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We were Submariners once, and young – Part 1: Boot to Boat

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From 1982 to 1986 I served in the United States Navy as a Fire Control Electronics Technician on the Blue crew of the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine USS Nathanael Greene, SSBN 636. One of the original 41 for freedom boats during the cold war.
Last Modified: June 7, 2023

Adulting into the US Navy

I have not a single doubt that the United States Navy was an appropriate and necessary step in the development of myself. It was a step that was far too short in my estimation and ended not of my timing or choosing. But such words have the ring of regret, and I can only express gratitude for the experience as a member of an elite military force, and more importantly a member of the Blue crew of the USS Nathanael Green, SSBN 636.

Submarine Refit Site One, Holy Loch, Scotland
Submarine Refit Site One, Holy Loch, Scotland
James Madison Class Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine Uss Nathanael Greene, Ssbn 636 (1965 Naval File Photo)
James Madison Class Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine Uss Nathanael Greene, Ssbn 636 (1965 Naval File Photo)
Nathanael Greene - Eternal Vigilance Patch

The USS Nathanael Greene was a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. One of the “41 for freedom“, the boats tasked with forming an undetected, underwater wall around fortress America. To put it a more fun way, we were the alligators in the moat around our castle and what freedom you enjoy in the plutocracy that now is is in part because we were out there growling and prowling. Well, growling very very quietly. Mustn’t be noisy because the bad people might hear and come investigate. 

We were one prong of the triad of bombers, land-based ICBMs and submarines that represented the strategic defense of the United States during the cold war. Teddy Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” to use a wholly American metaphor. And walk softly we did.

First let me say I am against the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons. Am now. Was then. Know what I am against more? A nation run by thugs, thieves, murderers and despots having their way with the world unopposed. That is what the Soviet Union was then, that is what Russia is now. That isn’t an opinion. It’s an objective fact about the observable universe.

It is a fact that necessitates the existence of both nuclear weapons and the strategic deterrent patrols to deploy those weapons sneakily. Which in turn necessitates that there be specifically tasked submarines and crews who are both highly trained and motivated. It sends a message to the evil empires that were and are “This far you go. No further.”

Such was the purpose of the 41 for Freedom. Such will be the purpose of the Columbia class SSBNs currently in design and development.  You may disagree. And I may tell you that you don’t know what the fuck you are talking about. And then we can smile and go sit in a circle and sing kum-by-yah together. The only difference between us being I’ll still understand how this unfortunate world works and you still won’t. Do I hate that such things are necessary? Indeed I do. When you figure out how to banish all tyrants from the world I’m all ears.

State of Being, Summer of '82

The word for the first half of 1982 was  ESCAPE! My 20-year old self felt that as a desperate imperative.

I had at 20 years old: Toxic druggie friends on the fringes of criminality and a few in far deeper than fringes, a hard manual job that I didn’t want as a career, and a dead-end no where little town in Texas with no opportunities that I could see except prison given the friends.

Rtc San Diego Company 146 September 1982
Spot The Anarchist Of Company 146, Rtc San Diego, Oct 1982

Besides, the job market was shit. By joining the military I could save a guy a job because I had seniority at the casting company I worked at. By volunteering for the layoffs that were coming. Which I did. And for me if I had been one of those people, the only other place to work was Granite Mountain, the quarry that was actually more dangerous than the military in wartime. Hell Effing No in big, bold, all caps, 72 point, bright red text. That place ate people at an incredible rate and the foreman was this uber-redneck named Glen Lewis, who took delight in dry-shaving hippies (and metalheads, both the same to him) with his buck knife while the crew held them down. And he was my dad’s good buddy. Of course of course.

And along Came Daddy

I was walking along pondering the potential ramifications of being anally raped by a large someone named Bubba when the thought hit. “I think I’ll join the Army. That will get me the hell away from here.”

Just after that thought, my dad pulled into the parking lot of the washeteria I was walking through on my way to Burnham Brothers to look at the snakes.  Hey. Smoke some weed. Go look at the rattlesnakes in the window of the sporting goods store. Welcome to Marble Falls, Texas of 1982. The snakes were the most exiting thing in town and the weed the only thing that made the whole sad episode of being stuck there bearable. 

I told him the news. He immediately talked me into the Navy instead. So I went with that, and why not. The goal was GTFO, the vehicle didn’t matter to me so much. Anything that put me on a different path made daddy happy AF. But leaving on a ship did sound a lot better than driving away in a tank, or worse, running along behind the tank. Forget jumping out of a fucking airplane altogether. I had already talked to that army  recruiter dude a year or so past. He told me to lose 70lbs. I don’t think he meant, “Go on Crystal Meth diet”. But I did. It worked remarkably well. When I hit Naval Training Command, San Diego California in July of 1982 for 13 weeks of boot camp I was 160 pounds soaking wet with all the strength of a wet noodle.

 

Boot Camp

Boot Camp was a trip. I’ll skip the first impressions mostly. It was a grand adventure. Even the yelling dudes I just viewed as part of the experience. Interesting, and more than a little amusing rather than stressful. I had survived daddy. These guys had nothing.

It was boot camp, so named I supposed because shining your boots took up quite a bit of the everyday. Seemed fitting to me. For some it sucked. For me it didn’t. I hit it with a keep my head down and get through it attitude. Besides. I’m a “Find a way or make one” kind of guy.

Notably I earned the Physical Fitness award for making the most improvement in the area of fitness. But that wasn’t the one Really, REALLY important thing that happened there.

We were at parade rest when out came a guy, some officer, to address us. 

“Men. We need volunteers for the Submarine force. Any takers?”

Camp Nimitz, Naval Training Command San Diego
Camp Nimitz, Naval Training Command San Diego

My great-grandmother, Ludmilla "Lillie" Barrow passed away while I was at NTC SD. No body told me because they didn't want to interrupt my training. That hurt deeply. But all things for a reason is the motto for we who choose to live without regrets.

Out of all those guys only two guys put up hands. This guy named Dimmler, who was going to be a radioman. And Moi, who was going to be whatever the universe threw my way. No idea why that hand decided to go up. It just did. The guy next to me looked at me like I had just turned into a insane clown with rabies. I agreed with the sentiment.

Submariner Wannabe

Before that moment I had no idea where I would be going after boot camp, deck gang on some ship somewhere I supposed.

Now I knew where next. Groton Connecticut and Basic Enlisted Submarine School.

B.E.S.S.

Basic Enlisted Submarine School, or BESS, was also a hoot. Learning specifically about the design, construction and essential ships systems for the 640 class SSBN, the mainstream SSBN class in service. And about submarine etiquette, culture and expectations in general. As this was 1982 the Ohio class SSBNs were just coming into service, and the Los Angeles (SSN 688) class attack boats were still being commissioned on a regular basis. I wanted a 688 on the west coast.

I arrived in Groton in October 1982. This new-found freedom after boot camp was epically embraced. I guess freedom is a misword, Not much of a thing for a seaman recruit fresh out of boot-shining camp and eager as a beaver for submarine camp. Because that’s how I saw it all. 

Uss Los Angeles
Uss Los Angeles Ssn 688. I Wanted A 688 Class Fast Attack Bad. Not To Be.

This is the beginning of why I have to keep from cracking up when someone solemnly thanks me for my service. To me, that’s like someone solemnly thanking me for having a threesome with [insert any two early 80’s sex symbol actresses here. I would have my preferences, but I’ll let you pick. I’m awesome that way.]

I was having the time of my life. Even in the beginning bits. Sub school was kind of a blur. I did well, Stayed out of trouble, paid attention and only partied moderately. 

And I had some ideas about where to next. West coast 688 remember. The difference? Fast Attacks go places and do things. On a fast attack? There’s no schedule. You might be deployed on a moment’s notice and not see home port again for months. You might be fully engaged with your wife, lover or inflatable doll at 1:00 AM and the phone ring and a voice on the other end saying “Get your ass here we’re underway at o-five hundred.” 

At least you can bring the inflate-a-mate along for the ride. Pimping her out will be a great side-gig three weeks into the run, along with candy and cigarette sales. Diversification is key for the submariner with an entrepreneurial spirit and an eye for opportunity. TMI on submarine life? Deal with ii.

Boomers, on the other hand, poke slow holes in the ocean while pretending to be sea life. Going nowhere at about the speed of your idling car. One offered excitement and adventure under the sea and in foreign seaports. The other, the potential of the slow mind-death of John: Boredom. Because when it comes to encountering the denizens of the evil empire boomers are like “Nope. Nope. Nobody here but us fishes and shrimps, move along…. move along.”  Fast attacks be like. “Ha, we’ve had a solution on your ass for two hours already, Come investigate MF’ers. Please.” And who knows? They might even make some appropriately non-threatening noises to let the evil doers know they’ve been killed. Fast Attack.

When it comes to foreign seaports boomers are like “Nope, nope. Not part of the mission”. Fast Attacks be like. “Hell yeah, mission party time.” In foreign ports that qualify as “Adult Disneyland.” Fast Attack. West Coast. Waving the flag from deep inside native territory *wink* wink* *nod* *nod*. Yup, the fast attack life is for me.

A boat. A boat. The Very Wrong boat

Uss Nathanael Greene Underway - Watercolor On Illustration Board; By Edward Terhune Wilbur; 1969
Uss Nathanael Greene Underway - Watercolor On Illustration Board; By Edward Terhune Wilbur; 1969

Newbie sub school graduate with a future ahead I walked to the detailer. That’s the guy who decides where unrated seaman apprentices with very little in the way of actual value to offer a submarine crew gets to go. To aid them in this task was a thing I had filled out called a “Dream Sheet” where I listed both the type of submarine and homeports that I wanted. My choices were: Fast Attack – Hawaii, Fast Attack – Mare Island and Fast Attack – San Diego.

He looked at it, then at me, smiled and said. “How about a boomer out of Groton.” 

Great. Not only the wrong kind of boat, the wrong coast.

His look was telling me “We have a hole to fill and you’re the peg. This is what it is. Be happy or not. I don’t give a shit either way.”

I swallowed my disappointment without letting it show, smiled and said “Sure.” Hey, its an adventure. Did I mention unrated seaman apprentices have absolutely zero bargaining power with said detailer? In the Navy in general and submarine force in particular, skills and experience is power. 

The more qualifications and rating experience you have, the more bargaining power you have over where and what next. Unrated seaman apprentices? They just smiled and hup too wherever it was they were told to go and whatever it was they were told to do. With a smile and a good attitude. That was how bargaining power for the next go around, and possibly sizeable cash re-enlistment bonus came your way. Bad attitude? Don’t expect much except a hard time of it.

He smiled again, for real this time and said. “Now you understand why it’s called a dream sheet?”

“Yup” I answered. 

“Welcome to the Navy and the USS Nathanael Greene, Atkinson.” He handed me my orders.

School was out. Camp was over. I was in the real Navy now.

The real navy

I reported to the off crew office of the USS Nathanael Greene (SSBN 636) in December of 1982 after a weeks worth of leave, and I’ll qualify that with an explanation: SSBNs have two crews. The Blue Crew (Yay Team) and the Gold crew (Boo Hiss). 

While one crew has the boat through refit and patrol, the other crew is back in Groton and operated out of the FBM Building, where every Groton-based SSBN had an office. I had just returned from a weeks leave back home. It was near Christmas 1982 and the Blue crew had recently returned from patrol and was still in the R & R period.

The first thing they asked me was if I wanted to turn around and go back home for a couple of weeks for Christmas, because nothing would be happening here. Since I couldn’t afford another plane ticket I passed with the happy knowledge that I had just been handed two weeks to do whatever I want. That Navy I had never met before.

The next thing was what rate I wanted to strike for. In the 80’s there were multiple ways to join the Navy. A high school graduate had options upon enlistment. A high school dropout like Moi had one. Strike for rate. Go to the fleet at the bottom of the pyramid and work your way up to being meaningful. What I wanted to strike for: FTG – Fire Control Electronics Technician. The guy who maintains, repairs and operates the electronic systems used to program, shoot and control the MK48 Torpedo, or really anything else that could be launched out of a MK65 torpedo tube. There was a plan. Strike FTG. Do my time on the Greene, request the service “A” school, re-enlist for MK117 “C” school and a new construction fast attack headed for the west coast. I was here for the career.

Next thing I know I’m sitting there and this huge bear of a Senior Chief Petty Officer filled the doorway and said “So you want to be an FTG?” Enter FTGCS(SS) John T. “Jack” Stafford. Affectionately known as “Sea Daddy.” The man who saw something in me and for whatever reason decided to cultivate whatever that was. And I am deeply, deeply honored by that, because Jack Stafford was a submarine sailor if ever one there was.

The on-crew / off-crew cycle ran roughly three months each. 105 days strikes a bell.. The first month of the off crew cycle for an FBM crew is Rest & Recreation. During this period you can take leave or just hang out. You were required to muster twice a week during this time. Once by phone, and once just showing up and having your name checked off the crew list. The remaining two months were consumed by training. Submariners train constantly. 

Wanna know what the universe does not care about at all? 120 monkeys in a little metal tube beneath the deep blue sea. The most hostile environment to human life on the planet. 

There are a number of really bad things that can go wrong in a thousand different ways and  places. Things that can very suddenly kill everyone horribly. Or, just you. So you train, and you train, and you drill and you drill and then you train some more.

And that’s not counting a potential altercation with the evil empire. In which case you most certainly are going to die. But you want to stay alive as long as possible to inflict as much damage as possible.  So you train, and you train, and you drill and you drill and then you train some more.

A submarine crew that isn’t doing that isn’t one I want to be under the deep blue sea with. I understood that going in. I’m smart that way. So those first two months aboard the office was spent beginning to train for the watch stations I would be standing underway , which were lookout when surfaced and helm/planes while submerged. YeeHaw, I was going to be a submarine driver. And YeeHaw, when we were on the surface I got to be out there in the air, not stuck in the smelly bowels of the beast. Happiest of happy days. Oh. Training. Squirrel.

When you aren’t training or drilling you are qualifying: Ships qualifications, watch station qualifications.

Submarine Warfare Specialist (Ships Qualifications)

Ships Qualification is the primary focus for the first year after reporting to a submarine. You live and dream the ships operations manual and piping diagrams until you either complete it successfully or fail to and are shipped off to the surface fleet for duties more appropriate to your nature, abilities and skillset. The Navy actually doesn’t give a rats ass about your nature and what makes that nature happy. It does try to put round pegs in round holes because its cheaper and more efficient than trying to hammer in a square peg. Which is not to say square pegs don’t get hammered, They do. On a submarine though? The best submariners are the ones who can mold themselves into any shaped hole. And that is one general point of ships qualifications: to inject that malleability through the hammer of knowledge beat against the anvil of the crew using the forge of the qualification process.

I love metaphors. Especially hammer, anvil and forge ones. They are hugely appropriate for the military in general and the submarine force specifically.

As to the why of ships qualifications? Some people might tell you that it is so you can do any job on a submarine. I’ll tell you that is total bullshit. Setting an A-Ganger at the Reactor Control Console is an invitation to an atomic disaster. Putting an FTG like me at the FTB computer is a great way to accidentally nuke Albuquerque. Sure, you may cross-train. Any boomer FTG can be a junior Torpedoman in a pinch. But by and large your specialized rating is what you do.

The reason for qualifications is, as previously stated: bad things can and do happen suddenly. And…. Absent sudden and correct response? Everyone dies horribly. Or, maybe just you do.

Case in point for instance. Lets say I am heading back aft to the engine room to check the temperature on the pyrotechnics locker back there. And I step through the hatch into the reactor tunnel and into a puddle of clear liquid. Because I am qualified, I understand that this is an “Oh Fuck. Oh dear.” moment. Because, I know that the sampling station used by the ELT’s to check the chemistry of the reactor coolant is just right there, and that I am probably standing in a puddle of that because of a potential leak. I also, because I am qualified, know that the reactor emergency alarm switch  and a 1MC box is just right there and I can reach both without even looking. Then guys who do ELT stuff will come very VERY quickly all dressed up in banana suits to determine that in fact, some dickhead spilled 7-up on his way through the tunnel and left it there. Which then activates another submariner process as the Engineering LCPO goes back aft to rip an asshole or five into gaping bleeding ruin.

Another fer instance. I make it to the pyro locker and something catches on fire. Because I am qualified, I am able to reach the nearest general alarm and 1MC to tell everyone what and where. Then, because I am qualified I know the appropriate fire suppression equipment and where it is to combat the casualty until relieved by the pre-assigned damage control party. Believe me, this shit happens very quickly and very efficiently because you have a bunch of qualified guys, yeah, girls now, who are motivated not to die horribly. And we practice constantly.

This is the Enlisted Submarine Warfare Qualification I speak of. Officer Submarine Warfare Qualifications is the same and different. It takes a higher level view while encompassing the detailed ground level perspective of the enlisted qualification as well. 

A for instance for the Officer of the Deck would be loss of hydraulics to control surfaces. He has to understand the casualty as well as how all the ships systems inter-relate to be able to give the orders that:

  • address the problem.
  • maintain control of the ship.
  • maintain the integrity of the mission.

Bigger shoes to fill.

That should give you a glimpse of why the Submarine Warfare Qualification process is so important.

High up on the “hell no” list for me, as a cold war submariner, is the thought of going to sea on a boat crewed by people who have had shortcuts in the qualification process. What we then would call “A grape.” 

Nothing is more frightening to one of us than the thought of going to sea with a crew who have had their dolphins graped into place. That’s how a whole crew can die stupidly and unnecessarily. All it takes is a boatload of nonquals who think they’re qualified.

So, even though I was beginning to grasp a teentsy-weentsy bit of what I just relayed to you I still didn’t really get that I wasn’t a submariner. I was a…

Non-Qual Dink Puke nUB (Non-Useful Body)

That day finally came. March, maybe February of 1983 when we all gathered at the FBM building with our seabags packed. Ready to deploy to Holy Loch Scotland to begin the blue crew’s refit and patrol cycle. 

Its a non-event really. We gathered, we got on a bus, we went to Bradley airport near Hartford and flew away. The only memorable chuckle was the drug sniffing dog pinging off on the navigator’s herbal tea.

We got there, got on another bus and off we went to Submarine Refit Site One in Holy Loch, Scotland. 

Site One in 1983 consisted of:

  • The USS Hunley AS-31 (Submarine Tender)
  • The USS Los Alamos AFDB-7 (Floating Drydock Especially made for George Washington, Lafayette and James Madison class SSBNs. Note the Lafayette class and Madison class are externally almost the same.)
  • A collection of barges and crap betwixt the two.
  • A pier that you had to ride a barge to with an enlisted club but was mostly just a place to grab a cab to Dunoon. And occasionally get insults and other shit hurled at you by anti-nuke protestors. Hey, I get it. Us, our gnarly submarines, and enough of our nuclear weapons to make their itty-bitty town a target of the evil empire. If the balloon went up bet your ass Holy Loch was going to get whacked with enough megatonnage to make northern Scotland glow for centuries. Especially with the British submarine base at Faslane just right there over the hills a bit. All that in their country. I get it. No foul. All good. I wouldn’t have been thrilled about it either.

It was too that collection of stuff came Johnny Nub and the Blue Crew. Welcome to Submarine Refit Site 1, Holy Loch Scotland. John wanted Hawaii. Uncle Sam be like. “Yeah, I got an island for your ass. Dress warm.”

And so the Real Journey Begins. Stay tuned for the next episode, Coming whenever I get to it..

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