In the mid-1940s, Literary Classics, Inc. published a three-volume set of books titled This is Your America. The work was a compendium of dozens of short non-fiction pieces about a wide range of topics. One, found in Volume III, came from Boston Globe reporter Martin Sheridan, whose dispatches from USS BULLHEAD (SS-332) were published in the Globe in June and July of 1945. The piece, entitled “Jonah’s Whale Ride Was Just a Lark,” provides a fitting ending to the story. Today’s portion is part three of three.
“While our ship was crawling through the water at 110 feet I became aware of a crescendoing overhead roar similar to a subway train pulling into and out of a station.
“ ‘It’s only a destroyer,’ the skipper smiled at my concern. ‘One of ours, no doubt, but I’ll take a look at her through old Cyclops.’
“We rose almost to the surface. The master pressed a button, extending the periscope a foot above the water. He unfolded the arms, focused and carefully scanned the sea.
“ ‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ he said shortly. Then to the men at the controls, ‘Dive to 150 feet.’
“Water began to trickle in through the hatches when we passed the 100-foot level. I was downing a welcome mug of coffee when the collision alarm siren howled its warning over and over again, raising goose pimples.
“ ‘Collision forward torpedo room,’ someone yelled. The motors were shut down; the main lights went out and the emergency lanterns went on. It was a silent as a coffin six feet underground except for the gurgling sound of water running through the Kingston valves as the sub leveled off.
“I thought of my camera equipment. Perspiration poured from my forehead; my heart pounded excitedly. Nobody moved or said anything. At the end of five minutes of mental torture, the skipper called out, ‘Secure from collision drill!’ The men hurried back to their compartments. Lights were switched on. I clung weakly to a stanchion.
“Someone ordered the smoking lamp lighted and most of the crew lighted cigarettes in the control room and after battery room. In reality, no lamp is lighted. The command is a holdover from the old days when an oil lamp really was the signal that smoking was in order.
“Submariners have only one meal a day, but that lasts from early morning until late at night. Electric percolators brew coffee 24 hours a day as a morale builder-upper. And food lockers are kept open for foraging to uphold the good humor of the crew.
“On long Pacific patrols the men eat out of cans as soon as the supply of fresh food is gone. They usually get a full week’s leave upon reaching port for refueling, fresh meat and vegetables, and new torpedoes.
“Except for a game of cards, checkers, cribbage or the old favorite of World War No. I—acey-deucy—there is little opportunity for recreation. Despite the fact that the crew cannot exercise, no one becomes fat. To counteract the effects of inactivity, nervous tension, lack of sunlight and fresh food, Navy dieticians augment the sub crew’s diet with special multi-vitamin pills.
“ ‘Cookie’ is the most pampered man on board. His requests for help will bring forth a dozen volunteers every time. But I can’t quite forgive him for slicing onions during every long dive and converting strong men into weepers.
“If it weren’t for the fact that the commanding officer occasionally wears a cap through habit, it would be impossible to single out a lowly seaman from the skipper, garbed as they are in their unmentionables. But this informality makes for greater co-operation. The skipper has implicit confidence in the ability of his men to carry out orders; the crew have complete faith in the ‘old man.’ And they never forget he is their boss.
“The submarine skipper has more power than any other commanding officer of a Navy vessel, can remove any officer or man from the crew merely by writing on his papers, ‘temporarily unsuited for submarining.’ His decision is iron-clad and there can be no appeal from it.
“The backbone of the entire submarine branch of the Navy is a comprehensive submarine training school…where expansion predated the frenzied defense and war building programs.
“Officers and men must requalify biennially with Momsen lungs in the escape tank or be transferred to general service. Those submariners who escape from the 50-foot tank are permitted a look at the lovely mermaid painted on the inside of the 250,000 gallon tank at that depth. Their ascents from the 100-foot lock are rewarded with a view of two voluptuous mermaids and permanent possession of a mimeographed certificate proclaiming that he whole likeness herein ‘doth appear did in his nakedness acquaint himself with the sirens of the deep in their boudoir and did by diligent use of his line and lung, escape 17 fathoms to the surface.’
“To provide the men in training with submarines, the Electric Boat Company at Groton, Connecticut, is in the midst of a great ‘keep ’em sliding’ campaign. Workers are launching better than a sub a month.
“The United States Navy has an imposing fleet of submarines on active duty at sea. And recent congressional appropriations will provide for a still greater fleet of underwater craft. It’s a thrill to watch these subs and their crews in operation, knowing that Uncle Sam’s underwater fighting force will eventually be the largest in the world.”