You know you are getting old when your military service is described in Chapter 8 of 22 chapters in a history book. Sigh.
My sister sent me this book for Christmas. My first reaction was, “Omigod, this is awesome.” Further investigation reveals it is beyond awesome. The story it tells is awesome, the way it tells it is truely remarkable. I've missed parts of several football games with this book in my lap, mentally breathing in the stench of diesel, chlorine and locker room and hearing the hammer of massive engines charging batteries.
My service in “the boats” was more than forty years ago and yet it is as much a part of who I am today as it was then. It branded me permanently in a manner which is by no means unique to submariners, but which is certainly common to us. What was it about? What was it that marked us so, that stamped those silver dolphins so indelibly on our souls?
Part of it was the service itself. We walked the decks in the footsteps of giants. The submarine service was only 3% of the U.S. Navy in World War Two, but those gallant ships sank more Japanese shipping than all other causes combined. No other service suffered losses nearly as high, but there was never a shortage of volunteers and submarines were always fully manned. Twenty years later we always felt the presence of Wahoo and Growler and all the other ships and men eternally on patrol.
A lot is made of patriotism today, and in the military “serving one’s country” but I don’t think that was really a big part of it. My dad was a career Air Force officer and an intense patriot but patriotism was always rather assumed, sort of a background to life. I always knew that I would serve in the military, but I don’t really recall having a real sense of any kind of noble purpose about it. I was just doing a job.
It wasn’t an adventure, I can tell you that. I never saw a foreign port. We left our home port, went to a part of the world where we were highly unwelcome, spied or performed other seriously hostile activities, and then returned to our home port. There was a war on; a cold one, but a war nonetheless and for the boats it was not all that cold. Submarines didn’t do the “showing the flag” thing. We trained against antisubmarine groups and we trespassed in enemy waters for nefarious purposes. It was mostly just long periods of boredom punctuated by brief periods of sheer terror. I guess it depends on how you define adventure.
I think mostly it was the satisfaction of taking on perhaps the toughest job known to man and doing it. Overcoming fear. Doing something that most men simply cannot do. Not only going down to the sea in ships, but going under the sea, and in really old ships; living in an environment which is entirely hostile to man’s presence.
I’m still not sure what it’s all about, but I know that forty years later the pictures in this book can bring tears to my eyes. This book is a treasure.