Locker Space

by Mike Hemming

Imagine for a moment, a 311-foot by 17-foot steel tube, filled with all manner of machinery, then add as an afterthought, places for 80 men to live, work and sleep. People that live under interstate highway bridges in cardboard boxes have more storage space and one hell of a lot more privacy than a smokeboat sailor ever had. Privacy in that only in the forward and after torpedo room crappers are you sure to be out of sight from your shipmates. Even in the After Battery head, the stall partitions aren't high enough to insure the guy entering or leaving adjoining ones can’t see you. This lack of privacy extends to your possessions, as well... Open your little locker space and any one passing by can look at your worldly goods. Love letters, pictures of girl friends and/or wives, and your reading material is all exposed. Of course the worldly goods you were allowed to carry onboard couldn’t fill a shopping cart. I have seen one of those 'denizens of the underpass' having more stuff than I carried aboard for 5 years at sea.

Let me explain how you stored stuff on a submarine.

In the torpedo rooms, you got a bunkbag to hang on the side of your rack. This satchel-like creation of the devil also doubles as an overnight bag, if you wish to unsnap it from your bunk railing. Resnapping the 4 hanging straps to each other into handles and VOILA! An overnight bag that stinks.

A bunkbag was about 2 feet long and when stuffed to the gills, about 10 inches in diameter. In it on board, you kept the items you needed for everyday... Toothbrush, soap, towel, change of skivvies, and a couple of books, if you were qualified and allowed to read them. A deck of cards, cribbage board, a razor and shaving cream you probably used once a week at most. It was best to have shaving cream that came in a tube like toothpaste. If you snorkeled and a high vacuum exploded the can in you bunk bag, it was messy, to say the least. A bottle of 'foo-foo juice', or after-shave for those of you that have never traveled the seas in a submersible. You used the foo-foo juice even if you hadn't shaved, every week or so, so you didn’t keep looking over your shoulder for the stinking shipmate that wasn’t there. Deodorant in stick form wasn’t only to make you smell better, you used it to help keep fungus from growing in your armpits in hot weather. It stung like hell, but it was the only thing that would cure or control 'Caribbean Armpit Rot'... Nothing the quack ever gave me, did.

Aside from letters you were reading or writing, there were a few other things that needed to be at hand like cigarettes, lighter fluid, wallet, and maybe some chewing gum. Chewing gum takes on a real interesting flavor after 2 weeks at sea. I'm not sure how to describe it, but it ain't Beechnut or Juicy Fruit anymore. As for letters being read or written, its best if the love letters to or from your onshore feminine companions were locked up in your wall locker. A shipmate might reach into your bunkbag, ignoring the money you have there, just to extract and read the letters. When you return, your shipmates might recite passionate passages of your latest horny missives, back to you. There always was at least one BS artist, whose letters to his girlfriend were worth reading, to spice up an otherwise dull afternoon.

The rest of your gear is kept in a wall locker, reachable only by climbing up and reaching over a bunk that usually has a sleeping body in it. Imagine a bus station locker that only has a door one-foot square, which limits the size of anything you might want to cram in there. The location and the ever-present curve of the pressure hull determine the shape of the locker inside. Remember that a submarine is a round hull filled with square pegs. In some places, a locker can look like a railroad tunnel inside. Its so long and deep. Some lockers are too deep for you to reach anything in the back, without crawling halfway into the thing. Whatever it was you wanted, the boat's rolling and up and down angles, insured that it was never anywhere except in the bottom at the back of your locker.

On a cruise that you left and returned to your homeport without pulling in anywhere else, you took nothing but one set of dress uniforms and your work clothes. In this case, you might actually have enough locker space, especially if it was winter and you were wearing blues. Though it was always best to have a set or two of whites stashed in your locker, just in case you made an unscheduled stop in a warm place.

The worst case was to be going south in the winter. This mean't you had a set of blues that you wore to the boat to get underway in, plus as many sets of whites as you could cram in your locker. Laundry facilities were sometimes scarce or slow. In the tropics, a set of whites only last one day, at most. You might not stay in a place long enough to get your whites back. So you carried as many white uniforms as you had.

Living in the After Battery brought forth the unique container known as the bunk locker. Your bunk was your locker. You actually slept on a mattress laid on the lid of this aluminum sheet metal locker. It was 6ft long, about 3 ft wide and 4 inches deep. Lift the lid with your mattress on top and there spread out before you was all your stuff, neatly laid out and smashed to 4 inches thick. Little compartments laid out with no rhyme or reason and assembled by a drunken yardbird who had once caught his daughter in bed with a sub sailor. It is unknown how skivvies migrated from one compartment to another while you were looking for them in the dark, but they managed to. Using a flashlight to find things wasn’t a good idea, unless you liked having boondockers thrown at your head and your parents cursed.

In the front center of the bunk locker was a lockable drawer that supposedly controlled access to the rest of the locker. Does anyone remember having a key for the drawer? I don’t. They had all been lost or given to barmaids as signs of undying love, I guess. The fix for this was to put a hasp and padlock on to control access to the locker. A lock, which would snag and tear your dungarees as you walked past. Or place bruises on your shin, hip or shoulder depending on the height of the locker when thrown into it, at sea.

On most boats, qualified men also got a wall locker to stuff more things into. This however, did not solve the peacoat storage problem. The navy enlisted man's peacoat was impossible to store on a diesel submarine. Thick bulky and impossible to fold, they were hung, stuffed, jammed and crammed into any place that didn’t prevent machinery from working. Some boats had a peacoat locker installed in the after battery somewhere, usually by removing a bunk. This locker always had a nominal capacity of ½ of the possible number of peacoats on board. With brute force and awkwardness, the rest were crammed in until the locker bulged. Opening the door resulted in a muffled explosion of wool and large plastic buttons. There was also, the realization that it would be impossible to find or remove your peacoat. If you did get yours out, you found that it had spent the last two hot months sandwiched between two coats that their owners had barfed boiled iguana and Dago Red, down the front.

Submarine sailors with this decided lack of storage space become adept at two things... One, is paring down the things you carry. We all know guys that tore covers off of books to make them smaller. New men quickly learn to leave stuff ashore. If you don’t need to wear it you probably don’t need it.

The other thing that they get real good at is finding a space to create new locker space. Then, bribing a yardbird or tender swabbie to build some kind of weird shaped locker to fit into the space. A space that no one else could figure out how to use. Trapezoidal-decagonal shaped lockers on top of another locker behind a pipe, become just another mounting problem. I once had a locker built to store stuff in, that had to be disassembled before it could be installed. A serious design flaw to be sure. But hey, with two weeks at sea coming up, time to drill out pop rivets wasn’t the problem. With no pop rivets for reassembly, tiny brass nuts and bolts with lock washers filled the bill, even though it was time consuming.

Engineroom locker space was one place 'Jimmy' boats had it all over 'Fairbanks' boats. The shape of the General Motors V-16 engine allowed for a row of lockers just above the exhaust elbows. One thing to remember, as temperatures probably reached 150 to 170 degrees, storing chocolate or anything that melted, was out of the question. In those lockers, clothing and books was about it. Metal objects could cause first degree burns when retrieved at sea.

We had an EN2 named Ray that kept the messiest engineroom locker in the history of snipedom. Ray stowed his locker with force equal to a hydraulic press. Which was fine at the start of a cruise. After 3 weeks at sea, he just returned his dirty clothes to the mix, including damp towels and a few read books. As the dirty gear was rammed into the front the 'clean' gear was in the back. This made a 'stirring' operation necessary to bring objects to the front, while bitching that he couldn’t find what he wanted. A kind shipmate, seeing the problem, returned to the boat with a tree limb. The limb was stripped of its bark and carved with appropriate and inappropriate things on it. It was carefully lettered 'Ray’s Locker Stirring Stick' and it was hung by a chain from the overhead. When Ray left the boat, the well-used stick went with him. It was after all, the only way for him to find things in that locker without putting his hands in there.

Locker space... We didn’t have enough and what we had wasn’t really usable. But then, we didn’t have much to put in it, anyway.