Learning from Submarine Crews

I added the following afterword to the end of my recently published book, “Modern Common Sense.” I’m proud to share it with you, and particularly with all the shipmates with whom I served. Here’s what I wrote:

These chapters are the product of someone who’s covered a lot of ground. A large part of the territory was my experiences as an officer on nuclear attack submarines. Most people haven’t a clue about modern submarines. They imagine World War II diesel boats. Modern submarines are, in fact, marvelous self-contained mini-planets kept alive by the sailors within them.

A modern nuclear submarine has a crew of about 120. I’ll generalize to keep it simple, so veterans and military historians bear with me. Twelve of them are officers, college graduates who then complete nuclear and submarine warfare training. The other 108 are enlisted, primarily high school graduates, and the product of an intensive and strict technical training pipeline run by the Navy. Taken in at the age of eighteen to twenty-something, they become tradesmen, technically competent in their field. They are electricians, sonarmen, navigators, radiomen, torpedomen, machinist mates (who maintain turbines, AC units, gears, pumps, pipes and valves), electricians, electronic technicians (who can operate and maintain the control systems), and the reactor operators (who learn the nuclear physics governing a submarine’s reactor, how to control it, and educated on what to do should things go wrong). A few become engineering laboratory technicians (who maintain the chemistry of fluid systems and monitor the radiation shielding). There are a handful of others, including yeomen (administrators and record keepers) and cooks (everything is prepared from scratch because space constraints limit stores to basic ingredients). There is but one corpsman, the sole crewmember trained in medicine, capable of surgically removing a burst appendix, stitching wounds or setting broken limbs, treating unusual maladies and even repairing broken teeth or lost fillings, while also responsible for maintaining auditable records of the radiation exposure of every crewman, and even visitors.

Each of them has secondary duties. Everyone is a trained fire-fighter, even, and especially, the cooks, since a kitchen deep-fat fryer fire could lead to disaster. Some are trained as divers and rescue swimmers, as armed security forces, as explosive handlers, even as specialists in arcane, highly-classified fields. When the submarine goes into action, all hands play a role. Off-watch machinist mates help load torpedoes or missiles; some sonarmen join damage control teams, ready to patch ruptured pipes or fight fires. Almost every watch station is double-manned, ready to respond to emergencies. At battle-stations, the control room, the fighting station, is filled with extras to help track the enemy targets. Even something as routine as entering a port is an all-hands event, with extra lookouts, armed sentries and seamen topside to bring on tugs and handle lines alongside the pier. Everyone on board is highly trained, valued, and trusted. Most importantly, each is a team player, selflessly devoted to one another.

These men come from all parts of the country and from varied backgrounds. (It’s now women, too, but only until fairly recently. In my time, it was only men.) The twelve college graduates rely on the 108 who aren’t. Of the twelve officers, only two, the Captain and the Executive Officer, actually set the tone and determine the course. The other college graduates are granted some of the Captain’s authority to carry out his orders and keep watch from the control room or in the engineroom. The rest make everything work. What draws them together, and keeps them on point, is mutual trust and respect. It’s a magnificent thing.

On top of all that, they are bound by another idea: a fierce, unblinking acceptance of reality. It is the reality of an often cruel ocean and its crushing depths and the unrelenting determination of any enemy to find their boat and sink it. There are no wounded in an anti-submarine battle; the crew either lives or dies, together. There is no room for hopeful thinking. There is no place for skirting the ocean’s malevolence when it is so inclined. There is no tolerance for rosy reports that this system is mostly okay, or that piece of vital equipment will probably perform its function when needed. Mistakes and errors are expected, but it doesn’t mean they are treated kindly, lest they lose value as a means to learn for all and to educate those who make them. Instead, their inevitability is constantly guarded against by the team through open-eyed inspection and second-checking of everything.

Interestingly, this does not suppress the men’s spirits. It does not limit artistic expression or individual interests. In a way, they become keener within the realm of the real world, not as a substitute for it. Reading Moby Dick when far at sea provides an appreciation for the artistry of the words that can never be found in a college dormitory. Listening to a trio playing and singing against the background of machinery noise giving life and power to a submarine makes the musical performance alive and uplifting. Watching hands bring life and color with crayons to scraps of paper and then mold them into a supernatural flower delivers an artistry that belies the relevance of the same work displayed in an art gallery.

It makes you realize that ordinary Americans fresh out of high school are more than capable of running any enterprise, even one as complex and demanding as a nuclear powered submarine. It makes you see that a rigorous education program far from any college campus can empower individuals to join with others and achieve success. It makes you question the popular notion that a college education is really that important after all.