Sub School

Posted by Rebekah
Mar 18 2010

Sixty-Six years ago today, the Flier is still up on blocks, the Redfin is about to leave, and the Robalo is getting repaired and a good deep cleaning while her crew is on R&R somewhere all over Australia.

I want to return to Al Jacobson, where he is currently (sixty-six years ago that is) located in New London’s Submarine school, in the final stages of his training and getting ready for his first assignment.

Al Jacobson at 22 years old and entering the Navy as an Ensign.

The American Submarine Force only takes volunteers, and maintained that policy even in the depths of WWII.  Submarine duty is hazardous.  During WWII, nearly 20% of the submariners went down with their ship, and many others died in various incidents that did not cause the loss of their boat.

It was hot, cramped, uncomfortable, and often submarines operated alone miles away from the nearest Naval ship.  The Calvary could not often be called in.  Under such circumstances, the Navy believed that volunteers would be the least likely to crack under the pressure.

However, volunteering only got you so far.  Once in Submarine School, the Navy did the best they could to make you crack, to get rid of those who might not be able to handle the physical, mental and emotionally rigorous life of the submarine sailor.

There was the Pressure Chamber, where potential submarine candidates were locked in with a doctor, while the chamber pressurized to the equivalent depth a submarine could reach underwater.  Usually a volleyball or some air filled object joined them.  By the time the chamber was fully pressurized, the volleyball resembled a bowl, and the candidates would have to equalize the pressure in their ears several times.  (Think about the pressure you feel in your head as a plane takes off or lands.  It’s apparently similar).  The chamber would also feel very warm.  Anyone who couldn’t equalize the pressure in their ears or showed signs of distress would be safely removed from the test and rejected as unfit for submarine duty.  Those whose eardrums burst because they could not equalize also were rejected.

Then there was the escape tower, where candidates learned to escape a sunken submarine using the Momsen Lungs or Steinke Hoods (nicknamed “Stinky Hoods”)  that would be stored aboard.  (Despite the fact that less than 1% of the ocean is at a “rescuable” depth).  Starting from a pressurized chamber beneath the 300 foot tower, a candidate would learn to ascend to the top without bursting or damaging their lungs.  Anyone who didn’t want to would be released to the surface navy.  (According to one source I found, completing this test earned you the name “bubblehead”)

The Submarine Escape Training Tower still stands in New London's Submarine School. There was a second one built in Pearl Harbor Hawaii, but it has since been drained. It apparently still stands as a landmark.

The School itself was tough:  generally there were classes in the morning, and afternoon exercises in either simulation chambers or training patrols on the old R and S class boats.  Officers and Enlisted both attended, but would also have specialized classes pertaining to their specific jobs.

Once graduated from Submarine School, a man was considered a “non-qual”, whether he was an officer or enlisted man.  The last stage of his training took place on board a working submarine, where he had a year to learn every pipe, valve, cog, and dial onboard.   When he felt he had learned enough, he would be given a written and oral test by that submarine’s officers.  Upon passing, he would be awarded his dolphins, the official insignia of the Submariner.  Those who couldn’t pass in a year were reassigned to the Surface Fleet.  Many submariners in WWII completed their qualifications in one patrol.  (They were not permitted much leisure time until they were fully qualified.  So every waking moment most non-quals were either working on duty or studying for their qualifications).

Today, submarine school apparently still bears a strong resemblance to the WWII version Al would have undergone.  Classes in  the morning, exercises in the afternoon, studying in the evening, and every man (and perhaps soon women) a volunteer.  Most of what they learned is strictly classified, so after volunteering for Submarine Duty a potential candidate is also background checked for security classification.
Al was approaching the end of his training, and likely spending his days on an old S-boat doing short patrols learning the rhythm of a working boat and wondering where he was going to go.  Would he be asssigned to a new construction which meant it might be another year before he went to sea?  Would he be assigned to one of the stars of the Submarine Service like the Trigger, the Tang or the Harder, or a boat just beginning to earn her stripes.

One thing he wasn’t thinking about was the danger.  They all knew the odds, and while no submariner ignored them as such, they didn’t dwell on them.   You’d go crazy otherwise and break down.  One thing Al did say later was the Submarine Service was an all-or-nothing proposition.  There was little risk you’d come back missing an eye or a limb.  You either came back whole, or you didn’t come back at all.

For more information: US Navy Submarine School

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