P.S. If you right-click on the pics and go to properties, the file names are pretty descriptive (if you're into that sort of thing).
The Making of a Submariner
Petty Officer Todd Jeffries had not slept in over two days and it showed. He smelled particularly ripe but didn’t seem to notice or care. He was very busy. You could see that fact in his eyes as plainly as if he’d grabbed you and said it straight to your face. They were bloodshot from the welding dust in the air and from the lack of sleep. There was something else there too, in his eyes, some sense of what seemed to me to be incredible calm, though, I wasn’t sure if that was exactly what it was. I was instantly petrified of him. He looked like a kind enough man, maybe even gentle, but his eyes were just plain otherworldly. I got the immediate and distinct feeling that they saw right through me.
It was my first morning aboard the USS Ohio, the “first and the finest” of the Trident class submarines, and she was only three days away from getting underway for a three-month patrol. In the florescent brightness of the Engine Room, I remembered that it was still dark outside. My furniture and clothing had yet to arrive in town from my previous duty station. My wife was back in our new apartment with our three-week-old baby girl. We had a phone there, some fast food leftovers and a couple of sleeping bags, but little else. The Ohio, on the other hand, was crammed wall-to-wall with machinery and piping and people. Fast moving, intent people. She smelled, too, the Ohio, of engine oil and fresh paint and human body odor.
“I am,” he said.
“I’m new onboard and I was told to report to you.”
“Yep, I’m the guy,” he said, “I’ve been waiting for you. Listen, I’m really busy right now. I know that you’ve got a lot on your mind, a lot of questions, but I don’t have time to answer them just yet. Until then, I’ll get someone to show you around.” He looked over my shoulder and called out to another man, “Yo! Fuck stick! You aren’t doing anything important, show our new smag around the Engine Room and get him his qualification cards.” He looked back at me, his eyes, with that same look, boring right into my brain, “Find me when you’re done,” he said. His eyes never dropped from mine as he disappeared down a ladder into God-knows-where.
By the time that I met Petty Officer Jeffries that morning, I’d been training to be a nuclear reactor plant operator and Engineering Laboratory Technician (E.L.T.) for nearly two years. E.L.T.’s are affectionately known as “smags” onboard submarines, though the origin of the word (and its connotation) is widely disputed. Simple-Minded Ass Grabber is the acronymous origin believed by most non-smag sailors. I don’t subscribe to that version, however. I think that the word speaks for itself. Smag. To some it may sound like the gooey product of a sneeze, but to me it has come to sound like the name of an amazingly capable super hero. Smag Boy to the rescue!
In general terms, my job as an E.L.T., or smag, was to maintain the chemistry of the water in the Ohio’s reactor and steam plants, as well as to administer all radiological controls aboard the ship. Other than an eight-week boot camp, my first full year in the Navy was spent at the Naval Nuclear Training Center in Orlando, Florida. While there, I was taught nuclear physics, mechanical and Naval engineering, chemistry, advanced mathematics, the works. The schedule was forty hours a week of instruction with twenty to thirty hours a week of homework and study. Because the material was classified, “homework” was done in a supervised setting in our classroom, on base, after school hours--decidedly not at home.
Following my time in Orlando, I was sent to the Nuclear Prototype Training Unit in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Training there is for six months. While there, I learned to operate an actual nuclear power plant under the instruction of veteran submariners who were stationed there on shore duty. The schedule in Idaho was not any more desirable than in Orlando, averaging fourteen hours a day, six to seven days a week. Finally after becoming “nuclear qualified,” I was lucky enough to be selected into the E.L.T. program (an additional three months at the prototype).
Though all of this training left me with an incredible amount of knowledge about nuclear power theory and reactor plant operation, it taught me very little about actual life aboard submarines. Consequently, I felt somewhat ill-prepared on that morning when I first met Petty Officer Jeffries. It was quite unnerving being aboard an actual submarine, real-life “Secret Security Clearance” badge clipped to my too clean, too pressed dungaree shirt, feeling like I was in a movie. But I wasn’t. It was very real.
Qual cards are booklets, which list, item after item, certain areas of knowledge that must be obtained before a person can stand watch on a particular watch station. For example, one item on any given card might be, “Discuss the location, proper use and maintenance of all Damage Control Equipment on your watch station.” To signify that the knowledge has been obtained, each item on the list has a signature block that must be signed and dated by a qualified watchstander. That watchstander will only sign the block after conducting, and being fully satisfied with, an informal interview with the person wishing to qualify the watch station. After all of the informal signatures have been earned, the senior Engineering Department Officer performs a comprehensive formal interview and once he is satisfied, he signs the final signature block which authorizes the technician to stand watch in the space that the particular card covers.
I took a quick count and there were six qual cards, a dozen or more pages of signatures apiece, each with several chapters of support documentation. The first one was titled “Engine Room Forward” which is the most junior E.L.T. watch station in the Engine Room. The last one was “Engine Room Supervisor.” On that morning, I couldn’t even begin to imagine standing watch in Engine Room Forward or anywhere in the Engine Room by myself, much less supervising the whole thing. “Well,” Kevin said, “I’ve got to get back to work, Todd should be back up in the lab by now. Do you remember where it is?”
By that time in my Naval career I had already developed an immense amount of respect for submariners. All of the ones that I’d met in Nuclear Power School and at prototype were brutally honest and straight talking. I never had to guess where I stood with a submariner, it was always quite obvious. We had been taught from the very first day of Nuclear Power School that honesty and integrity were of paramount importance in our line of work. “If you ever fuck up, if you blow it, you must admit it and admit it quickly. It may not keep you out of trouble, but you’ll be in a lot less trouble than if you lie.” Those were roughly the first words of every submarine qualified instructor that I ever had.
I told Kevin that I knew where the lab was, but in truth I didn’t. I had no idea how to get back there. I was standing on a steel deck with color-coded piping and gray machinery within arm’s reach in every direction. It all looked exactly the same to me. Why had I lied? I had wanted to impress Kevin, I guess, to show him that I knew my stuff. The fact is that I didn’t have a clue where on the boat I was. We’d been through the tiniest of crawl spaces, over machinery, under machinery, up and down ladders and through watertight doors. There were pipes and people running everywhere. As I stood there trying to get my bearings, I could have kicked myself. Why hadn’t I just asked him for help back to the lab? I noticed that most of the sailors that hurriedly squeezed by me had that same now-familiar look in their eyes. They were all cordial, they all made a point of quickly introducing themselves and welcoming me aboard, and yet most every one of them was sizing me up with those looks. It was subtle, but I was starting to see that that was what they were doing. And there I stood, lost, because of my own pride. I asked a man how to get to the lab and was thankful that he didn’t make fun of me as he took me there. I should have known that he was far too busy to be so childish.
“Lunchtime,” said Petty Officer Jeffries, later that day, “What are we having?” I had no idea. “Look at the Plan of the Day, the P.O.D.” he said. “It’s hanging there on the bulkhead--the wall, SmagBoy1, the wall.” I had seen many pieces of legal-sized paper identical to the one that he was referring to hanging all throughout the Engine Room. As I looked at it closely, I found it to be a schedule of the day’s events for the entire crew. It started with an “Inspirational Quote of the Day” (today’s was, “If only the strong survive then weakness is not an option.”) and went on to list everything from divisional training and muster times to meal times. Each meal had the main course listed beside it in parenthesis. I looked at the “lunch” entry and saw that we were having “delectable veal parmesan and vegetable-sautéed Italian sausages.” I reported that fact to Petty Officer Jeffries. “Elephant scabs and puss rockets,” he mused. “I think it’s a puss rocket kind of day, don’t you?”
Just three days after I reported aboard, we were underway. As the tugboats released us into the channel, the Ohio began slowly rocking back and forth. We were traveling on the surface in the Straight of Juan de Fuca, an area known affectionately to the crew as “Juan de Puke-a,” on our way to the dive point. As we progressed, and the rocking became more and more violent, I couldn’t help but marvel at how something like the Ohio, nearly 600 feet long, could be tossed so effortlessly by the sea. Petty Officer Jeffries was explaining to me that modern submarines aren’t shaped to be on the surface. Their round hulls make them very susceptible to rocking even in only slightly choppy seas. He suggested that I tie a trash bag around my belt and put some paper towels inside the bag in case I needed to throw up. I did this, but what I needed, desperately, was for the boat to quit rocking.
Lunch that day was a moot point for me, but I went to the Mess Decks with Petty Officer Jeffries anyway. He had actually gotten several hours of sleep the night before, so he was full of energy. “Here’s the deal,” he said, “Right now you’re a N.U.B., a Non-Useful Body. Understand? I want you to get qualified to stand watch in Engine Room Forward in two days. That way you will be contributing to the team. You will think that’s impossible, but there will be no excuses. Don’t let me catch you sleeping in your rack until you’re qualified. Period. Wanna pickle?” He was eating while simultaneously keeping his food from sliding off of the table. His skill and appetite under such conditions was admirable.
“No thank you,” I said. “Petty Officer Jeffries, I was wondering, why does everyone size me up? Why does everyone look at me the way they do?”
“SmagBoy1, I don’t know what you mean by how people ‘look at you,’ but I do know this: my life is in your hands when I’m asleep and you’re on watch. Understand? Once you’re qualified to stand watch, if you fuck up, we could all die. So, if that’s what you’re seeing, then why do you think people ‘size you up’? It’s because they’re determining if you’re going to kill them or not while they’re in the rack. They’re just trying to figure out if they can trust you, if it’s safe for them go to sleep, you know?”
“And, SmagBoy1, one other thing. If you call me ‘Petty Officer’ one more time, I’m going to cut off your nuts. It’s Todd. Got it?” With that, he rose to leave, and, slapping my shoulder firmly, he said something like, “imagine tuna fish milk shakes,” in a nearly successful attempt to unhinge my stomach.
Petty Officer Jeffries’ departure signaled that lunch was over, but I was exhausted. I couldn’t believe that he wanted me to get qualified in just two days. He was right, it did seem impossible. The qualification card for Engine Room Forward that Kevin had given me had about 120 spaces for signatures. I opened it and the first item that caught my eye, Number 17, read, “Recite and explain the procedures for diving the ship in Engine Room Forward.” In order to demonstrate those procedures, or any in the qual card, I would have to read, take notes on and memorize the Ship’s Operating Manuals. These manuals outlined exactly how each and every evolution onboard was to be accomplished. These procedures existed for things as important and detailed as diving and surfacing the ship to ones as mundane and trivial as flushing the toilets. In addition to this memorization and studying, I was going to need to spend a great deal of time in the Engine Room with qualified watchstanders, learning as much from them as I could. I walked back to Engine Room Forward and asked Kevin, who was on watch at the time, if I could station myself as his Under Instruction Watch or U.I. He was willing, so I took the watch, ready to learn but growing increasingly nauseous. The rocking seemed to be worsening. I braced myself on some nearby piping and tried not to think about the rocking, but the water sloshing in bilges, just inches below the deck plates, made the attempt impossible. Kevin warned me that we were about to dive and that I should review my procedures. Even though he had quizzed me on the requirements for diving the boat about a hundred times since we’d met, I looked in the manual to review each one, just to make sure.
Soon after, the loud speakers blared, “Dive! Dive!” followed by two loud wails, like the
“a-ooga” that I’d heard so many times in movies. “Dive! Dive!” said the voice over the speakers again. And then silence. I looked for the huge rush of people, the extreme excitement that I’d seen in the movies so many times. It didn’t come. It never came. Instead, the boat very gently began to quit rocking. It didn’t take on a steep downward angle. There were no flashing lights or sirens, no steam bellowing into the spaces. Just a noticeable, graceful steadying. Kevin seemed unfazed. The evolution, to him, was as natural and routine as driving a car.
Movies and T.V. had lead me to believe that diving a submarine was going to be an action-packed event, a thrilling, bumpy, creaky ride into the depths unknown. Nothing was further from the truth. To the contrary, as I began to learn, diving a submarine should always be slow and controlled and above all else, it should be quiet. The goal of a submarine is to hide, not draw attention to itself. If the crew clanked around for minutes on end every time the ship dived, the whole purpose of diving would be defeated.
“Let’s go, let’s go!” prompted Kevin. Other than a few simple items like donning a set of sound powered phones to be in contact with Maneuvering (the control center of the Engine Room) and making sure that no seawater was flooding into my space, I had little to do. Kevin quizzed me on how I expected certain mechanical parameters to change with the dive. “As the seawater injection temperature gets cooler the deeper we go, how will the temperature of your machinery change? Will you have to throttle down on the cooling flow to your pumps?” he asked. My reading over the previous few days paid off, because I had a pretty good idea of what should happen and the few adjustments that I would need to make. Toward the end of the watch and after hours of discussion and taking many sets of logs under his watchful gaze, Kevin signed off a few of the spaces on my qual card. He said that he was impressed with my performance, but he warned me not to let up. “Until you’re qualified to stand watch,” he said, his phrasing nearly identical to Petty Officer Jeffries’, “You’re viewed as a ‘nothing’ by many people onboard. The trick is to not give them the satisfaction. Just keep working hard, get qualified, and they won’t be able to say a thing to you. I know you can do it.”
My stomach had calmed considerably with the steadying of the boat. Once we were relieved from the watch, I went to the mess decks with Kevin and tried to eat dinner. It was going to be a long two days if I was actually going to get qualified and I reasoned that I was going to need my strength.
I qualified Engine Room Forward on the fourth day. This was late by Todd’s mandate, but I got no flack about it from him. After having not slept for nearly a day and a half, and even then only going down for about four hours before returning to the Engine Room completely exhausted, I expected no flack. It was his job to push me, to get me qualified, but he didn’t want to break me. He was just after good, efficient results, and, after he and the senior Engineering Department Officer complimented me on the speed of my qualification, I began to realize that he never expected me to get qualified in just two days anyway.
After the second week of patrol, I was well on my way to completing the qual card for my second watch station, Engine Room Lower Level, and I was very tired. I was averaging only about four hours of sleep in every twenty-four. My body was not yet used to that schedule. But even when I did sleep, I felt guilty, as if I was cheating my shipmates by not working on more quals or helping more with maintenance. I had noticed that Todd only slept about once every other day and that Kevin, too, seemed to be perpetually awake. The two of them were always working or on watch, always doing something that needed to be done. Really, that was the case with most everyone on board. I had no idea how they did it, how they kept going.
Along with standing watch and qualifying, each day consisted of several drills. The timing of each drill was random and it was a sure bet that if you’d just gone to sleep a drill would be initiated that would require your immediate response. Virtually every drill aboard a submarine requires every member of the crew to perform some specific duty. That duty varies on whether you are part of the “off-going” or “on-coming” watch team. Drill duty for each circumstance was another part of each watch station’s qual card and knowing your drill responsibility was just as important as knowing how to stand the watch. In the previous two weeks, I had seen fires, flooding, air leaks, reactor casualties and radioactive spills, to name a few. They were all drills, of course, but serious business just the same. All were treated as the real thing. Sometimes, during these drills, I would be patching a hole in a ruptured seawater pipe. Sometimes I was required to don fire-fighting gear and fight a fire. Many times, after the “casualty” was under control, the senior personnel would hold impromptu training sessions at the scene on exactly what actions had been taken and why. Though I had yet to be involved in a real casualty, all of the drilling and training had given me a sense of confidence and preparedness for the real thing were it to occur. Also, since I was standing watch six hours in every 18, participating in drills, performing maintenance and qualifying further watch stations, I started to feel more and more like I was contributing something to the boat’s community. I knew that I still had a long way to go, though, and a lot more yet to learn.
During the next week, I was on watch in Engine Room Forward when a voice on the loud speaker announced that the electrical operator was about to perform a routine electrical plant shift. In this case, the shift simply involved energizing a large electrical generator and securing another. I had already been on watch for a few of these shifts. There were two new electricians onboard who were trying to get qualified to stand their various electrical watch stations and demonstrating a proficiency in shifting the electric plant was a prerequisite for their qualifying to stand those watches.
Moments after the announcement, I heard a huge explosion and a wall of fire entered my watch station from the level above. Holy Fuck! I knew that one of the electrical generators had just been seriously damaged because all of the equipment on my watch station that was powered by that generator had just turned off. The sound of machines, which had been running since my first day aboard, winding down to a stop was quite unsettling. I grabbed the phone to call away a fire, but I could tell from the yelling coming from the earpiece that someone else was already passing that information along. I donned an emergency air-breathing mask and quickly began to pull out the fire hose on my watch station. Emergency air masks had always been uncomfortable, burdensome and annoying during drills. They are made of a heavy black rubber, much like a SCUBA diving mask, but they are much larger and thicker, encompassing your whole face and, since you’re not swimming under water when wearing them, they’re much hotter. Within seconds, there were scores of people in the Engine Room each doing exactly what he was assigned, exactly what we had practiced. I passed two fire extinguishers and my watch station’s fire hose up the ladder to the level where the generator had caught fire. Next, I began to restore all of the vital equipment in my space that had lost power. When restarting this equipment, though, I had to be careful to use only the machines that were not powered by the damaged generator. Knowing the power source of every piece of equipment on a watch station is an item on every qual card. When I was qualifying Engine Room Forward, this item had given me a great deal of problems because there were so many pieces of equipment to memorize. I had privately scoffed at the importance of the item, but now I was infinitely thankful that I had been forced to learn it. After restoring my equipment, I ended up fighting what remained of the fire from beneath with hand-held extinguishers. Perhaps five minutes after it had started, the fire was out and the Engine Room machinery had been stabilized. But that was only the beginning.
When a large fire starts onboard a submarine, the smoky air must be evacuated from the affected compartment in order to make the environment breathable again. This process may take hours because it requires taking the boat near the surface and sucking in fresh air through the mast while expelling the bad air. Sometimes, though, for strategic reasons, it is not prudent to take the boat near the surface and the process may have to wait. Fortunately, with this fire, we were able to come near the surface and evacuate the bad air in less than an hour. I was trembling with pride and exhaustion by the time that the air had been announced clean and I was able to remove my mask.
After I was relieved from watch, I couldn’t wait to go to the Mess Decks and talk about the fire. I had been there! I had helped fight it and we’d won! I now had a sea story to tell. Interestingly, though, most of the people on the Decks weren’t even talking about the generator fire. That conversation had apparently already passed and sea stories were now being told about real fires. As it turned out, according to many of the senior technicians on the mess decks that day, the generator fire was nothing when compared to the many that had been fought in the past on other boats or during other patrols of the Ohio.
Within about two patrols (about one year), though, I found that the generator fire, too, became a “helluva fire” and that it “could’ve killed us all.”
That may make the generator fire seem like a fish story, the kind that grows with every telling. Actually, though, that would be a false conclusion. The reason that the sailors on the Decks that day dismissed the fire as “nothing” was that it had really been quite something. At that time it was still too close and too real for them to think about and so reflecting back on casualties past, ones where the outcomes had already been decided, provided comfort and reassurance that everything was fine and that they, and not fate or chance, were still in charge. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the first time that I had seen these hard, tireless men vulnerable.
During the sixth week of the patrol, I attended my first halfway night. Halfway night celebrates exactly what it sounds like, the patrol’s half way mark, and it is marked with a huge party. For one evening, drills and work are suspended and the Mess Decks are transformed into a carnival. There are Jell-O eating contests where the contestants suck Jell-O through straws in hopes of winning a “free day of liberty” pass upon return to port. There are arm wrestling contests. There are raffles called “Pie in the Eye” in which pies are raffled and the highest bidders can call upon any man, up to and including the Captain (depending on the Captain), to sit at the front of the Mess Decks and have the pie slammed into his face. But, if the pie contains a cherry, and two random pies of the eight sold that night do, then the victim is given a free pie with which to retaliate. Skits are performed. Songs are sung. Invariably men dress in drag and parade around the Mess Decks to the raucous approval of the crew. During this time, the drab blue coveralls and sneakers that are the constant underway attire of the crew are replaced with bright, festive civilian clothing (Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops are very popular for this occasion). For a few hours, right in the middle of a tiring, lonely-for-family hell, it becomes possible to imagine that you are actually somewhere else.
A patrol on a submarine, save for the occasional casualty or celebration, is a long, tiring existence. The days turn into weeks, broken up only by between-watch trips to the Mess Decks and infrequent restless sleep. I continued to qualify watch stations as my experience and knowledge of the boat and Engine Room increased. I also began to notice that, though my body was tired, I no longer felt exhausted. I began to find that work took on a spiritual importance for me as I found that each hour of work represented another hour closer to home. Contrary to popular belief, most submariners do not revel in their time at sea. They dream of home the entire time that they are underway and yet, once home, they do feel a dull ache, a longing to feel as if they were on patrol. This longing is not as romantic as the call of the sea or even a call to defend one’s country. It is motivated by a desire to be in a place where no one lies. Where a person is exactly as he seems. Where everyone, by tradition and necessity, shoulders his share of the load and takes complete responsibility for his own actions.
Eleven weeks and two days after leaving, we were about to pull into port. We had surfaced in preparation for the transit in and I was assigned to the topside crew for the evolution. My specific duty was to perform a survey to ensure that there was no radioactive contamination of the hull. The seas were calm, and as the hatch opened I saw the sun for the first time in months. I smelled the fresh air. Seagulls flew overhead and squawked and the ocean was a deep purple and it reflected the beautiful Olympic Mountains, their peaks adorned with fresh snow that was so white that I had to look away. The boat was still wet and so very shiny and I paused there for a moment, alone, consumed by the beauty.
The reunion with my family was bittersweet. My wife and daughter were more beautiful than I dared remember, but my daughter didn’t know me at all. She wailed when I held her and, after only a short hug and a kiss on her forehead, I felt obliged to hand her back to my wife. I had duty that night, which meant that I had to stay overnight on the boat to stand watch. My wife had not expected this, and, after having waited for me to return for so long, having arranged and taken care of our apartment and daughter completely by herself, this one extra night seemed like a personal insult to her. But someone had to take care of the boat and this time I was among the group that was assigned to do so.