No Athiests in Foxholes…or underwater?

Posted by Rebekah
Apr 06 2010

The Submarine Service is dangerous.  No one has ever debated that.  Well, almost never.

In fact, early in the 20th century, submarine duty was considered safe shore duty and submariners were paid twenty-five percent LESS than those on surface ships.

But in 1905, at the invitation of the Captain and crew of the USS Plunger (SS-2), President Theodore Roosevelt spent about four hours aboard.  They dove, surfaced, porpoised and tooled around quietly beneath the storm tossed Atlantic, and even operated with the lights out, much to the delight of Roosevelt, who said, “Never in my life have I had such a diverting day, nor can I recall having so much enjoyment in so few hours as today.”

But he quickly saw that submariners, far from having a safe shore patrol duty, were, in fact, highly trained professionals who were in a dangerous job.  Being Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces has its advantages.  He raised the submariners pay, and gave them an additional dollar per day if the submarine spent any part of the day underway while submerged.  (This increased the rate of diving practice very quickly!).

An amusing cartoon from a 1905 paper talking about Roosevelt's experience on Plunger. The Plunger herself was a very small boat, holding only 7 crewmen. Taken from:

Submarines, however, are so dangerous, that some people who are routinely assigned to bases and ships are left off of submarines, and the submariners must make do.

Two of these positions are the Chaplain and Doctor (or even nurse).  We’ll cover the medicos later.

Chaplains, regardless of the military affiliation, are valued members of the military, and called upon to offer guidance, counseling, conduct religious services, including marriages, funerals, and other religious rites.  (The most famous fictional chaplain is probably Father Mulcahy of MASH television show)  The position has been recorded as far back as the 1770’s.  Currently, the United States Navy has chaplains representing the Christian (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant), Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist faiths.

The Navy also had a strong tradition of holding religious services every Sunday for those interested to attend.

While there are chaplains assigned to surface ships, there are none on a submarine. So what to do?

During WWII, for regular services, many submarines would have men who would agree to lead the worship for those who wished to attend.  For Example, aboard the Silversides, the Executive Officer, Roy Davenport, a Christian Scientist, would lead services in the Forward Torpedo Room for their men.  (He later became known as the “praying skipper” and credited his prayers and faith with Silversides and his later commands, Haddock and Trepang surviving the war.  He even turned out to be the most decorated Naval Officer of WWII who didn’t win a Medal of Honor, having been awarded FIVE Navy Crosses!)  Other submarines would use the Mess Hall, the common area of the submarine.

An example of a church service lead by a common sailor, held in the After Torpedo Room, taken in the Spring of 1945. Sadly, most of the men in this photograph were lost when Bullhead went down near Lombok Straits ca. August 6, 1945.

Aboard a submarine, sadly, the only real service that might happen, would be a funeral, and usually, the Commanding Officer or Executive Officer would pray and conduct the services.  Sometimes, for holidays such as Christmas or Easter, or the Fourth of July (religious holidays weren’t the only ones celebrated!) the kitchen would also pitch in with special meals and treats.  Alcohol, however, was always strictly prohibited…officially.  Though strictly NEVER on duty.

Today, the tradition continues, though with specially trained lay ministers, meaning people who are trained to hold religious observances and services, but do not have the Master’s Degree and theological training that the military requires for its chaplains.

It takes a labor of love to volunteer to go above and beyond what your title is and minister to your fellow crewmen, but these lay ministers continue to volunteer for the good of their crews.

For more information on Roosevelt’s dive on the Plunger

More information about the role of the modern lay minister on submarines

One Response

  1. […] on a previous post (See “No Atheists in Foxholes…or underwater?) Submarines don’t have any clergy aboard, or Doctors or Nurses.  Someone who is so highly […]

Trackback URL for this entry