crawlspace'. We scraped, chipped, painted, and lubed everything down there. You had to be half human, half snake to get around in that void. We stored our gear in what used to be the ready ammo lockers, back when the boats carried deck guns. First, you checked the 'zinc's.' Zinc is a soft metal and the Navy used bars of the stuff as a sacrificial diode… Metal to be eaten to keep electrolysis from making a meal out of the boat. As we inspected them, we made a list of those eaten away to the point they needed to be replaced.

We also inspected the NLMs, noise level monitors… the little transducers along the hull that allowed us to listen to ourselves when submerged.

We inventoried all the gear in the pressure lockers. Once we determined the lockers contained the specified gear, we restowed them in such a way that it wouldn't bang around and give away our position when we were running submerged.

We had line lockers where we stowed our mooring lines ('heavies' a.k.a. heaving lines, were kept in the forward room). Line lockers were a pain in the hip pockets. When you hit heavy weather, you always lost line locker lids. The gods of the sea must've eaten line locker lids as a dietary staple. We spent a good portion of our naval careers replacing gahdam line locker lids. I once asked the COB,

"Chief, how come the sonuvabitches who built these damn things didn't make metal locker lids and use full piano hinges… It's always the damn hinges that give out?"

"Bucko, we sunk damn near the entire Jap navy with these boats… We did it without the advice of gahdam worthless E-3 deck apes redesigning the sonuvabitches. Just replace the damn things and get the hell out of the 'what if' business… Turn and burn."

If submarine CPOs ran the world, we'd still be riding mules and using outhouses.

If you worked your way forward past the forward escape trunk, the bull gears for the bow planes, the anchor chain locker, and the impulse air flasks, there was a small hidden pocket of space known to those of us in the Requin deck force as the 'siesta nest.' Between the impulse air flasks and the after bulkhead of bow buoyancy, was our hideout. We kept it packed with Playboy magazines… Sports Digest… Car & Driver and old, raggedy Popular Mechanics.

Up that far forward, the guys who designed Requin put two rows of limber holes. If you had a light breeze, the air circulation was great.

I have always understood what homeless people live like… Our hideout was exactly like a place where derelicts, bums and hobos would call home. For us, it was the place we goofed off… Solved all the world's problems… Cussed naval leadership, the nuclear navy, the Orion quarterdeck, shore duty guys… The entire Marine Corps… Norfolk cab drivers… Hampton Blvd. cops… Shore patrol… All the people of France… Various ball clubs and used car dealers. We pondered weighty questions like,

"Who in the hell ate the stuff out of the dumpster on the pier that was marked 'EDIBLE GARBAGE'?"

This was also the place where we banged on the hull, impulse air flasks and the bulkhead of bow buoyancy so folks below would think we were engaged in productive work.

The siesta nest was the only place on the boat where E-3s could get the hell away from being pinged on by qualified men. It was our clubhouse.

If you missed being a deck ape on a smoke boat, you missed one of the big hoots in life.

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Editor's note - Dex mentions the neglect thats evident on some of our submarine memorials. Click HERE to see a good example of this and the consequences. This is the submarine memorial Cavalla (SS-244) in Galveston, Texas.