Just sittin’ here this evening, watching the cats being cats, I started thinking back over what seems like two or three lifetimes, all the way back to 1960. That was when, after having pretty much messed up my life and those of several loved ones, I decided to give the US Navy another try. I’d served in submarines briefly, but that experience was cut short due to illness in the family that caused me to be needed back on the farm. This time, though, I hoped to stay focused on keeping my head above water (not an easily understandable goal, considering that I was trying to get back into submarines).
Becoming a submariner starts with a simulated escape hatch ascent in a 100 foot tall training tank at a submarine training center. The experience of stepping out of the hatch, 100 feet under the surface of the water, while wearing only swim trunks and a life vest, inflating the vest, and ‘free-falling’ upward for 100 feet is — hopefully — one of the most intense experiences a submarine sailor will ever have. There is a feeling of empowerment when you surface at the top of that training tank for the first time that is only equaled when you become “qualified” for the first time. Qualifying means that you know every inch of the boat, every valve and switch. Once qualified, you’re a submarine sailor as long as you continue to breathe.
Each time you are reassigned to another sub, you have to re-qualify on your new home. I qualified on three different subs. The first one, USS Manta (SS-299), is the one that earned me my “dolphins.” That 2 ½ inch long insignia, a pair of dolphins flanking a submarine, is the greatest status symbol that a submarine sailor will ever wear.
I qualified on old diesel-powered subs twice, once in 1950 (Manta) and again in 1962 on USS Sea Cat, SS-399, but after qualifiying on Sea Cat I was assigned to the Navy Nuclear Classroom Training Facility in Bainbridge, Maryland. For about 3 months I had intense classroom training in math, from plane and solid geometry through calculus, then nuclear physics classes for several more weeks. After that, I was sent to the Reactor Prototype in Windsor Falls, CT, for 6 months training on an actual operating reactor, and then to the Westinghouse Bettis Atomic Laboratory, near Pittsburgh, for additional training.
From Pittsburgh, it was on to Groton, CT in December of 1963, to a submarine already in the water but still another 6 months from completion. During that 6 months we — the assigned crew members — watched the workers of the Electric Boat Company complete the installation of all the wiring, piping and equipment inside and outside the submarine, and learned everything on our prospective watch stations by sight, name and touch.
The “boat,” as all submariners call submarines, was commissioned the USS U.S. Grant (SSBN-631) on July 17, 1964. Then there were sea trials, outfitting with Polaris missiles in Charleston, SC, and missile test firing at Cape Kennedy. Those details were completed in late December, and we transited the Panama Canal on New Years Day, 1965, en route to Pearl Harbor and our eventual home port of Agana, Guam. I qualified on the Grant on June 15, 1965, while on the boat’s second submerged 3-month patrol. That made me a qualified boomer sailor. (Sailors call ballistic missile submarines “boomers,” for obvious reasons.)
During the next few weeks I plan to tell you a little bit about what it was like serving on subs, and how sleeping next to a bunch of hydrogen bombs can change your view of the world. Stay tuned.