By Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
Thanks to the remarkable record turned in by U.S. Submarine crews in World War II, by the time I came along, our pocket insignia of two dolphins and a smokeboat were widely recognized. We were the recipients of the awesome reputation those brave men left us. How many of you remember having someone tap you lightly on the arm followed by, "Pardon me sir, are you a submariner?"
"My Uncle Joe was a submariner."
Within five minutes you learned that Uncle Joe was a really good guy... That he earned his first bike mowing lawns in some one-horse town in Ohio, that no one at National Geographic ever heard of. He volunteered two days after the damn Nips hit Pearl. He rode some submarine that that didn't have a name that could be remembered. Uncle Joe sent her a silk kimono from Japan after the war. He returned a hometown hero, his yellowed photo is still on the wall of his Methodist Sunday School room and folks still set him up for free beers at the VFW. Somehow, it was very important for you to know that this lady was damn proud to be related to a submariner.
To hell with modesty. Boatsailors were special. Didn't matter what navy... If you climbed into contraptions that operated below the surface, you were special. You were accorded a respect for the risk inherent in operating in the hostile environment you volunteered to enter and for the recognized difficulty of your selection and training process.
Once qualified, your 'Dolphins' were your ignition key to magic carpet rides. Being picked up while hitchhiking... Interesting conversations with folks you just met thirty seconds ago... The adoration of young lads and free drinks in train station bars.
Every now and then, you ran into some old bastard who danced the fandango with the 'Goddess of the Main Induction' way the hell before you.
"Son, how long have you been riding the boats?"
"Three years, sir."
"You one of those amazing nuclear power sailors?"
"Not on your ass, sir. I'm riding a fleet snorkel oil-eater outta Norfolk."
"I rode the USS Whatchamacallit outta Freemantle."
"Yeah... Are there more than one these days?"
"I'm an E-3... Beats me."
"What'z your rating?"
"You must enjoy being a loafing sonuvabitch."
"What were you?"
"Look who's talking... Radioman calling a torpedoman, a loafer. That's like the bullfrog calling the catfish, big mouth."
It was the same level of gentle recognition, Masons, Elks, Moose, Eagles, Shriners, Georgia Tech fraternity brothers and girls in the San Diego Whores Union give each other after secret handshakes, signs and recognition signals. How many guys sat down next to you and said something like,
"I woudda been a submariner like you, if I had..."
Yeah, sure. If a frog had wings, he wouldn't bump his ass. The sonuvabitch could have saved you both a lot of time by simply having 'loser' tattooed on both eyelids.
Every hooker from Hoboken to Hong Kong could look at your rate and Dolphins and calculate your pay scale to within twenty cents before applying the hashmark incremental jack-up.
There never were a lot of us. The size of the community of qualified submariners has always been defined by the number of operating boats and the shore duty billets related to their support needs and operational requirements.
The submarine force is a small community... A truly elite force. You see a lot of marketing directed at say, paratroopers. There are tens of thousands of them. You can qualify for the insignia in three weeks. They turn'em out conveyor belt style in a twenty-one day sheep dip at Fort Benning, Georgia... You can get all kinds of other wings, elite force badges and shiny geedunk in three to six months. None of them are more difficult to earn or worn by fewer men, than the twin Dolphins of the qualified American submariner. That is a fact each of us can be proud of.
We are respected members of the worldwide fraternity of undersea combatants.
That has more to do with the hard earned reputation of our World War II submariners than our later precedent setting level of technological achievement. In the final analysis it comes down to 'the men'... Always the men. The strength of the United States Submarine Force has always been found in the quality and commitment of her men... May it always be so.
The United States goes to extreme lengths in her prospective submariner candidate selection process, quality of training and the knowledge validation, of her undersea warriors. It took time years ago to mature a true submariner and it takes time today. That, to the everlasting credit of all involved, has remained, unchanged... The 'powers that be', have made a lot of changes, but have had the wisdom to see that the qualification process has not been 'watered down'. Nobody with more than two fully functional brain cells, ever felt the twin fish we wore, came out of the end of a Cracker Jack box marked 'PRIZE'.
Being a part of a small elite force brings with it intimate associations unknown in other service branches. Men who serve together in sinkable iron monsters become bonded for life... And grow old together.
You name a boat and chances are several boat sailors in any SubVets gathering will know one or more of the lads who served on her. It is not unusual to hear a bunch of old qualified coots standing around well lubricated with hop-based consumables and one fellow saying, "You knew 'Iron Gut' Wilson?"
"Yeah we rode the old Ratfish together around '53."
"Hell, I rode with the crazy sonuvabitch on USS Sea Ferret in '58."
"Wuz the bastard still running with that buck-toothed, one-eyed barmaid with the chewed up ear?"
Then the inevitable boat sailor phrase..."Small gahdam world, ain't it?"
Right now you're sitting there in your rump sprung Lazy-Boy chair with your hand wrapped around a damn near empty Saint Pauli Girl, reading this. You're smiling... Why? Cause you rode with 'Iron Gut' Wilson in the early sixties and you knew the barmaid and dated her ugly as hell sister... She had a tattoo on her left breast that read 'SubRon Six Girl'. Yeah, who could forget her... And 'Iron Gut', now there was a bluejacket... Threw a damn frog constable off a pier in La Rochelle in '62.
"Small gahdam world ain't it?"
Yes, the Dolphin wearing bluejacket community is a tight family of military service dues payers. Men who shared many pitchers of suds together, in the gentle glow of Budweiser sign neon and hauled each other to the piers where they looked for familiar hull numbers and dropped their drunken carcasses down the hatches of their cast iron homes.
We are men connected to each other by silver pins and the pride we had and still have in the way we discharged our obligation to country and flag. And in boxes below the grassy sod of cemeteries in this great land where the mortal remains of long ago undersea bluejackets repose in eternal sleep, many of them are still wearing their hard-earned tarnished Dolphins. If so, their loved ones can take satisfaction in the knowledge that no finer symbol of duty faithfully preformed exists... Anywhere.