“Without a doubt, the most momentous day at the Submarine School for the student is the day he is ready to take his first passage on a submarine. It comes early in the course, starting when the student has been at the school for about a week.” This passage from He’s In The Submarines Now written in 1942 is still as relevant today as it was in the 40’s. Submarine school is a part of the sailor’s journey into the undersea world of the silent service. In 2016, Mark Jones, who works for the public affairs office at naval Base New London, said that “Any and all submariners in Navy history have gone to school here – everyone from Chester Nimitz to Jimmy Carter.”
In 1868, Connecticut gave the Navy 112 acres along the Thames River for a Naval Station. In 1872, two brick buildings and a pier were constructed and became an official Navy Yard. From 1868 to 1912, the yard was primarily used as a coaling station. In 1912, the first diesel powered submarine was commissioned in Groton. In June of 1916, under Commander Yates Stirling Jr., the yard was designated a Submarine Base and Submarine School. In 1916, the first class of officers graduated through the school in New London and headed straight for WWI.
While the training and development has changed over the years, the mission has stayed the same. The purpose is to train the best submariners in the world using combined classroom and hands-on training. The Submarine Force is a volunteer position. Once an individual decides to join the Navy, they head to Great Lakes for Boot Camp. After Boot Camp, a sailor can request to join the submarine force. They are evaluated to see if they can handle the difficult task of being on a submarine. The conditions include tight quarters, days without sunlight, and extremely dangerous circumstances. Once approved, they move on to “A” school, where they begin work in the specialization of their field. Once this stage is completed, most sailors will head to Groton, Connecticut and the Naval Base New London for Submarine School. The six weeks spent in Groton will take the sailor from basic naval knowledge to the ins and outs of working on a submarine. Those who choose specialization of the aft portion of a submarine will attend school elsewhere, but most forward specialized enlisted sailors will begin their submarine careers along the Thames River. For those who are not familiar with submarines, the aft section of the boat is the back portion. It is anything that is past the watertight door that separates the engine room from the forward compartment, or as many sailors call it, “Nuke Land.” This is where the nuclear reactor, which powers the submarine, is located. The Basic Enlisted Submarine School or BESS takes eight weeks to complete and introduces the basics of the construction and operation of today’s nuclear-powered submarines. This includes everything from shipboard organization, fire safety and escape procedures, giving the sailors the proper training necessary in order to serve.
While technique may have changed due to the advancements of subs (for example the move from diesel to nuclear), the general layout of submarine school has stayed the same. Sailors are required to take specific courses and pass certain specifications. Training is mandatory in escape training and fire safety. In the 1940’s a typical daily schedule would look something like this:
6:15am – Reveille
7:40am – Quarters – muster and 15mins of physical drills
8am-11:30am – Class (Class can mean in a classroom, on a submarine or in the escape training tank which is the training center today)
11:30am – Lunch
12:45-3:45 – Class
4:00pm – Clean up, recreation or watch
5:30pm – Dinner, free period
9:45pm – Lights out (unless on liberty. If a sailor is on liberty, they are free to do what they want until Quarters the next morning)
Today the schedule is similar, with teachers cramming lessons into short timeframes. “It was much harder than I ever expected it to be,” said Machinist’s Mate Fireman Michael Bybee. “The information was crammed into your heads so that you had no time to breathe. It took up nearly every second we had here.” The daily grind is still 7am-4pmwith an hour for lunch. Usually after dinner, students will have night study. While the normal school year allows for plenty of recreation, this is not the case in submarine school. In a few short weeks, a sailor must learn all that is needed, which doesn’t lend itself to much downtime. For many years, one of the most important training courses at submarine school – the escape chamber, dominated the Groton skyline. The escape training facility would allow students to learn how to escape from a submerged submarine. From 1932 to 1992, the “Dive Tower” would have students ascend in a 100-foot column of water. In today’s facility, a compression chamber simulates the proper depth and a student must climb up from the flooded chamber. As you can see in the photos below, the training facility has changed. In 1992, the tower was replaced with a state of the art facility.
While their time in Groton may be short compared with the typical timeline in other schools, a sailor’s journey through sub school will prepare him or her for an underwater world many will never experience. Since the first class in 1916, some things have not changed. The training is difficult and fast paced, but upon graduation, the sailors know they are prepared to take on whatever mission they are given. Today, many of the students take a course in submarine history. This course gives them an opportunity to come explore the museum and the rich past of the submarine force. Did you attend submarine training at Naval Base New London? We would love to hear your stories about your time in Groton.