In the summer of 1967, I was given my one shot at leadership ashore while at the US Naval Academy. As a Midshipman Second Class, I was a squad leader in a cohort of other 2/c midshipmen (rising college juniors, for those needing a conversion) going through summer training. At the Naval Academy, the summers before our Third Class and First Class years were devoted to afloat training, the 3/c filling enlisted billets on ships and the 1/c trying junior officer roles. This summer, we were learning “everything else”. We went to Submarine School in Groton, Connecticut, to Primary Flight Training (“Pri-Fly”) in Pensacola, Florida, and to amphibious warfare training at Camp Pendleton, Virginia. Each of those could be a sea story in itself, but I will tell about Pri-Fly and Sub School this week.
Each squad had seven men in it. A third of the class at a time would put about 300-350 midshipmen into the three-week Pri-Fly pipeline at a time. The first week was classroom instruction and survival drills like the Dilbert Dunker, which is an aircraft canopy on rails by a swimming pool. They strap you in, and then it rides into the pool, flipping upside down and taking you three or four meters underwater. The idea is the unstrap yourself and swim down out of the cockpit and back up to the surface. For most of us, it was more fun than any amusement park ride we had ever seen.
The schedule for the rest of the time in Pensacola included flying every day. One week in the T-34 (a small turboprop Cessna with a military paint job) and one week in the T-28 (a big, heavy aircraft dating back to the Korean War and used in Vietnam). The difference between the two resembled a week on a motor scooter followed by a week driving a Rolls Royce with a serious alignment problem, because the precession from its powerful piston engine made the T-28 pull very hard to the side all the time.
For everyone except my squad, things went according to plan. However, there were not an even number of squads for the number of seats and planes available. Someone switched our training weeks. We went where we were told, spending one week in the T-28 (a serious baptism of fire), followed by a week in the T-34 (a big letdown after the power of the week before).
The flight instructors made a point of trying get their charges sick, if not during normal takeoff and landing, certainly during acrobatics. The T-28 was an easy machine to get sick in, and most of my squad used their doggy bags that week. I found out that my resistance to seasickness applied to other kinds of motion sickness, although a couple of acrobatic maneuvers came close.
On the first day up in the T-34, my instructor sitting behind me was surprised to see that I could fly the aircraft already, and quite well. He was stunned that I had learned to fly the big T-28 the week before. The second day, he let me take off and land, and took his hands off the controls for the lesson. We wandered around and chatted. The next day, he let me climb to a stall and recover, so I knew the limits of the aircraft.
“Could we do some acrobatics?” I asked. “This really is a cute little plane.”
“Sure, kid. The stick is all yours.”
I did a couple of S-loops, and a Cuban roll. No comment from the back. Instrument panel normal. I ran a set backwards.
Suddenly the stick went hard in my hand.
“I got it!” came a weak voice over the intercom. The flight instructor flew us back down as the odor from his doggy bag permeated the cockpit.
Back on the ground, I found that the rest of my squad of T-28 veterans had enjoyed similar results. We collected our passing grades as the end of the week, and proceeded to Camp Pendleton to go play Marines and SEALs for another three weeks.
After learning how to fly and attack an undefended beach, we headed north to Submarine School at Groton,Connecticut.
Sub School should have been boring, because we spent so much time in classrooms, but I was psyched. For as long as I could remember, I had wanted to be a submarine officer. My father had sea stories of his own (most of which I had to learn through war records research, he was so modest) from Pearl Harbor, then nine combat patrols in the Pacific in World War II. My enthusiasm led me to take the Submarine School course by correspondence in high school. I had to be the first Annapolis midshipman that the instructors had seen who could diagram all the piping systems of the USS Becuna from memory.
Sometime during my 3/c year, I learned that my dream of piloting diesel submarines into tiny harbors, and surfacing to charge batteries in rough seas would never happen. The Navy had only a few diesel boats in commission and assignment of their “cream of the crop” Naval Academy graduates to the lowly boats was out of the question. I hated being called “cream of the crop.” I had absolutely no desire to join the “Rickover Navy” of nuclear submarines and spend my entire cruise underwater. I was just as set against aircraft carriers and other large ships, which I found about as exciting as an office building. By the time I arrived at Submarine School in Groton, I was already set on a career in the Surface Navy, specifically in destroyers (because they would not let me volunteer for minesweepers, which were smaller, but also off-limits to the “cream”).
There was one activity at Groton, however, that had me intrigued: submarine pre-qualification tests (“pre-qual”). These had not changed since the Second World War, so they were the same tests that my father had passed as a young lieutenant. Though I was leaning to surface duty, I wanted to know that at least I would have been qualified to go into submarines, and that it was my choice to do so or not.
The old boats did not dive very deep, but deep enough that if you had to be rescued, there was the danger of decompression sickness, or “the bends.” The high pressure below 60 metres (200 ft) compresses the nitrogen in the blood stream, so if you come up too fast, the gas bubbles out of the blood like the carbonation in a bottle of soda pop. Painful and often deadly.
Should a damaged submarine be lucky (?) enough to settle on the bottom, rescuers could lower an escape pod “bell” to the deck of the boat. It would attach itself over the escape hatch. The crew would go into the bell, and then be lifted very slowly to the surface so that they did not get the bends. The device was only ever used once, to evacuate 33 men from the USS Squalus.
If the boat settled in shallower water, the crew could safely escape by simply floating out the escape hatch to the surface. It’s scary, but no one gets the bends.
There are two physical tests for pre-qual: decompression and the Submarine Escape Training Tank (SETT). For the first, we were locked into a compression chamber that increases the pressure until it was the same as a submarine at depth. The staff observed us as the pressure was slowly brought back to sea level. Not very exciting, and no one in my squad got sick.
The SETT was another story. One at a time, we entered a 60-m tank of water through a watertight chamber at the bottom. The chamber was flooded and the door opened. We had to take a breath, then let ourselves rise to the surface.
I had allergies and I was afraid that my stuffy nose might be a problem. That only aggravated my concern as I stepped into the chamber. I recited the instructions like a mantra, trying to quell the panic as the water came into the chamber. I wanted so much for my father (who lived nearby in Old Lyme, Connecticut) to know that I had passed the test. (later, long retired from active duty, he would be the only engineer in his office in New London who could pass the tests, and thus be sent to the boats at sea to check out the floating wire antennae that his office was developing. Big embarrassment for the much younger staff!)
These thoughts flashed through my mind as I recited the mantra. I almost forgot to take a breath, but it might not have made a difference. Covered with water, I saw the door open. I swam into the tank and began swimming for the surface. Then I remembered the instructions, “Float, don’t swim. Save your oxygen.” I stopped flailing and let myself rise.
Maybe if I did it a few more times, it would feel euphoric to rise through the water to the light at the surface. But that day, on my first try, I was desperately quelling the panic that rose to my throat like the never-ending stream of air that came from my lungs. No amount of pre-qual briefing could ready me for the feeling of continuously exhaling like that. I desperately wanted to take a breath. My body was screaming that it was time for the lungs to expand, but they were already expanded. As I rose to the surface, the air in my lungs continued to expand and come out of my mouth and nose.
As I reached for the light, I thought that it was pulling away, and I nearly lost control. Suddenly, I broke the surface, and could take a big, beautiful breath. I almost could not believe that I was swimming to the edge of the deep tank.
I immediately felt the satisfaction of having passed the tests for submarine duty. That summer, I had learned to fly airplanes (and escape underwater from the Dilbert Dunker), I had swum to the surface from a “submarine”, and I had stormed a beach with other “marines” and set up a defensive perimeter ashore. I had spent more time in chlorinated pool water with the various tests than in the salt water that was my element. Most of my classmates dreamed of following one of the career paths that we were exposed to that summer (aviation, submarines, or Marine Corps). I was happy that I could have chosen any of them, but also firmer in my choice:
To the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship
And a star to steer her by…
(from Sea Fever, by John Masefield)
Smooth winds and following seas,
© 2020, JT Hine