The most frequently asked question, when someone finds out I'm a 'submareener', is, why did you do it? Why submarines? How could you voluntarily choose to spend months at sea separated from your family and friends? I've been asked this question many times, and have only recently reflected on a suitable answer.
I decided to include it here on the front page of this site, because in the process of providing the answer, you will get a thumbnail sketch of submarines and the men who drive them.
First let me share a few thoughts about life aboard a sub that lend credence to the tone of the questions. When compared to 'normal' life, well, there is no comparison. The crew lives inside a steel tube, completely cut off from the outside world for months at a time, with no natural air, water, or light. The nuclear reactor plant requires no oxygen for operation and could allow the submarine to remain submerged indefinitely were it not for the food storage limitations. Air and fresh water are continuously, artificially produced from sea water. As for sight-seeing, the most distant view is only 30 feet away. The bathrooms of most homes are larger than the captain's stateroom, the most luxurious accommodations on board. Crew members bunks are coffin like, with barely enough room to roll over.
The work day is 24 hours long with brief periods of sleep inserted here and there. Sleep is often interrupted by drills, which are preceeded by an obnoxious alarm, compelling you to rush off half dressed to man a fire hose or join a damage control team. If it's not a drill, it is a careless watch stander, looking for the man in the bunk above yours, shining a flashlight in your face while he apologizes for waking you up. My first night at sea, sleeping on a temporary rack in the torpedo room, was the most exciting. Sleeping in my skivies, I awakened to the words "Fire in Machinery One", Machinery One happens to be the compartment just aft of the torpedo room! It was not a drill. I was the second man on the fire hose, and still wearing only my briefs. We put out the fire, but for some reason I couldn't get back to sleep that night. On long patrols the fresh food runs out fast. The milk and eggs are usually the first to go. Powdered eggs and milk are tolerable if you doctor them up somehow, but it takes imagination. You know you've been out for a while when the powdered milk is gone and you are putting green bug-juice on your corn flakes. (By the way, bug-juice is a kool-aid-like substance usually taken orally to induce vomiting.)
So back to the question, why do we do it? I feel there are two reasons. The first is the anticipation of excitement and adventure. Larger than life images of John Wayne and Cary Grant depicting heroic submarine captains during WWII planted seeds that grew into boyhood dreams. The submarines' proud history of patriotic service lured me, as a young man, to prove that I had what it took to join the ranks of those noble warriors. I was not disappointed.
When I reflect on my time of service, the memories of isolation and inconvenience pale in comparison to the ones of unique missions performed and of places we were able to see. I can tell of crossing the arctic circle at classified longitude, and of navigating the Straits of Gibraltar with a Russian 'fishing trawler' close astern. We were almost kicked out of Portugal when about a dozen crew members participated in a street brawl caused by a mysterious rock that shattered the window of the local communist party headquarters. I was also able to visit countries and see landmarks, the colosseum in Rome, the leaning tower of Pisa, a bullfight in Spain, Big Ben in London, the beautiful rain forest in Puerto Rico, the beaches at St. Croix, places most folks only read about. The list is almost endless. Yes, my experiences far exceeded my wildest expectations.
The second, and more important reason is the same reason that a parent will stand in front of his child when danger threatens. It's a chance to take a lick against evil and stand up for what is right. To protect our fellow Americans in a way they can't protect themselves, to be in a position to stare down a tyrannical superpower and say "To get to them you gotta deal with me first!".
Throughout recent history the men of the submarine force have met the most arduous challenges and have prevailed.
I believe these are the reasons men volunteer to serve aboard these unique, silent defenders of liberty.
"Station the Maneuvering Watch"