Posts Tagged ‘Women on Submarines’

Women on Submarines and Today’s Deck Log

And now for something completely different..., Memorial Ceremony, The Exhibit, Where was Flier 66 years ago today? | Posted by Rebekah
Oct 26 2010

One of the things that most submariners I’ve met have stressed is the fact that they are all one brotherhood.  Granted, the diesel vets enjoy yanking the chains of the nuc vets every so often  “You think it’s rough?  Back in my day…”

But it’s now official: the brotherhood is about to include some sisters whose names don’t begin with “USS”.  The four boats who will carry the teams of women have been chosen, and the women themselves are currently in training.  Their identities are being withheld for now, most likely to allow them to concentrate on their training which would be a lot harder with journalists constantly taking photos and yelling questions every time they dared walk outside.

During the Flier Memorial, I enjoyed talking to two high ranking submariners both of whom are enthusiastic about the prospect of women serving on submarines.  Integrating officers will be easier to accomplish than enlisted, and indeed, right now the Navy has not announced when or if they will integrate the enlisted ranks of the submarine corp (I’m all for all-women crews, an idea floated back in 2007, allows women to serve and eliminates the need for retro-fitting the submarines themselves to accommodate integrated crew–and save us taxpayers about $100 million per sub retrofit)

For more on the subject, see my previous posts about the history of women serving in the military, and women on submarines worldwide as well as this article, released just a few days ago.  (I do try to be fair to both sides, and I myself am on the fence:  I hate, as a woman, being told I cannot do something because I am a woman, but on the other hand, if it ain’t broke…)

USS Flier today is still somewhere off the coast of New England and has no administrative remarks today  (had to use a mimeographed page…)

Finally, I have an announcement and a request.

The announcement is I’m hearing from people who  missed the memorial ceremony and are disappointed that they couldn’t get there.  Well, I put the footage at the end of the Memorial Page on this site, so you don’t have to go looking for it in the backlogs of the blog any longer.

The request: As we’re getting ready to design the exhibit, we’re looking for items that will help bring these men to life for a new generation that’s four generations removed from WWII.  If your Flier family member sent home letters or photos from their time in the Pacific theater, would you consider allowing us to use them for the exhibit or research?  I cannot promise that everything donated will be used, but the more we have to use, the better we will be able to bring these men to life.

The beauty about what we do means that we don’t even need original letters or photos–the information and images of these items will be good enough for what we’re doing.  If you want to send originals for me to scan and I will send the originals back once they’ve been digitized(one family is already choosing this option) or scanning the items yourselves and sending me jpgs or tifs (another family is doing this).  If, of course, your family would be comfortable with donating the letters, we will keep them for future researchers.  These items will help bring these men out of the shadows and making them more than photos on a wall, but men who had girlfriends, wives, dreams, cars, jokes, senses of adventure and fear, and men who did what they felt were right.

If this is something you think you or your family would be interested in, please contact me at  Thank you.

It’s Official…Bring on the Women…and put out those cigarettes!

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Apr 29 2010

There have been two large developments with the Submarine Force recently!

The first is, cigarette smoking, something which, until now has been the domain for the individual captains of the various submarines, has officially been banned from all submarines from the higher ups.  For the smokers left on the submarines and their crewmates…good luck, God Bless and try not to kill each other while having to quit cold turkey in a stressful situation.  Remember, the enemy is outside the submarine!

There is actually an interesting history to this.  Smoking bans for inside the military bases, below decks on surface ships and inside heavy artillery like tanks began in 1994, predating the no-smoking ban in federal buildings by three years.  Sailors on surface ships were allowed to smoke out in the open air of the deck which of course raised the question of submarines:  There is no deck, and for months on end, there is no open or fresh air or air of any kind.  A submariner who loses his head and tries to get outside to get some will be generally tackled and, if necessary, shackled to their beds until they can be safely evacuated.

Seriously, I’m not joking.

So the smoking ban had a built-in loophole for submariners.  They could continue, to smoke at sea, though the biggest loophole of all still applied:  the CO could ban smoking on his boat if he wanted.

During WWII, it was very common for many people to smoke and several photographs taken of the interior of submarines show men smoking cigarettes or cigars while underway (Remember, this is before submarines could recycle air: the oxygen you had when you went down was all the oxygen you were going to have until you surfaced and could exchange air.)  Some non-smokers recall taking up the habit suddenly during depth charge attacks, others, giving it up entirely.  During a long depth charge attack, smoking might be banned because the burning matches and cigs would deplete the oxygen faster.  You knew you were really in trouble if you couldn’t LIGHT a match or cig because the oxygen was so low!

This photo, taken from inside the USS Silversides, shows men at leisure and cards inside the Crew's Mess. You can clearly see the cigarette hanging from the left-hand man's mouth. This photo was pulled from USS Silversides: An Illustrated Record of Silversides' War Patrol Record December 1941-August 1945 available from the Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum.

A couple decades later, following the introduction of the snorkel and several other technological achievements, submarines manufactured and recycled their own air, allowing them to stay under for months at a time.

Now this is not to say that every submariner smoked.  Many didn’t.  Above all, each submarine had a Commanding Officer whose word was just short of law when out at sea.  If the CO of a sub said there will be no smoking on this boat, or smoking will be confined to these compartments, or  anything else he wanted, that was that. (The  Florida apparently has a rule that only three people can smoke at a time.  There is occasionally a line for smokes)  So by exempting submarines, the Navy was really allowing the COs of each boat to continue to make that decision for themselves and their crews.

No longer.  Starting at New Year Day 2011, all subs are smoke free, all the time.  One of the factors that went into this decision was a study done on non-smoking submariners in 2009.  They were testing for nicotine in their systems before deployment and after.  Very few had nicotine in their systems before their deployment, all had it in their systems after, despite the limited times and areas their fellow smokers were permitted to smoke.  The air scrubbers and filters that removed the smoke and cooking smells were not apparently removing the nicotine.  So on behalf of the nearly 60% of non-smoking submariners, the other 40% have been requested to comply with the Navy’s “no smoking below decks” rule, even if their deck is underwater for weeks at a time.  (The article I’m referencing and will link to at the end stresses that “smoker” in this case refers to people who smoke every day, as opposed to those who have the occasional cigar or smokeless tobacco)

The reason the ban does not go into effect for another eight months is to allow those sailors who need to quit time to do so and physically adjust.  Submarine sailors who have already quit have been enlisted as mentors to those who are trying, and Corpsmen anticipate stocking up on nicotine gum and patches.  Some COs are more severely limiting where and when smokers can light up in an effort to gradually wean their men off nicotine.

The other piece of news is that women, beginning in 2012, will be serving on submarines.  No one in Congress wanted to say anything for or against it during the waiting period, so it is now official.

Starting on the large Trident Missile Submarines (the largest of the submarines, the Ohio-class) three women will be assigned to each submarine together.  The reason is a junior officer’s cabin sleeps three, so all three women would share sleeping and changing space, helping with the privacy issues.  Those women would include a female senior officer as well as two juniors.  A reversible sign on the officer’s bathroom would help with the privacy issues in the head.  (For all you civilians, that means bathroom).

This still doesn’t solve issues with privacy and security in the enlisted men’s quarters, which will require physical alterations, and some careful thought on how to accomplish that.

This leaves the thorny issue the Navy and submariners have to deal with when it comes to harassment and potential health problems, particularly reproductive problems.  The Navy does not want to be responsible for the loss of reproductive capabilities of any personnel, and submariners are exposed to more things (recycled air, increased and constant pressure, lack of sunlight and the associated health benefits for long periods and radiation exposure (though that is a very minor issue)) than surface sailors.

Women have been on modern submarines before for days at a time: but usually civilian engineers or naval personnel aboard for a very specific and limited mission.  The long term effectiveness and problems will show themselves eventually.

Some of the foreseen problems might end up being overblown, while some serious problems might end up being a surprise.  Only time will tell how this will play out, but submariners have always taken pride in their professionalism.  That professionalism will hopefully smooth this new transition.

For more on the development of women in the military, you can read my previous post here.
For more on the Smoking Ban

More on how women will be transitioned onto submarines

A study the Navy did about the feasibility or the adjustments needed to have women on submarines

Sub School

Where was Flier 66 years ago today? | 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

Submarine News: Women aboard!

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Feb 24 2010

Well, this has been in the works for a long while, but the Navy  has announced the opening of the Submarine Force to women.  Providing Congress does not forbid it over the next 30 days, women will begin to be integrated into the Submarine Force.  This will take time of course, but women,beginning with officers (since they will have more privacy in cabins rather than the large crew’s quarters) may begin to serve on submarines as soon as 18 months from now.

I’m not a sailor, and certainly not a submariner, and am therefore unqualified to comment on whether or not this is a good idea or if it is being implemented in a good way, but I thought I’d reveal some of the reasons why women have been barred from submarine service until this year’s decree.

Back in WWII, women did not serve on any active warship or combat group, including submarines. In fact, when women were encouraged to join the military, it was more to take the shore-side office jobs releasing the men who would have taken those jobs to go to the front. There were a few times women were on board submarines in WWII, but in all cases, they were being evacuated from one point to another, and the submarine was the best transport available.  Like any civilian, the women were restricted to a cabin in officer’s country, escorted to the head a few times a day.  This is more a reflection of the world at that time, not outright discrimination as we would define it today.

The Norweigen and Danish submarine forces were the first to integrate women onboard submarines in 1985 and 1988 respectively, followed by the Swedes, Australians and Canadians.  In 1995, the first woman CO of a submarine took command of a Norweigen submarine.

This issue, however, is not as cut and dried as it would first appear.  The above mentioned navies only keep modern diesel electric boats, not nuclear boats.  This limits the time at sea to a few weeks, not the six to seven month patrols that American Nuclear Submarines routinely do.  They also, since they need fresh air every few days as opposed to never like a nuc sub, are limited as to where they can go.

The biggest objection to women on submarines has little to do with whether or not women are physically or mentally capable of serving aboard.  Most people, even submariners, agree they are.  It has more to do with potential problems to a woman and her unborn children should she be pregnant.  Right now, any woman who is serving on board a ship  and finds herself pregnant is removed to a shore station for her own and her unborn child’s protection

Despite what one may think, it’s not the radiation issue that’s at the core of the concern.  You absorb more radiation from the sun working in your yard for a day than you would working on a nuclear submarine for several days.  The radiation from the nuclear core is obsessively measured and tracked, and quite low.  It’s the air quality, believe it or not.  While the standards of sub air, which is manufactured and recycled, are well within the livable standards for adults, it’s known that higher CO2 levels such as is found in a submarine, can have detramental effects on a fetus.  How high those levels have to be has never been effectively studied on humans because there is no ethical way to test it.  There are also trace gases on a submarine that could have negative effects.   If there is going to be a negative effect, it’ll have the greatest impact during the first trimester, when a woman may go weeks before suspecting that they are pregnant.

Moreover, submarines are very, very, cramped.  Despite being larger than WWII submarines, at least in WWII, the subs were designed to have one bed per crewmember.  This is no longer true, the submariners “hot bunk”, meaning when you go on duty, you roll out of bed, dress, roll up your sleeping bag and your bunkmate takes your place on your bunk.  Dressing and undressing takes place in the open hallway of the crew’s quarters.  There are no doors to the heads (bathrooms).  When two people pass in the hallway of a submarine, they often have to turn sideways to pass each other.  So when does a guy in the hallways brush past a female and the line of “sorry, just passing by,” and potential problems get crossed?  It’s bad if someone is going to harass another crewmember, but innocent people could get caught in the crossfire as well.  This is one of the potential legal headaches involved.

Submarines could potentially be retro-fitted to accommodate a co-ed crew much like the surface ships have been and are currently designed to do, but to do so would be billions of dollars.  The new submarines being designed and built could be built to accommodate co-ed crews from the beginning, but that would mean women couldn’t be on submarine crews until 2015 or beyond.

Another option that was explored  in 2008 was instead of integrating submarines, putting an all-female crew on a submarine.  That would eliminate expensive retro-fitting, possible harassment, and allow women to serve.  The downside, of course, is for a while, everyone on that boat, from the skipper down to the new enlisted, would be new and have no to limited experience, but this would solve itself over time.

It will be interesting to see what will happen.  In an election year, I doubt any congressman would risk speaking out against this idea for fear of repercussions at the polls, but I could be wrong.

Incidentally, until this year, no nuclear submarine force allowed women on board.  In January, the British, facing a manpower shortage on submarines, floated the idea of women serving aboard. That idea, like the American idea, is still in planning phases.

For more information:

A submariner’s stance on women on submarines

Another submariner’s stance on women on submarines

A women’s group against women on submarines

The 2008 idea of crewing a submarine with an all-female crew

UK Submarines and women

One of the first articles after the announcement