Submarines – Sissies need not apply

For a little more than three years of my naval career I was assigned to the nuclear submarine USS Shark-SSN 591, a boat that seemed to be held together with baling wire, EB green, bubble gum, and an occasional new coat of antifouling paint. She wasn’t in the prime of her life when I reported in Sept. 1983. Nevertheless, after an overhaul in Mare Island, California, the Shark was ready to make her presence known as part of President Reagan’s 600 ship navy. For the 3plus years I was assigned to her, the Shark provided critical support to the national security and provided me a lot of opportunities to see the world. Overall, my experience was one that helped form my life, and to a large degree gave me experience(s) that sharpened and matured my character. I’m glad that I joined.

Today, I’m looking across the Thames River from my house in New London, Connecticut toward Groton where another submarine, USS New Hampshire SSN-778 will be christened at the Electric Boat shipyard. Congratulations to General Dynamics, the Submarine Force, the state of New Hampshire, and especially, to the crew. As a special note, the sponsor of the New Hampshire is Cheryl McGuinness of Portsmouth, N.H., the widow of Thomas McGuinness, co-pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, who died in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Cheryl McGuinness is the perfect sponsor, who in my view ironically reflects the best nature and character of a submariner. She’s someone who has learned to overcome tremendous heartache and trials. She’s tough and, although not a guy, she not a sissy either.

If there is one thing I noticed that defines most submarines (very few exceptions) are those character elements of mental toughness and mutual respect. Most submariners I know are the kind of people who are professional in their work, willing to help where needed, selfless, and tough-minded. The Submarine Force is no place for “Lone Rangers” and malcontents. Everyone is needed to do their part. We don’t have extra crew to fill in for wimps. We, bubbleheads know that we are dependent on the other guy for our safety, well-being, and lives. They are dependent on us as well. Unlike our skimmer brethren (surface sailors), there are no such things as lifeboats in a submarine and the idea of “abandoning ship” is foreign to your thinking when you’re a “mud-seeking missile.” That reality keeps you on your toes.

One fact that was rarely ever mentioned, yet never forgotten, was the haunting phenomenon that my boat, the Shark (SSN-591) was the middle hull number seperarting the USS Scorpion (SSN-589) and the USS Thresher (SSN-593). Both of these boats were the only US nuclear submarines lost at sea. When you go down to the sea in ships you don’t need bad omens running through your mind. Even so, we go on to do what we need to do, day in and day out. For family, home, and country we carry on. We submariners will always carry on. After the Thresher went down, Dr. Joyce Brothers wrote the following article about men in the submarine force. I think it sums up who submariners are…

The tragic loss of the submarine Thresher and 129 men had a special kind of impact on the nation…..a special kind of sadness, mixed with universal admiration for the men who chose this kind of work.

One could not mention the Thresher without observing, in the same breath how utterly final and alone the end is when a ship dies at the bottom of the sea…..and what a remarkable specimen of man it must be who accepts such a risk.

Most of us might be moved to conclude, too, that a tragedy of this kind would have a damaging effect on the moral of the other men in the submarine service and tend to discourage future enlistments. Actually, there is no evidence that this is so.

What is it, then, that lures men to careers in which they spend so much of their time in cramped quarters, under great psychological stress, with danger lurking all about them?

Bond Among Them

Togetherness is an overworked term, but in no other branch of our military service is it given such full meaning as in the so-called “silent service.”

In an under sea craft, each man is totally dependent upon the skill of every other man in the crew, not only for top performance but for actual survival. Each knows that his very life depends on the others and because this is so, there is a bond among them that both challenges and comforts them.

All of this gives the submariner a special feeling of pride, because he is indeed a member of an elite corps. The risks, then, are an inspiration, rather than a deterrent.

The challenge of masculinity is another factor, which attracts men to serve on submarines. It certainly is a test of man’s prowess and power to know he can qualify for this highly selective service. However, it should be emphasized that this desire to prove masculinity is not pathological, as it might be in certain daredevil pursuits, such as driving a motorcycle through a flaming hoop.

Emotionally Healthy

There is nothing daredevelish about the motivations of the man who decides to dedicate his life to the submarine service. He does, indeed, take pride in demonstrating that he is quite a man, but he does not do so to practice a form of foolhardy brinkmanship, to see how close he can get to failure and still snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. On the contrary, the aim in the submarine service is to battle the danger, to minimize the risk, to take every measure to make certain that safety rather than danger, is maintained at all times.

Are the men in submarines braver than those in other pursuits where the possibility of sudden tragedy is not constant? The glib answer would be that they are. It is much more accurate, from a psychological point of view, to say they are not necessarily braver, but that they have a little more insight into themselves and their capabilities.

They know themselves a little better than the next man. This has to be so with men who have a healthy reason to volunteer for a risk. They are generally a cut healthier emotionally than others of similar age and background because of their willingness to push themselves a little bit farther and not settle for an easier kind of existence.

We all have tremendous capabilities but are rarely straining at the upper level of what we can do; these men are.

The country can be proud and grateful that so many of its sound, young, eager men care enough about their own status in life–and the welfare of their country–to pool their skills and match them collectively against the power of the sea.

To all my submarine brothers, past, present, and future, wear your dolphins proudly


3 Responses

  1. If you have a minute to spare, I would appreciate it if you would assist me in getting submariners to wear their Dolphins to work next April 9th. You have the Google power to make my wild hair idea into a successful display of the submariners hidden in the midst of our society. Please take a look at Any assistance will be appreciated.

  2. If you have a minute to spare, I would appreciate it if you would assist me in getting submariners to wear their Dolphins to work next April 9th. You have the Google numbers to make my wild hair idea into a successful display of the submariners hidden in the midst of our society. Please take a look at Any assistance will be appreciated.

    Dennis Boom
    ETCM(SS) USN Retired

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