Recollections Of An After Battery Rat
by Bob ‘Dex’ Armstrong
I have no idea what you are looking for. I was one of the lads who rode Requin in the twilight of her career. She was a sweetheart, and those of us who were fortunate enough to be assigned to her and serve under Ed Frothingham were damn lucky. Capt. Frothingham was a very special naval officer, an exceptional leader of men and a sailor’s sailor in every sense of the term. He instilled in all of us a sense of duty and pride that we have carried down through all these years. We were ‘his boys’… We knew it and it gave us something other lads who served on other boats missed. It was a helluva good feeling to know you had that kind of a commander.
Where do I begin? It was a long time ago… Over thirty years. I was a nineteen year old lad… Green… About as green as they came. In those days, old sub sailors would say,
“Hell kid, I’ve wrung more saltwater out of my socks than you’ve seen!”
That about says it.
It was 1960 and there I was, standing on Pier 22, Norfolk, in the shadow of ‘Mother Onion’ (USS Orion AS-18, our tender or mother ship). I had been assigned to T-Division on Orion to await the return of my boat, then deployed in the Med. T-Division was sort of an orphanage for bluejackets in transit. We were billeted in a forward berthing compartment. It was a pig pen. It smelled like an iguana cage. Any lad who spent time waiting for his boat stuck in the squadron’s T-Division had a lousy introduction to Submarine Squadron Six.
In those days you weren’t allowed to have civilian clothes aboard a naval ship. Outside the gate of Destroyer / Submarine Piers (D&S piers) ran a street called Hampton Boulevard… A sort of neon Baghdad. They had places called locker clubs. You rented a locker and there you stowed your civvies. Hampton Blvd. was lined with locker clubs, naval tailors and bars… Beer joints like Lovey’s Crazy Kat…The Victory Grill … The Big “O”… Bell’s … Looters’ Terrace. We, the lads of SUBRON SIX, hung out at Bell’s. The barmaids were Dixie and Tiger. The single guys set up shop in Bell’s when the boat was in port. It had a well-worn pool table and a very unique collection of painted ladies who catered to every temptation that an immature lad could ever desire.
It was great to get word that my boat was coming in. I spent a couple of hours wandering around on the pier, watching the Elizabeth River Channel for the Requin. Late in the day, I saw her for the first time. My new home was a three hundred eleven foot beauty. She slid into the outboard nest and put her lines over. Crew members yelled to wives and children. Lads from the tender hustled fresh milk and fruit over the gangway to smiling crew members topside. There was a lot of yelling, wisecracking and activity. I reported aboard and immediately got lost in the shuffle. Nobody gave a damn about some 19 yr. old kid with a sea bag.
The first fellows I met were Larry Dyshart, Rick Katzamyer and the leading seaman, Adriane Stuke. I didn’t know it at the time, but ‘Stukey’ would be one of my two closest mates during the years I rode Requin. Stuke was 100% red blooded American wild man… He worked hard, played hard and attracted good looking women like a magnet. The two of us gave the skipper and wardroom more gray hair than any other two apes in the crew. Our antics became legend. If we had spent more time in productive development and less in monkey business, Ed Frothingham would have slept a helluva lot better. If they had a Phi Beta Kappa for class clowns, Stuke and I would have nailed it down flat. Over the years we got involved in every knot-head prank and foolish stunt that took place on the ship.
Being a submariner is serious business. They make that very clear early on. There is no place on duty for error or a cut-up. You foul up and you’re gone… It is that simple. We were good at what we did. Ed Frothingham and Mr. Frame made damn sure we did our jobs. Pride comes from professional performance… The hallmark of the submarine force. Ed Frothingham made us sharp. He wouldn’t tolerate a slack crew but he allowed a level of latitude that made us a high morale crew. We pushed him past his limit on several occasions and when we did, he set our hip-pockets on fire. Anyone who ever got in the Old Man’s doghouse never forgot it. He could pour molten lava on you in a heartbeat.
Some more about the smiles later.
I was originally assigned to messcooking. There was no disciplinary stigma attached to being a messcook… If you were not yet a qualified submarine sailor and you were E-3 or below, you messcooked… It was that simple. Non-rated, non-qualified men were worthless creatures incapable of standing an independent watch. In the spectrum of humanity, non-quals were positioned at the absolute lower end of the pecking order, along with single cell forms of life found on the first two pages of high school biology books. I messcooked with Stuke. It was like being an understudy for the Flying Walendas! Survival was based on being able to duck insults while sinking verbal harpoons in vulnerable crewmembers. Stuke knew ’em all. He had seen them in the Med. You pull enough liberty with any crew and it doesn’t take long to know everyone’s soft spots.
“Pipe down, Rhodenhieser an’ for chrissakes get off it!! Tell the boys about the dream girl you ran around with in Spain… The one who had warts on her eyelids and smoked cigars!”
Stuke was the master… Try to one-up the magnificent one and nine times out of ten he handed you back your fanny on a silver platter.
There was an art to messcooking. It was similar to lion taming… Drop your whip and the animals ate you.
It was simple. You set up for the meal, served the meal and cleaned up and washed the dishes… And between times you were the cook’s step’n-fetch-it. You also had to make the tossed salad.
To produce the salad, you had to first figure out how many clowns would show up for the meal. If you guessed wrong and had excessive leftovers, the cooks took delight in raking you over the coals. If you were short, the last diners would hound you to make more, while announcing to anyone willing to listen what worthless bastards you were.
One night Stuke and I realized we wouldn’t make it. The animals were hitting the salad heavy and we wouldn’t make it past the third sitting. The lads being relieved wouldn’t get salad unless we dropped down into the cool room and broke out more.
All of a sudden the great Stuke stands up and waves a five dollar bill.
“Who got it?? Five bucks to the sonuvabitch who finds the toenail!”
Then he went on to explain how he’d thrown this toenail in the salad as sort of a contest to liven things up. It sounded nuts, but everyone knew that Stuke was crazy enough to have pulled a screwball stunt like that so immediately, everyone lost interest in the salad. It worked like a champ.
Stuke sung Ray Charles. He knew every song Ray ever came up with. When he wasn’t telling some sea story, usually an eight-foot lie gift-wrapped for rookies, he was singing.
Requin was packed with honest-to-God liars. Truth took such a beating on the boat that most of us got where we wouldn’t have recognized it if it bit us on the butt.
Someone would tell something… Not to be outdone, some other animal would trump his tale with some instantly fabricated, properly embellished hokum… Then one of the master liars would hit us with a load of gold plated horse manure and take the cake. Bobby Ray Knight was the undisputed king of BS. When he entered the after battery crews mess, no amateur was safe.
One morning, this new kid was talking about this nice young lady he had dated in high school who had a leg brace. It was all about the difficulty he had getting her in and out of a VW. In comes someone from the forward torpedo room who goes into a song-and-dance about this barmaid he knew with a glass eye and wooden leg. Then Bobby Ray comes in from the forward engine room. He drew a cup of coffee and broke in…
“Hell, that’s nothing. I knew this gal back home in Texas… She was missing a hand… As I recall, it got bit off by a wolf, but that doesn’t matter. In any case, they whittled her this wooden hand and made her these fingers out of chicken bones. They connected the chicken bones with fishing line run up her sleeve, and by moving her arm she could work those chicken bones. Woman got so damn good at it, she could deal cards and change spark plugs!”
No one on the boat was in Bobby Ray’s league. That man could throw a pork chop past a wolf.
Another master liar was the cook, Rodney A. Johnson, known affectionately as ‘The Rat’ or ‘Rat’ Johnson. If you got anything on anyone in the crew, you told Rat. Rat in turn would nail the poor unsuspecting devil right in the middle of a meal.
“Hey Jack, why don’t you tell the boys about the WAVE Officer who chewed you out for winking at her? Understand she got you right between the running lights … Must’ve been a picture… A big ox like you standing there saying ‘Yes ma’am, Yes ma’am…”
Rat was unmerciful … He was like a circling shark. A little blood in the water and he was in for the kill.
We loved Rat. He had to be one of the best cooks in the Navy. All submarine cooks were good but the Rat was exceptional. I wish I had a nickel for every night I could smell cinnamon rolls cooking up in the conn… A four hour mid-watch wasn’t half bad when Rat was night baker. Rat was famous for his night rations.
The other cooks would throw out a couple of loaves of bread and some cold cuts (if you were out a long time, the cold cuts got this kind of Robin Hood green furry stuff growing on it. The cooks cut it off under the assumption that surgical elimination cured everything)… And Navy mayonnaise. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of eating Navy mayonnaise, let me describe it for you. It came in a tin can with no label. Printed on the top of the can was something like … ‘Dressing, salad, mayonnaise type II mod 6 unit of issue one, each.’ Holy catfish, the stuff was from another planet! Once the can was opened and air hit it, the damn stuff vulcanized. No kidding. That stuff formed a scab-like scum you had to lance with a knife if you wanted to put it on a sandwich.
Most good memories that submarine sailors carry with them concern the times spent laughing in the mess deck. It was the gathering place.. The dining establishment… The movie house… The club house… The card parlor… The training facility, and the primary assembly point for major collective ass-chewings.
One major butt-munching comes to mind. We had been out a long time and had developed a severe case of galloping boredom. It had reached a point where a lot of us could actually feel our toenails growing… It was that boring. Saw this movie The Vikings, and halfway through the movie, we started calling the principal characters by the names of the officers up forward. The Old Man became Ragnar, the grizzled old leader… The Exec became Einar, and so on. During the movie, we outdid each other with Viking nonsense. After the film, the relief watch came forward… They had turned their foul weather gear inside out so that the brown hairy lining was on the outside, and they had stapled stupid looking cardboard horns on their caps. The appropriate laughs were obtained and then the idea took on a life of its own… Everyone started putting on a fake Scandinavian accent… Talking what passed for ‘Viking talk’ and giving the Odin salute to everyone passing fore and aft. Everyone outdid everyone else. Some clown made an aluminum fish and suspended it above the gyro repeater in the control room.
By the time the wardroom had figured out just what in the hell was going on, the whole thing was completely out of hand. It all came to ‘all stop’ when Ragnar, alias Ed Frothingham found the port and starboard lookouts wearing cardboard horns.
We got assembled and were treated to a very strongly worded discourse on naval decorum, discipline and collective stupidity. Frothingham, normally a very quiet and private man. gave a near volcanic performance and lectured us in pirate parrot terms. We got out of the Viking business damn near as fast as we got into it.
I hope I don’t convey the impression that Requin was some sort of a seagoing clown act, far from it. We earned what they paid us… At times we earned a helluva lot more than they paid us.
(Editor’s note from Cathy Armstrong, the 20 year old conned into typing this epic: the Requin WAS a seagoing clown act…)
They called it Cold War service. It sure was cold at times… And wet. The Requin had the rattiest collection of foul weather gear ever found in North America. It all looked like it came out of a Goodwill dumpster. At times our bridge looked like a hobo convention. My watch officers were ‘Jim Buck’ (Lt. James Buckner) and ‘Noel K’ (Lt. Noel K. Schilling). Both were ex-raghats. Buck had been a submarine corpsman who was selected for the Naval Academy… Graduated and married a Navy nurse… A redheaded sweetheart. Noel K. was a mustang in every sense of the word. If you could think of it, hell, he’d done it. He had forgotten more about diesel boats than most of us would ever know. I spent many hours on the bridge with these gentlemen. Most of the time it was cold, wet or some combination of both. I respected both officers… We all did. That needs to be said at this point. Requin had a damn fine wardroom. Our skippers, Ed Frothingham and Ed Frame (after serving as exec.) were tops. We would have gone hopscotching through hell with either one of them.
Mr. Gibbons was our next exec. He was hard to figure out at first. It took us time to recognize that this man had wall-to-wall intellectual curiosity, and a knowledge of wildlife, particularly birds, that made him a kind of Marlin Perkins to the crew.
My favorite Mr. Gibbons story goes like this:
It was a beautiful day. I was hanging out of the starboard lookout hole and my opposite number, Tim Conaty, was hanging out of the other one. Tim was, and remains, one of the closest friends I have ever had. He made third class petty officer well before I did and rode my back about it like an angel from hell. He would even make me acknowledge the weight of his superior leadership position and kiss his ring before he would pass up a cup of coffee to me, his old pal, still standing mid-winter topside watches when he was touring below decks. Conaty was a big fake… One of the most brilliant and gentlemanly individuals ever to serve aboard Requin… He worked at attempting to be as obnoxious as his contemporary crewman. When he put on his barnacle-encrusted sonuvabitch act, it was funny as hell. We didn’t have a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, we had Arthur Leo ‘Tim’ Conaty. He was our resident ‘Mr. Wizard’. He settled arguments, arbitrated ecclesiastical controversies, and explained natural phenomenon. Most of us were dumber than a box of rocks when it came to most subjects other that sports. automobiles, and females. Conaty was our secret weapon… If the wardroom slipped you a hot potato, you could adopt an outward appearance of pensive concentration and go find Tim. If Conaty couldn’t give you the answer, it was either a national security issue or BS… One or the other. The wardroom had Gibbons, and we had Conaty, the after battery resident wise man.
Back to Gibbons. There we were manning the bridge, Dex Armstrong, Tim Conaty, and Mr. Gibbons. All of a sudden Mr. Gibbons points to about 015 and yells,
“Look at that! Do you see it? A Wilsons’ Petrel!”
I didn’t see a damn thing but ocean… Much less Wilson and whatever in hell a Petrel was. My first thought was, this is some kind of joke… Either that or Tim and I are trapped on the bridge with a gahdam commissioned lunatic. We soon learned that a Wilsons’ Petrel was a sea bird and Mr. Gibbons was not only a master bird watcher but one of a handful of folks who would have recognized that this particular Petrel was way north of where he or she was supposed to be, and the only man on Requin who gave a damn.
In the months to come, Mr. Gibbons became one of the most beloved officers in the wardroom. Lads would drop below after a watch and sit in the crews mess drinking coffee and discussing cloud formations or sea turtles… Or peculiarities of nature like the Sargasso Sea. Nobody ever got bored standing watch with the man most affectionately known as ‘The Bird Man’.
Then there was ‘Big Joe DiJaccomo’. He came aboard as the engineering officer. Rumor had it, he taught electronics at the Naval Academy. On duty he had the reputation of being a hard ass… Very exacting, and hell on nomenclature and proper phraseology. I once entered the control room and announced that one and two-way trash was lined up in the passageway aft and requested permission to,
“…pop the sail door and drop shitcans.”
After two or three minutes of having hell rained down on me there was no doubt that in the future I would say,
“Sir, request permission to put a man on deck to dump one and two-way trash.”
Big Joe made a meal out of damn near everyone in the first month. A lot of the monkey business dried up with the arrival of Mr. D… I took my qualification walk through with the Italian terror. The only question he failed to ask was Mrs. Frothingham’s maiden name and shoe size. My fear is that some day I will die and go to hell and have to re-qualify under Mr. D.
But every now and then, Mr. DiJaccomo would throw the cooks out and take over the galley. He would put us all to work cooking an Italian meal. Damn we had fun… Up to that point I had never known that cigar ashes were an important ingredient in Italian cooking.
Mr. D. was a fine officer and he knew it.
Using proper terminology was important for a number of reasons. We had this officer named Hollis Holthouse… He was as clean cut as Don Winslow of the Navy. The animals called him, ‘Holly Whorehouse’… It didn’t fit. He tried hard but always came up shy of ringing the bell and getting a Kewpie doll. I heard somewhere that he left the navy and became some kind of off-the-wall minister. Anyway, one night we were snorkeling and running the fresh water vaps (Badger stills) in the forward engine room. It was hotter than the hubs of hell when you were making battery water. Holthouse was handling the dive, under instruction. The skipper was standing in the control room. Holthouse hit the ‘press to talk’ button on the 21 MC and made an inquiry relative to current conditions in the forward engine room… This voice comes back in a strong Texas accent,
“Sir, it’s hotter’n two mice having sex in a wool sock.”
The Captain shook his head. Bobby Ray would never understand or appreciate the concept of naval decorum. He once announced that his luck was SO bad, that if he had been Jayne Mansfield’s baby, she would have bottle fed him.
Everyone loved the big ugly sonuvabitch.
There was another memorable character on Requin… The ‘body snatcher’ or Fritz ‘the leprechaun’ Badertcher. He was a hard worker… Most electricians were – don’t ask me why. It may have been an aberration confined strictly to our boat.
Fritz was another one of our band of misguided deck apes. Most nonsense originated and matured in the deck force – not that idle hands were the devils workshop, far from it. By its very nature, the deck force became the institutional repository of the youngest and most spirited lads on board. Chipping and painting is not a cerebral exercise. You could handle 90% of it with less than two and a half brain cells totally engaged. In Brazil they have monkeys doing more interesting work than slopping zinc chromate on inanimate objects.
Stuke was the leading seaman. The Chief of the Boat (not Truman, he was great) was a little sonuvabitch with a cobra tattooed halfway up his arm. He came off an aircraft carrier and spent a disproportionate amount of his time telling us how gahdam clever naval air sailors were. We all felt that we had no desire to be a part of anything that ‘Drifty’ thought was clever.
Whenever Drifty went below we would ‘float-test’ one or two chipping hammers and paint scrapers. We never found one that could maintain buoyancy. Stuke and I may very well be the world’s greatest authorities on topside equipment flotation. The bottom of the slip between piers 22 and 23, Des Sub Piers Norfolk is covered with the residue of numerous experiments. Drifty never could figure out where all the tools were going. Alcohol, tattoo ink and living on carriers had damaged his capacity to figure out anything more complex than tying his shoes. I sure as hell hope that the statute of limitations has run out on wanton destruction and intentional misplacement of government property. If not, Stuke and I will have to set up housekeeping in Latin America.
Fritz Badertcher couldn’t swim. When you get qualified there is a tradition that says that you can’t pin Dolphins on a dry shirt. Fritz announced to the world’s largest collection of major league liars that he couldn’t swim. We never figured he might be telling the truth. I’m not sure that anyone in ship’s company had been close enough to the truth in a couple of years, to recognize it. Fritz hit the water and damn near set up housekeeping with several hundred missing chipping hammers.
Conaty made third class. In the caste system of subsurface society he had been vested with authority and placed in a position of responsibility. It didn’t seem to prevent him from stealing a blanket off some poor sleeping sonuvabitch when he came off watch, or painting the atmosphere blue with unprintable invective whenever the below decks watch vented number 2 sanitary inboard without warning him. He was still the same old Conaty most of the time with occasional trips to the land of drunken power fantasies. Whenever Tim would get three sheets to the wind he would announce that he was a ‘petty officer of the line’ and denounce his former mates as occupying a rung of the social scale well below his recent elevation. We loved it. There was only one Conaty.
Non-rated lads stood topside watch. It was a lot like being the gate keeper at a lunatic asylum… Especially late at night when the local cab companies delivered drunks. Only other drunks find drunks amusing. Want to have fun? Try herding a drunk from the quarterdeck of a diesel boat to the after battery hatch and getting him below. Half the time you end up fishing the poor fool out of the water.
On nice nights, topside watch wasn’t half bad. You checked the lines every 15 minutes and wrote ‘All lines secure, moored as before’ in a log that had ten million coffee cup rings on the cover. Between entries you played hopscotch between salvage air connection plates or shot pier rats with a pellet gun… Or you could listen to Norfolk late night radio brought to you by an endless number of flea bag establishments willing to sell sailors the entire known world for no down payment and easy monthly installments… A form of indentured servitude that replaced the company store for owning souls.
If you were lucky enough to pull the 4 to 8, you got to watch the sunrise over Craney island and catch the Krispie Kreme doughnut delivery. Controlling ten boxes of fresh doughnuts had a proportional effect on one’s immediate popularity.
There was another submarine in our division, the USS Cutlass (SS-478). While standing topside watch one night, Stuke made an interesting discovery. The Cutlass, like all subs, had her name painted on her stern in 6 to 8 inch white letters. With minimal effort the “L” in Cutlass could be converted to an “E”, changing the name to ‘CUTEASS’. It took ’em the better part of a week to discover the conversion and all of three seconds to assign the blame.
At sea we usually wound up on the receiving end of some weird game dreamed up by the perverted antisubmarine wizards. We called it ping time. To add some kind of diabolical interest, naval air and destroyer forces dumped things called PDCs on us… Practice depth charges. Little hand grenade-like devices thought up by some underemployed simpleton whose goal in life was to interrupt folk’s sleep. You never got used to the fool things. Just when you were drifting off, some idiot would park a load of the racket makers on your underwater roof. Being at the bottom end of the naval chain allowed us to over simplify everything… A distinct advantage in naval service.
We operated with a naval air unit out of Bermuda, VP 45 known as Polly’s boys. They were good if the amount of noise they made when we were trying to get some sleep is any indication. Very good.
When we were on the surface, Stuke, Conaty and I were lookouts and on the dive, planesmen. We rotated every hour and twenty minutes using the helm as our base. We were called ‘section three’. We were good. They used us on battle stations.
The Requin had a fiberglass sail held together by a couple of thousand Monel metal bolts. This gave us a high bridge. ‘High’ being one helluva relative term when compared to battleships, aircraft carriers and the Cape May ferry. It never seemed too damn high in heavy weather.
The bridge had only one piece of equipment… The TBT (Target Bearing Transmitter). A device used to transmit information on ships or shore locations below to anyone interested in that kind of information. At times it held a portable signal light for visual communication… The light could be dismounted and taken below. The worthy grand keeper of the signal light was a second class signalman named Stokes. Stokes owned a bosun’s pipe and could pipe all the calls. I never figured them out. Only Noah, Admiral Lord Nelson, and about a handful of retired tin can sailors gave a damn about bosun pipes. Well, Stokes had this zeon searchlight. It was one of the brightest things on the planet… It could throw a light beam all the way to the horizon or cook the eyes out of any P2V pilot who happened to sneak up on you at night.
Oh, and we had another use for the searchlight…
When we would come in from sea, the married guys would invariably con the single guys into standing duty the first night in. We always had a battery charge scheduled that night. All the officers went ashore and left Lt. Noel K. Schilling with the charge. At times, one of our girls would come down and we would take off for a little half-hour of commingling bliss in the back seat of some shipmate’s car in the parking lot. We would mount the searchlight in the bridge socket and flash the car if the lad was needed aboard. The searchlight was appropriately named the ‘Lucy Light’ after a rather amorous third class dental tech who bestowed her favors rather liberally among lonely E-3s a long way from home.
We carried four types of torpedoes: 14’s, 16’s, 27’s, and 37’s. We would fire the rascals and have to surface, then go find the fool things and recover them. Recovering a floating torpedo is a tricky operation. You would come alongside of the one ton monster, put a swimmer over the side to wrestle with the beast while the deck apes rigged the torpedo loading boom. The poor devil in the water had to place a stainless steel recovery band around the torpedo. You have to picture one ton of steel fish bobbing around in the swells and some raghat trying to slip a metal ring on it… It was like trying to put a garter belt on a raging wet rhino.
Capt. Frothingham and some other officer invented a recovery net… They built the contraption on the Orion. It worked great… It revolutionized picking up fish. We named it the ‘Requin Recovery Net’… I left the ship and never knew what ever happened to the net. It had to be the most wonderful labor saving device ever built by the hand of man. It put our wardroom right up there with Leonardo Di Vinci and Edison.
When we loaded for sea we looked like some kind of buccaneer ship. There was no place to store chow for more than about a week, so we packed food everywhere. Cases of canned goods… Beans, peas, etc., were stacked up two, and at times three layers deep in the passageway. You damn near had to be a lizard to get in and out of the lower bunks. Potatoes were brought on board in bags and either stored in bench lockers in the after battery crews mess or packed in the showers… By the time they opened the showers, the potatoes would be long gone.
Flour and sugar were stored outboard the engines in both the forward and after engine rooms… Port side. Outboard the two starboard engines, you had twenty pound cans of coffee. Going into the yards, you stored coffee everywhere… Up to, and including the skippers, hip pockets. Coffee was the medium of exchange in the yards… Par value was directly tied to the coffee bean. Non-scheduled work was accomplished by a primitive form of barter called ‘Cumshaw’. In the world of Cumshaw, a twenty-pound can of Navy coffee trumps everything. I never really understood why, but in the yards, everything cost coffee…
Most of the chow was stored in the passageways of the crews after-berthing compartment in the after battery. Since the lower rated animals were usually the ones tagged for loading the stores, they knew where all the good stuff was located. Since I was an After Battery Rat… Who lived in Hogan’s Alley, I used to make certain that a case of peanut butter and a box of crackers found its way over in that direction. At night someone would whisper,
“Anyone near any Vienna Sausage?”…”I’ll toss you a can of peaches for some Peter Pan.”
We were a Peter Pan boat. Oh, it’s true, we carried a few Skippy eaters, but they were a distinct minority. Skippy eaters were treated like subversive, non-believing heathens. Peter Pan eaters were the good guys. We won all peanut butter elections and the cooks knew that bringing Skippy on board could lead to physical violence. It was like talking during a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon… Tongue removal could result. Vigilantes ruled the after battery. You either rode with the good guys or became a Skippy eater.
Rocky and Bullwinkle were the patron saints of messcooks. Bad mouth either the squirrel or the moose, and weird and exotic things began showing up in your mashed potatoes. One of the cardinal rules of underwater courtesy and etiquette states that he who aggravates a messcook or cook should not be surprised to find iguana droppings in his soup. The after battery was a jungle.
Speaking of coffee, in the crew mess we had two contraptions that could give you a hard time… The coffee urn and the garbage ejector (the GDU, garbage disposal unit).
First the coffee urn… It stood outside of the galley. It had a gravity drain to number two sanitary tank. The drain line had a gate valve and a kick-throw between the urn and the tank. Failure to completely close these two valves on blowing sanitary tanks, allowed the wonderful contents of number two sanitary to percolate up into the urn and make its unique contribution to the taste of Requin coffee.
I learned to drink coffee aboard Requin. Every cup had a hydraulic oil slick floating on it… For years I wondered why in the hell non-navy coffee didn’t taste like boiled Yugoslavian Army socks and come with rainbow colors floating around in it.
The garbage ejector… You have to understand our solid waste disposal problem. When Requin was down… Running submerged, trash, garbage and junk collected. Straight garbage got packed in weighted bags… Nylon bags that fit into tapered stainless steel cans called sharpshooter buckets. These buckets formed garbage into bagged slugs that could be forced to sea using 225 lb. ship service air. We weighted the bags so that they went directly to the bottom and did not give away our position.
Failure to properly secure the muzzle door to the GDU would allow sea water to come shooting out of the inner vent. Nothing could interrupt the evening movie any faster than the unique sound of high pressure water hitting our return ventilation line in the overhead. All leaks had classifications… This was a ‘Cow Pissing on a Flat Rock’ leak.
Diesel submarines leak. Only Hollywood diesel boats don’t leak. One of the rudest awakenings you get in the sub force is finding out that movies lie. There isn’t a whole helluva lot of romance and adventure in the world of a submarine qualified E-3, but you make great friends… The best shipmates in the fleet.
You must understand griping… Constructive, creative griping, not to be confused with counter-productive whining. This may seem weird, but we maintained high morale by inventing unique ways to gripe. No one could take a mole hill and build an Alpine range any faster than the After Battery Rats.
Once we were overrun with roaches. It got so bad that eventually they had to fumigate the boat. Everyone made roach cracks. We used to knock before opening the bread locker so they could run and hide. We used to tell people to be considerate since the light could hurt their eyes… We used to announce that Requin had the kind of raisin bread that, if you didn’t like raisins, you could shake it and all of the raisins would get up and run away.
We got other strange critters that were cannibals. We used to yell,
“Trade you two blind ones for one with no teeth.”
We raised complaining to the level of fine art…
Standing bridge watch (lookout) in heavy weather could make time drag. When you are cold or wet, or a combination thereof, hours seem to drag on. It really feels good to hear your relief request permission to come up… You would give him your binoculars and tell him about any contacts you held and anything radar held over the horizon. A smart lad would have checked the PPI scope in the conn before coming up and would already have a clear picture of what contacts we were working. Once you had performed all the mandated rituals, the deck officer would grant you permission to lay below. You would drop down, make your way through the conn, pay your respects to the lads standing watch in the control room and move aft to the crews mess to draw a cup of hot coffee.
If your foul-weather gear was wet, you would draw three cups of coffee (one for the throttleman, oiler and yourself) and make your way aft to the forward engine room. You would remove your wet gear and spread it out on the engine covers to dry… Then visit with the engineman until the heat from the two Fairbanks 1600HP diesels knocked the chill out of you.
Bobby Ray, John O’Neil and Dutch Vanderheiden usually were on watch and we’d tell some sea stories and catch up on the scuttlebutt.
After a while, you’d take the dirty cups back to the messdeck and go hunt up an empty bunk to crawl into. You see, unlike the officers and rated men, non-rated men hotsacked… You didn’t have your own assigned bunk. You just found an empty one and stole a couple of blankets off of other guys who were sleeping, and crawled in. If it was cold, the engines drew a draft through the boat every time someone went topside through the conning tower hatch (known as the pneumonia hole). We would crawl into our bunks fully clothed, boots and all. I used to pull a watch cap down over my ears and eyes. All things considered, sleeping wasn’t half bad on the Requin.
Our call sign was ‘ROCKET WOLF’ and our call letters were NYEC. I can’t think of what value this would have for anyone, but it goes to show that the training sticks with you. You never forget.
It’s funny what you remember. If you were moored on the starboard side of pier 22 in the forward nest, you could shoot beer cans out of the after signal ejector and put them on the boat deck of the Orion. I would not like to go into detail where this specific knowledge was gained.
Most submariners have a bunch of tales of thrilling moments. Capt. Frothingham kept our thrilling moments to a minimum. He was not an advocate of the unexpected.
We hit the Yorktown ammo pier once and bit a large chunk of lumber out of it. We sledge-hammered the wood out of the bullnose, replaced the paint and reduced the incident to a laughable memory.
Once the USS King (DLG-1) hit us with an ASROC-assisted homing torpedo. It busted through a hull flange, shearing the bolts of the forward signal ejector. We took some water in the forward torpedo room. Considering the operating instructions that Capt. Frothingham had to follow, we were as restricted as a duck taped to a shotgun muzzle. We all knew that given an equal playing field, our wardroom could out-think the surface navy every time. They were good. Requin was better… We held our own.
We were ‘Dungaree Navy’. In simple terms that means we had no uniform of the day. In port or at sea, it was all the same… Dungarees. We lived in dungarees. At sea, water… Fresh water, was precious. This was the pre-nuclear Navy. Living was rough… Air wasn’t that great. If you were down for any length of time, it got so bad it wouldn’t support combustion… At times you couldn’t light a smoke. C02 built up. You absorbed it with lithium hydroxide.
Air got foul… Cooking odors… Bilge stench… Sanitary inboard vent air… And 80 men missing regular showers, combined to create a pretty ripe atmosphere. It didn’t take a high I.Q. to figure out why they called them pig boats. About Requin… She was three hundred eleven feet six inches long… Powered by four 1600HP Fairbanks Morse diesel engines connected to 500 KW generators by direct drive aft of each engine. The generators supplied power to a pair of Westinghouse motors or the batteries. We had 252 tons of batteries (126 in the forward well; 126 aft.) Each cell weighed a ton… MLA 77A Exide wet lead acid. (You qualify under Mr. D. and you never forgot. It is weird what rattles around in your head after thirty years… Give Mr. D credit. I missed two questions on final qualification. I didn’t know that Yarway made the levelometer gauges for the sanitary tanks and that the muzzle roller in the torpedo tubes was phenolic… The rest were bronze. I never forgot.)
Requin was a working boat. The nuclear subs had long ago become the focal point of the public’s interest. The glamor associated with subsea service had been transferred to the nukes. Our boats were associated with the past.
We were assigned duty like target for anti-submarine elements and cat and mouse games with navy air. We called it ping time. No glamour, just long hours… Days of boring work. But, we did it… And we did it well. What pride we had we got from the association with good men, a great wardroom and a good boat… Teamwork, and a unique light-hearted way of getting the job done.
The Old Man was good. He was quiet… He didn’t say much. If he called you by name it felt good… That might sound funny, but he wasn’t given to the small talk that the crew engaged in.
He was from New England… He had no middle name. His name was listed as Edward (NMN) Frothingham. What the hell was NMN? No middle name… Navy abbreviated everything. He only had eight fingers – he had lost two in a helo-transfer. We were told that he was damn sensitive about the subject, so we’d stay off the topic. Outside of hearing, he was known as ‘Eight Fingers’. Once when I was standing watch we had a helo-transfer. Capt. Frothingham and Jim Buck were on the bridge. The Old Man turned to the lookouts and said,
“Gentlemen, put your hands in your pockets!”
We didn’t laugh.
I said he was good. He was a true seaman… He had a million evasion tricks up both sleeves. He perfected the airless surface, a little ditty that involved a rapid angle change allowing the boat to broach and fall back, trapping air in the forward tanks. It drove the cooks nuts.
I vividly recall our introduction to Capt. Frothingham…
When we went to sea, we drew sea print films… 16mm movies. They constituted most of out entertainment… Stuke made up the difference. We had two projectors (ANQB Navy projectors) but, only one cinemascope lens. The raghats had one projector and the wardroom had the other. Prior to Frothingham’s arrival, we had an unwritten gentleman’s agreement with the wardroom… We would alternate nights with the cinemascope lens.
One night, in accordance with the existing agreement, we were well into the first reel of the film we were showing, when Quesada (the wardroom steward — we called him ‘Q’) showed up and said,
“Zee Captain, he want zee lens.”
“Go tell him, it isn’t the officers’ turn.”
Q shoved off and went forward… We continued to watch the film. In a minute, he turned up again…
“Capt’n serious … He no fooling … He want to have lens.”
We sent him forward again to have the exec explain the standing arrangement to the skipper.
Shortly after Q left, someone yelled,
“ATTENTION ON DECK!!”
And there was the Old Man in all of his radiant glory. He lit us up like a pinball machine, and when he left we knew damn well that if he sent word for anything in the future it would go forward or we would be hanging by our toes. It was very clear… Absolutely clear.
We had a cook… His name was Custer. He never got used to the crews’ monkey business. When he was baking a cake one night we started carrying a 3 to 5 degree down angle. When he pulled his cake out of the oven, one side was about five inches higher than the other. Everyone was in on the gag and had a great time making comments to the effect that it was the weirdest gahdam cake they had ever seen.
Another time, the poor devil baked bread during a time when we dove and while snorkeling, pulled a vacuum in the boat. His bread came out like a dozen black bricks. He went nuts… We rolled on the deck laughing!
Custer made hamburgers one night. While he was cooking them, we kept pulling the electric breaker to the grill. Custer was the only guy in the crew who had no idea that he was about to serve damn near raw hamburgers to the crew. When he did, everyone started mooing like a cattle herd and yelling,
“Mine’s not dead… It’s still moving!”
Then we started singing the theme song from the Rawhide TV show. Custer often wondered if we were all a little light in the brains department. We loved it… You could always get him to hit a number five dry fly.
Being at sea wasn’t that bad… Especially riding the surface. Some of my finest memories are of nights standing watch on the bridge.
Summer nights were great. The boat would knife along and sea water would rise up along the tank tops, slip away aft and cascade off, leaving millions of twinkling phosphorescent stars winking back at you in the wake. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Every now and then porpoise would play in the bow wave… Coffee always tasted better on nights like that… If you could get a visitor to the bridge and assume your watch long enough to allow you to drop down to the 0-2 level and catch a smoke, it sure made life worth living.
You can’t stand bridge watches with someone and not get to know them. I’ve never met any of Tim’s family but I have always felt that I knew them… And I could tell stories on Stuke the entire night. You get close when you wear Dolphins.
Jason, I have no idea what sort of recollections you are interested in. We didn’t do anything like you see in the movies … Or pull any rabbits out of magical hats. We did the routine work of peacetime submarine assignments. Most of us were young fellows still in the wild oat-sewing stage of life… Hootin’ holler, bark at the moon, lads. We took our slice of life right out of the middle.
Today diesel boat sailors have been relegated to a place on the chart of the development of man, down around the point previously occupied by Cro-Magnon primates. The Requin is a neanderthal now… A living naval fossil. Time moves on… Technology renders perfectly serviceable things obsolete. Obsolescence takes hold and you are history.
Requin is like a racehorse that has been put out to stud. Maybe some lad in Pittsburgh will visit the old girl and it will ignite his spirit of adventure. Adventure lives in all boys… Maybe he will go to New London and then find himself standing on pier 22 at Des Sub Piers in Norfolk, waiting for his new boat. If she were half the boat Requin was, he’d spend a lifetime looking back and knowing the best times in his life were punching holes in the ocean on her.