Archive for September, 2017

The Nuclear Submarine

On September 30, 1954, the USS Nautilus was commissioned. Under Captain Hyman G. Rickover, the idea of a nuclear Navy came to life. The Nautilus was much larger than its diesel predecessors. She stretched 319 feet and displaced some 3,180 tons. Due to the atomic engine, she could remain submerged for almost an unlimited amount of time because no air was needed. The uranium-powered nuclear reactor produced steam that drove propulsion turbines, which allowed the her to travel at speeds in excess of 20 knots.  Rickover was considered a fanatic by his colleagues, and to many the idea of harnessing nuclear power to run a submarine was science fiction. However, Rickover’s background in engineering and science paved the way for our modern submarine force. But why switch to nuclear power at all? What makes a nuclear submarine a modern marvel?

A nuclear ship propulsion program was first studied in 1939. After the end of WWII, a theory began to circulate that the atom bomb could be harnessed and turned into an engine. Commander Edward L. Beach recalls the period, saying, “I remember at that time thinking to myself, by George, there’s the way to go. The nuclear engine would give a submarine tremendous capability, because, you see, the submariners right away to relate to air – you have to have air to run the {diesel} engines. That requires that you come up all the time; you can’t run the engines submerged … But if you could run a nuclear engine – not need air – it could go indefinitely.”[1] In 1947, Beach was assigned to the Atomic Energy Division of the Navy, which at the time was solely dealing with atomic bombs. That October, a secret memorandum was signed that would initiate the development, design and construction of a nuclear powered submarine within the department. Rickover headed the nuclear-propulsion program, with its sole mission to figure out how to extract power from an explosive radioactive substance and have it drive a propeller. Rickover was famously known for being a rigid and at times difficult man. But his determination led to a new submarine Navy. He would not allow any corners to be cut and safety was his number one priority. The project was fast paced and anything Rickover needed was procured immediately. No expense was spared and the project consumed $55 million. Nuclear-propulsion development was a completely new undertaking when Rickover was assigned to the program. His conservative approach to reactor and propulsion plant designed ensured that manufactures and shipyards followed specific guidelines. He emphasized in-depth inspections and rigorous training. Rickover knew that working with such an unstable element needed to be handled with respect and caution in order to move ahead with the project. The guidelines he set during his tenure as Director of the program (1940’s-1982) are still followed today. The US Naval record for safety on nuclear power is excellent directly because of  their high level of standardization and training.

In order to work on this revolutionary project, the propulsion division worked with private industries including Westinghouse and Electric Boat. The first Naval reactor which was used in the

Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, Idaho Chemical Processing Plant, Fuel Reprocessing Complex, Scoville, Butte County, ID

Nautilus was the Mark I (later designated as S1W). The construction of the reactor took place at a power plant in Idaho. The success of the Mark I and the plant changed the way we view nuclear power. Working with Westinghouse, the first nuclear power plant that generated commercial power on a large scale was built in Pennsylvania as a direct result of harnessing this technology in submarines. In the decades following the success of the Nautilus, nuclear propulsion was used beyond attack submarines and introduced to ballistic missile submarines, guided missile cruisers and aircraft carriers.  But how does a nuclear reactor work?

Understanding how the nuclear reactor works can be complex. According to the National Museum of American History, “Nuclear reactors are basically heat engines. As uranium fissions, the breaking of atoms releases energy, much of it in the form of heat, which can be used to do work. In a nuclear-powered submarine, reactor heat produces steam to drive the turbines that provide the submarine’s actual power.” Sea water is pumped into the boat and desalinated to create the steam used to drive the turbines. The power generated by the nuclear reactor not only drives the boat but provides all of its electricity and systems that provide oxygen. The auxiliary systems that are driven by the turbine generators furnish power for cooling equipment, lighting, cooking, climate control and water distillation. It purifies the air, allowing the submarine to remain a closed system and maintain its own atmosphere.Nautilus was the Mark I (later designated as S1W). The construction of the reactor took place at a power plant in Idaho. The success of the Mark I and the plant changed the way we view nuclear power. Working with Westinghouse, the first nuclear power plant that generated commercial power on a large scale was built in Pennsylvania as a direct result of harnessing this technology in submarines. In the decades following the success of the Nautilus, nuclear propulsion was used beyond attack submarines and introduced to ballistic missile submarines, guided missile cruisers and aircraft carriers.  But how does a nuclear reactor work?

By 2010, The United Stated had built 219 nuclear powered vessels. A nuclear reactor can last 33 years without refueling, which greatly changed how long submarines could stay in service compared to their diesel ancestors. According to the World Nuclear Association, the US Navy has “accumulated over 6200 reactor-years of accident-free experience involving 526 nuclear reactor cores over the course of 240 million kilometers without a single radiological incident, over a period of more than 50 years.” In order to decommission boats, handle the nuclear reactor properly, and maintain its safety records, the Navy has the Ship/Submarine Recycling Program (SRP. All SRP’s take place at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington.

Moored submarines awaiting their final fate at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, WA sometime in 1996: From left to right:
Shark (SSN-591),
Plunger (SSN-595),
Snook (SSN-592) &
Patrick Henry (SSBN-599).

The beginning of the Nuclear Navy forever changed the submarine force. Since its inception, all submarines built have been nuclear, allowing longer lifespans for each boat and the ability to protect our waters for longer periods at a time. The Nautilus was extremely loud compared to today’s standards, but her speed and ability to stay submerged created a new asset for militaries around the world. As the science developed, reactors were made quieter and powered the ships more quickly. Despite this ability to use a reactor onboard ships, nuclear power is still an unstable element and must be used with extreme caution. While Rickover may have been considered a fanatic, he has taught us that nuclear energy can do wonders, but only if it is handled with the proper care and respect.


[1]Arctic Mission: 90 North by Airship and Submarine by William F. Althoff. Pg 28

Coffee and the Navy!

As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Coffee…The drink of the civilized world.” Coffee means so much to so many people that it even has its own day – September 29th. Coffee has become a staple in most homes, offices, campgrounds, and yes – even the military. The US military is one of the largest consumers of coffee in the country. Coffee allows military personal to always be on the watch, and is especially helpful to those who do the night watch. The Navy has a special history with coffee. We can even thank the Navy for the term “cup of Joe”. Sailors have their own special relationship with the hot brew, one that is much different from the average drinker. From the way it’s brewed, to the cup you drink it in, coffee in the Navy is like no other.

                In 1773 after the Boston Tea Party, the Continental Congress declared coffee to be America’s National drink. In fact, the plan for the Tea Party was hatched in a coffeehouse. During the Civil War,

Figure 2 Forbes, Edwin, 1839-1895, artist. Military life 1870-1880

coffee was the only fresh food available to many of the troops. Confederate troops tried to substitute anything to try and make the drink including roasted corn, rye, sweet potatoes, and chicory. But of course, nothing beat the original.  The Civil War even saw the first attempt at instant coffee. However, this trial did not go very well. Factory owners trying to save cost used spoiled milk which caused more problems on the battlefield and failed to boost morale. The military very quickly switched back to the real product. Before becoming President, William McKinley delivered hot coffee to the front lines. There is even a Civil War monument in Maryland honoring McKinley’s coffee service. The monument reads, “Sergeant McKinley Co. E. 23rd Ohio Vol. Infantry, while in charge of the Commissary Department, on the afternoon of the day of the battle of Antietam, September 17, 1962, personally and without orders served hot coffee and warm food to every man in the Regiment, on this spot and in doing so had to pass under fire.” This story was told many times during his Presidential campaign – highlighting the soldiers’ love of coffee. In a 1983 memoir on World War II, Captain Sam Lombard-Hobson said that sailor’s strong coffee was “black as ink and hot as hell; to keep the watch watchful on cold nights in the North Atlantic.”

Figure 1 Marines making Coffee on Iwo Jima

From the beginning of our military, coffee has been a necessity. While coffee was an integral part in soldier’s rations, in the Navy, it wasn’t always the favorite drink of choice.

The early days of the US Navy was molded after the British Royal Navy. This meant a daily ration of grog. Grog, which is rum diluted with water, was a daily ration in the British Navy up until 1970. Much of early Naval history is filled with stories of the rum trade. Many of our early sea tales are filled with rum soaked pirates being chased by the Dutch East India Company. In 1801, Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith substituted the daily ration of American-made sour mash for West Indies rum. The daily ration of hard liquor was restricted though in 1862 during the Civil War. Order No. 29 restricted all alcohol brought on board ships. Only drinks that the Captain permitted were allowed onboard. While specific information isn’t available, many officers continued to have wine with a meal daily. The removal of alcohol on board ships came in 1914 with Order No. 99, which banned all alcoholic beverages from Naval property. This move was made by Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels.

Figure 3 Harris & Ewing, “Josephus Daniels,” c. 1920. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-36747. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

While there is no definitive proof of the connection, the American slang for coffee – “a cup of Joe” is highly linked to this action. The coffee mess became a prominent fixture on surface ships and submarines alike. Coffee pots could be found on the bridge, in the engine room, the ship’s office, the machine shop, and many other places. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy established its own coffee-roasting plants in Oakland, California and Brooklyn, New York. While both plants are closed now, this represents how serious coffee was regarded during wartime in the Navy.

Figure 4 Oakland Naval Supply Center, Coffee Roasting Plant, East of Fourth Street, between J & K, Oakland, Alameda County, CA

During WWII, most of Hawaii’s kona crop was purchased by the Navy in order to supply its sailors with the amount of coffee they needed. The average coffee consumer may be asking why is Navy coffee so important. After all, it’s just coffee. But coffee on a boat is not like your average cup.

There is an article on the Naval Historical Foundation website called “Don’t Wash That Coffee Mug” that perfectly describes the outsider’s realization about Navy coffee. The author of the article describes his first experience with Navy coffee in the following manner: “It was hot and strong. Very strong. The thickness of it closely resembled crude oil. It tasted both wonderful and terrible at the same time. Your mind can trick you into believing anything. When a supreme bot of joe is brewed, many of the volunteers would call it ‘Signal Bridge Coffee,’ recalling the nostalgia of long nights and many cups consumed.” [1] One of our own had a similar experience. When our assistant manager in the gift shop started, she asked one of the sailors if they had any milk she could borrow. She was quickly told that there was no milk around. Submariners drink their coffee black and strong – or not at all. While this may not be true with all sailors (creamer and sugar are consumed widely by military personal), this idea stems from the period of time when soldiers in war could only get spoiled milk due to the delay in the arrival of supplies. Today many sailors, and other military members as well, will tell you a cup of black coffee is the only way to go. It is not only the strength of the coffee that matters, but the cup in which you drink it. There is a tradition, as strange as it may seem, to not wash your coffee mug. The practice is called “seasoning”, and many a sailor that passes through the museum will suggest that one must never wash their mug. This is another reason for drinking their coffee black. If someone used milk and sugar in their coffee, they’d have no choice but to clean it. A 1945 Navy cookbook outlines clear instructions on how to clean both the coffee pot and mug upon consumption. Today’s sailors carry a different tune. Especially amongst the Navy chief community, a well “seasoned” cup is a sign of stature and seniority.  Much like taking coffee black, a “seasoned” coffee mug is not practiced by every sailor in today’s Navy. Despite this, these traditions show how coffee has become an integral daily routine for many sailors.

Coffee has played a distinctive role in the US military. The drink is one of the top items sent to deployed military personnel.  So, we want to know – how do you take your coffee? Do you think you could handle the strong, thick Navy coffee? And would you ever try to “season” your coffee mug?


Naval Myths and Traditions

To the outside person, the Navy is a different world with customs, myths, and vocabulary that only those inducted into its ranks would know. For example, once the museum has been cleared in the evening, you can overhear the sailors on duty saying that the building is “Mike Tango.” Many of the gift shop staff learn very quickly that this means they can close and the museum is empty. Another simple example is that the restrooms are called “head.” During change of command ceremonies at the museum, visitors can witness the naval tradition of passing the reigns from one commander to the next. The ceremony is filled with naval traditions that have lasted for hundreds of years. To detail every one of these phrases and traditions would fill a book, so we have chosen just a few to allow you to join the ranks and learn a little more about Navy traditions, lore, and terms.

-A Navy lore that has been passed through the generations is that of The Flying Dutchman. It is such a popular legend that it even made it onto the Naval traditions list from the Naval Heritage and Command website. According to the NCH’s website,

Figure 1 Albert Pinkham Ryder’s The Flying Dutchman c. 1887. On Display at the National Museum of American Art, Washington.

“One superstition has it that any mariner who sees the ghost ship called the Flying Dutchman will die within the day. The tale of the Flying Dutchman trying to round the Cape of Good Hope against strong winds and never succeeding, then trying to make Cape Horn and failing there too, has been the most famous of maritime ghost stories for more 300 years. The cursed spectral ship sailing back and forth on its endless voyage, its ancient white-hair crew crying for help while hauling at her sail, inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge to write his classic “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” to name but one famous literary work. The real Flying Dutchman is supposed to have set sail in 1660.”


-Are you a Shellback? In the Navy, if you have crossed the equator, you are a shellback. Many times, this feat is commemorated with a Crossing the Line ceremony. Become a shellback is a rite of passage and has been for hundreds of years.  The earliest account is from a British sailor in 1708. In today’s Navy, the tradition is one of simple fun and a way to blow off some steam. However, in the beginning, sailors would practice the ceremony with great earnest. Long before the 1700’s, sailors believed that Neptune -the god of sea- was quite fickle. In order to appease him, they

Figure 2 Certificate from a line crossing ceremony in 1944 aboard the USS Bluegill

would sacrifice goats and oxen. By the 18th century, while the belief in ancient seafaring gods was gone, the traditions and practices to honor them remained in place. One of these being the shellback initiation. Before crossing the equator, the sailor was referred to as a “pollywog”. Once they were initiated, they then become “shellbacks”, otherwise known as fit subjects of King Neptune. Pranks are often played on the new initiates during the ceremony. However, the Navy has outlined that any hazing or abuse is strictly forbidden. The ceremony today is meant to honor the achievements of the sailor. While specific activities of the ceremony are for the sailor’s knowledge only, one can only imagine the shenanigans to be had when sailors get some time to play around. Crossing the equator isn’t the only such instance that has a ceremony. Crossing into the Arctic allows a sailor to go from a “red-nose” to a “blue-nose”!


– Done the dogwatch lately? No, we are not asking if you have pet sat lately. A dogwatch in the Navy is the period between 4:00 and 6:00pm and 6:00 and 8:00pm. The dogwatches are only two hours long in order to help avoid having the same Sailors on duty at the same time each day. The term’s origins are fuzzy but date back to at least the 1700’s. A normal watch schedule aboard ships are:

Noon to 4:00 p.m. Afternoon watch 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. First dogwatch 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Second dogwatch 8:00 p.m. to midnight 1st night watch Midnight to 4:00 a.m. Middle watch or mid watch  4:00 to 8:00 a.m. Morning watch  8:00 a.m. to noon Forenoon watch

The watches are marked by the ringing of bells. Bells were used because in the 1700’s most sailors couldn’t afford watches and if they could they did not know how to read them.

Number of bells Afternoon Watch First Dog Watch Last Dog Watch First Watch Middle Watch Morning Watch Forenoon Watch
One 12:30 16:30 20:30 00:30 04:30 08:30
Two 13:00 17:00 21:00 01:00 05:00 09:00
Three 13:30 17:30 21:30 01:30 05:30 09:30
Four 14:00 18:00 22:00 02:00 06:00 10:00
Five 14:30 18:30 22:30 02:30 06:30 10:30
Six 15:00 19:00 23:00 03:00 07:00 11:00
Seven 15:30 19:30 23:30 03:30 07:30 11:30
Eight 16:00 20:00 Midnight 04:00 08:00 Noon


– Have you earned your fish? For something submarine specific, all submariner’s main objective is to earn their fish. This means they are fully qualified on submarines. The term “fish” is a nickname for the submarine force insignia’s formal name, which is dolphins. Once a sailor has qualified to wear his or her dolphins, an SS is added to their rank, standing for “Submarine Specialist.” The insignia of the US Submarine force is a submarine flanked by two dolphins. Dolphins were the attendants to Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea and the patron deity to sailors. They were also chosen due to their shared characteristic of diving and surfacing like a submarine.  The badge came into effect in 1923 when a commander suggested that those who had qualified on a submarine have something to recognize this accomplishment. The dolphins appear to look more fish-like, gaining the nickname “fish”

These are just a few naval traditions and terms. We would love to hear more terms and traditions from you. Have you served aboard a submarine or a surface ship? What are some terms you know of? What myths and legends have passed through the years that are still talked about today? Maybe you’ll know a couple of terms we don’t. So, grab a cup of Joe (named after Josephus Daniels, who was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Among Daniels’ reforms of the Navy was the abolishment of the officers’ wine mess. From that time on, the strongest drink aboard Navy ships could only be coffee. Over the years, a cup of coffee became known as a cup of Joe) and share your Navy knowledge.

The Turtle

In 1870, when Jules Verne wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the idea of a submarine was still a fantasy. It is hard to believe that the technology would be available to create such a piece of machinery in the 19th century. While Verne was ahead of his time with the description of his vessel called Nautilus, the fact remains that Verne based his idea of a submarine on the very real advancements that were being made at the time. Around the world, inventors were working on different methods to create a usable model.  By the time Twenty Thousand Leagues had hit the bookshelves, a submarine had already been used in war  multiple times. In 1863, the H.L. Hunley sank the USS Housatonic during the Civil War. And on September 7, 1776, the world’s first submarine attack was reordered during the American Revolution.

In 1740, in what is today Westbrook, Connecticut, David Bushnell was born. He was the eldest of five children, and by the time he was 26, inherited his family farm which he ran with his brother Ezra. David left the farm in 1771 to study at Yale. His studies included mathematics, religion, and natural philosophy, and he was known for doing experiments with gunfire underwater. It was during his last year at Yale that news broke about the battles at Lexington and Concord. The revolution had begun, school was shut down, and David returned to his family farm. With war raging, David set out to build a submarine that could deliver underwater explosions that would help ended British efforts. This submarine became The Turtle.

Figure 1 Print shows three views of the “Turtle”, a one-man submarine designed and built by David Bushnell to attach bombs to British warships during the American revolutionary war.

He knew that his device couldn’t simply dive while connected to ropes. David knew that to make an effective weapon, his device needed to be fully submerged, be able to move through the water and, when ready, come back to the surface. Bushnell’s submarine was constructed out of oak, in a barrel shape and bound by heavy iron hoops. To solve the problem of how to submerge the vessel, David decided that the operator would flood the chamber with water, making it heavier as needed to achieve the desired depth. This air-filled chamber was manufactured by Isaac Doolittle, a clockmaker, using specially made valves and pumps. A real ballast was placed on the outside and carried through to the inside to help with stabilization. A front propeller was used to help propel the vessel forward and backwards while a vertical propeller was placed on the top to help with the ascent. Both propellers were operated by a hand crank. To provide air to the single operator inside the boat, two snorkels were places in the chamber that closed over when the boat submerged. Because air was limited, the submarine was designed to stay at the surface until it had to submerge to avoid detection. One of the largest problems that faced The Turtle was the mine that was filled with gunpowder and was attached to the enemy ship. To help Bushnell with this, Doolittle and Phineas Pratt modified a clockwork timing device to trigger a flint from a musket. The sparks would ignite the powder and set it off. The idea was that the operator of the submarine would set off the timing device, leaving him enough time to clear the area.


Figure 2 Ezra Lee

Once The Turtle was deemed seaworthy, she began trials which quickly caught the attention of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. In June of 1776, a British force began to move into New York Harbor carrying supplies and soldiers. Bushnell hoped that sinking the HMS Eagle, the flagship of British Admiral Howe, would be a decisive blow for the British troops. Upon arriving in New York, the operator who had been trained to run the submarine, Ezra Bushnell came down with a fever. Ezra Lee, of Lyme, Connecticut was selected to be the new pilot. Little is known about Lee except that he was a colonial solider who was selected for the mission by his brother-in-law Brigadier General Samuel Holden Parsons. To avoid being discovered, the Turtle, Lee and Bushnell returned to Connecticut to train in secret. After two weeks of training, the mission was scheduled. On September 7, 1776, Lee set out on his mission to sink the HMS Eagle. Due to the tide, Lee couldn’t maneuver the propellers properly and spent two hours in the water unable to submerge below the British ship. Ezra Lee described the event saying, “When I rowed under the stern of the ship, could see men and deck and hear them talk-then I shut all doors, sunk down, and came up under the bottom of the ship, up with the screw against the bottom but found that it would not enter.”[1] The boring tools attached to The Turtle that would allow Lee to attach the mining device, could not penetrate the iron sheathing on the bottom of the ship. By this time, daylight had begun to break, so Lee headed for shore, hoping to not be detected. British guards on Governors Island saw the craft and made their way towards Lee. Ezra Lee described what happened next by saying, “he let loose the magazine (mine) in hopes, that if they should take me, they should likewise pick up the magazine, and then we should all be blown up together.”[2] The magazine would explode in open water, scaring off the guard boats and allowing Lee and The Turtle to escape. In the following week, the Turtle made several attempts to sink British ships. However, all were unsuccessful. Only Bushnell was fully capable of understanding the submarines complicated functions. However, due to physical limitations, he was unable to power the device himself. The Turtle was lost during the Battle of Fort Lee when the sloop transporting her was sunk by the British.

Bushnell would go on to develop other underwater mines that could be delivered without a submarine. One was used in New London Harbor and the other in the Delaware River, both with successful results. After the war ended, Bushnell would move to Warrenton, Georgia and teach at Franklin College. He died in 1826 while working on a floating torpedo for the US Navy. Bushnell’s device was made known to the public in 1798 by Thomas Jefferson, who used a letter written by Bushnell in 1787 about the details of his inventions. Bushnell is known as the Father of Submarine Warfare. The two propellers on the Turtle were his greatest contribution to submarine development. Like Bushnell’s original design, navies around the world mimicked marine animals natural designs in their hull structures.  Despite its shortcomings, The Turtle marked an important milestone in submarine development. Bushnell created a military vantage point that had yet to be seen. And even though the Turtle failed its mission, it served as an important symbol of American inventions at a time when America was just beginning to discover its identity. Submarine development has come a long way since Bushnell’s time, becoming an essential member of naval warfare.  A replica of Bushnell’s Turtle is on display at the Submarine Force Museum.

Replica of the Turtle at Submarine Force Museum

Replica of the Turtle at the Submarine Force Museum



Submarine School

“Without a doubt, the most momentous day at the Submarine School for the student is the day he is ready to take his first passage on a submarine. It comes early in the course, starting when the student has been at the school for about a week.”  This passage from He’s In The Submarines Now written in 1942 is still as relevant today as it was in the 40’s. Submarine school is a part of the sailor’s journey into the undersea world of the silent service. In 2016, Mark Jones, who works for the public affairs office at naval Base New London, said that “Any and all submariners in Navy history have gone to school here – everyone from Chester Nimitz to Jimmy Carter.”[1]

In 1868, Connecticut gave the Navy 112 acres along the Thames River for a Naval Station. In 1872, two brick buildings and a pier were constructed and became an official Navy Yard. From 1868 to 1912, the yard was primarily used as a coaling station. In 1912, the first diesel powered submarine was commissioned in Groton. In June of 1916, under Commander Yates Stirling Jr., the yard was designated a Submarine Base and Submarine School. In 1916, the first class of officers graduated through the school in New London and headed straight for WWI.

First enlisted muster at Naval Submarine School, winter 1917

While the training and development has changed over the years, the mission has stayed the same.  The purpose is to train the best submariners in the world using combined classroom and hands-on training. The Submarine Force is a volunteer position. Once an individual decides to join the Navy, they head to Great Lakes for Boot Camp. After Boot Camp, a sailor can request to join the submarine force. They are evaluated to see if they can handle the difficult task of being on a submarine. The conditions include tight quarters, days without sunlight, and extremely dangerous circumstances. Once approved, they move on to “A” school, where they begin work in the specialization of their field. Once this stage is completed, most sailors will head to Groton, Connecticut and the Naval Base New London for Submarine School. The six weeks spent in Groton will take the sailor from basic naval knowledge to the ins and outs of working on a submarine. Those who choose specialization of the aft portion of a submarine will attend school elsewhere, but most forward specialized enlisted sailors will begin their submarine careers along the Thames River. For those who are not familiar with submarines, the aft section of the boat is the back portion. It is anything that is past the watertight door that separates the engine room from the forward compartment, or as many sailors call it, “Nuke Land.” This is where the nuclear reactor, which powers the submarine, is located. The Basic Enlisted Submarine School or BESS takes eight weeks to complete and introduces the basics of the construction and operation of today’s nuclear-powered submarines. This includes everything from shipboard organization, fire safety and escape procedures, giving the sailors the proper training necessary in order to serve. Sub School Classroom 1946

While technique may have changed due to the advancements of subs (for example the move from diesel to nuclear), the general layout of submarine school has stayed the same. Sailors are required to take specific courses and pass certain specifications. Training is mandatory in escape training and fire safety.  In the 1940’s a typical daily schedule would look something like this:

6:15am – Reveille

6:30am- Breakfast

7:40am – Quarters – muster and 15mins of physical drills

8am-11:30am – Class (Class can mean in a classroom, on a submarine or in the escape training tank which is the training center today)

11:30am – Lunch

12:45-3:45 – Class

4:00pm – Clean up, recreation or watch

5:30pm – Dinner, free period

9:45pm – Lights out (unless on liberty. If a sailor is on liberty, they are free to do what they want until Quarters the next morning) Inside the Dive Tower circa 1968

Today the schedule is similar, with teachers cramming lessons into short timeframes. “It was much harder than I ever expected it to be,” said Machinist’s Mate Fireman Michael  Bybee. “The information was crammed into your heads so that you had no time to breathe. It took up nearly every second we had here.”[2] The daily grind is still 7am-4pmwith an hour for lunch. Usually after dinner, students will have night study. While the normal school year allows for plenty of recreation, this is not the case in submarine school. In a few short weeks, a sailor must learn all that is needed, which   doesn’t lend itself to much downtime. For many years, one of the most important training courses at submarine school – the escape chamber, dominated the Groton skyline. The escape training facility would allow students to learn how to escape from a submerged submarine. From 1932 to 1992, the “Dive Tower” would have students ascend in a 100-foot column of water.  In today’s facility, a compression chamber simulates the proper depth and a student must climb up from the flooded chamber. As you can see in the photos below, the training facility has changed. In 1992, the tower was replaced with a state of the art facility.

Dive Tower circa 1962

Escape Training Facility circa 2010

While their time in Groton may be short compared with the typical timeline in other schools, a sailor’s journey through sub school will prepare him or her for an underwater world many will never experience.   Since the first class in 1916, some things have not changed. The training is difficult and fast paced, but upon graduation, the sailors know they are prepared to take on whatever mission they are given. Today, many of the students take a course in submarine history. This course gives them an opportunity to come explore the museum and the rich past of the submarine force.    Did you attend submarine training at Naval Base New London? We would love to hear your stories about your time in Groton.