Recollections of 1956–1958

By “Howard” Haines Brown, ETC (SS),

I arrived on the Irex in June, 1956, at the age of 20, right out of Submarine and Electronics Schools, I was really green behind the ears. I assisted “Jack” Jackson, ET1 (SS), and so my work was not arduous as I learned the trade. Jack had a wry sense of humor and infinite patience, for which I admired.

This left time to work on my qualification for submarines, which is the duty of each new crew member coming onto subs for the first time. Equipped with a brochure describing all boat's systems, such as air, water, and electrical, I explored the boat to familiarize myself with them and where appropriate try things out. It was challenging, but finally I was qualified for submarines and proud of it. Eventually, Jack transferred to the Nautilus, leaving me with full responsibility for all electronics gear except what was in the radio shack, which the radioman, Tessier, jealously guarded. The new electronics technician who came on board to help was inexperienced, and as a result I had to work very hard. In fact, unlike what I gather is the case of the military in general, most of the crew frequently had to put in a lot of arduous work.

One time I was fixing the radar which was located next to the radio shack in the Control Room. For some reason I had disconnected the wave-guide leading to the antenna while the system was running. I felt my hand getting warm and realized that I had it resting on the end of the wave-guide. After microwaving myself in this way, I was more careful in the future.

It seems there are stories associated with every cruise. On a trip to Halifax in 1957(?), for example, after embibing too much grog on the British boat tied up next to the her, some of the Irex's crew proceeded to take over the floor of a local hotel and held an orgy that is best left undescribed.

There were also the annual cruises to Bermuda, and in each case there were wild goings on. Maybe it is only an urban legend, but on one of them, an officer had to stow the girlfriend he had picked up in Bermuda in the After Battery, moving her from bunk to bunk as the watches changed. Also in Bermuda, the deck plates were unscrewed so that cases of liquor could be hidden beneath them. When we arrived back in New London, the customs officer paid his usual perfunctory visit, and late that night a crane came down to the pier to remove the cases. It seems we were a principle supplier of liquor for many New London bars.

After a visit to the Philly yards I decided to continue living in the city and commute to New London (for some obscure reason). I'd take the midnight train from Philadelphia, change in New York and arrive in New London at about 6 AM—time enough, I thought, to get to the boat. However, at one point the train from New York was cancelled and I had to take the milk train, which arrived so late that I “missed movement”, which is a very serious offense in the military. At first they considered helicoptering me out to the Irex at sea, but they thought better of it and instead flew me to Bermuda first class to meet the boat there. Since I arrived days before the boat, I was able to enjoy a nice little vacation. Naturally I faced a captain's mast when the boat did finally arrive. My penalty was to fix the radio in the officers' board room, which I had been putting off doing for quite a while. It should have gone a lot worse for me.

Sometimes, though, our best efforts to get into trouble were unsuccessful. For example, there was an inadvertant stop over in Reykjavik, Iceland, because one of the crew complained of abdominal pain, and the pharmacist mate feared it might be appendicitis. This was during one of our all-too-frequent cruises to the North Atlantic, with its usual bad weather. The nearest port was Reykjavik, but we had to wait for high tide to enter and leave the harbor because of our deep draft. In a letter of 16 March 2009, Captain Galimore reports "that was the hardest entry I ever made. Wind was gale-force when we had to make a sharp 90-degree right turn to get into the small basin where we got assigned to pier space. Fortunately, Calahan (GM1), who headed our deck crew, was really great when we had to drop the anchor, spin around and to head into the wind in order to make the turn without going agrouind in the narrow channel." The time between high tides was an opportunity for the crew to go ashore and get wasted. However, it turned out that the only place to drink was in the hotels, and their bars shut down by late afternoon, just about the time the sailors arrived. Most went back to the boat to sleep off the port call. As proud owner of a new camera, I decided to walk around the entire city and took snapshots.

When in the Philly yards I had purchased a camera, and now was my chance to try it out. I walked around the city, snapping pictures of everything of interest. When back in port I was anxious to get some shots of the submarines, and so managed to have myself appointed “photographic petty officer”. Whenever the Marines spotted me taking pictures, I ran back up Irex gangplank to safety.

Occasionally a submariner would be washed overboard in the North Atlantic, although fortunately that did not happen to anyone on our crew. However, I remember once hopelessly searching for someone from another boat working with us. It was almost impossible to spot anyone in the waves, and you last only a few minutes in the cold water.

Crew members who came aboard at the start of a cruise would soon get over their colds, and after that no one ever fell ill. One time I had a deep persistant cough, and the pharmacist mate tried turpin hydrate. As bad as this concoction tasted, it had no effect. So he then prescribed APCs (aspirin, phenacitin and codein), which I was instructed to dissolve under my tongue. I asked how many, and he said just keep taking them until the cough stopped. So I went up to my watch on the radar in the Conning Tower and proceeded to pop APCs, one after the other. Because the cough persisted, I just kept taking them. Eventually I was high as a kite on codein. It was hard enough staying alert drapped over the hot radar in the the darkness of the Conning Tower hour after hour, but with all the codein in me, I was completely out of it.

A submarine is a rather hazardous place to be during storms, which were common in the North Atlantic. With their round hulls, submarines rolled terribly in the waves, and sea-sickness affected quite a few. One crewmember became so desperate that we had to restrain him forcefully from exiting though the After Battery hatch while on the surface.

Worse was being topside during rough weather. With the sails, the crew was better protected from the elements, but it was still unnerving to see huge waves towering far over your head. Particularly difficult was torpedo recovery, which was, of course, done only in milder weather. When practice torpedos were shot and floated to the surface, one person would have to dive into the water and attach a line to its nose. Then the “fish” would be hauled back in and lifed with a temporary crane put together with parts stowed under the teak deck, and then it was slowly slid down the torpedo hatches into the torpedo rooms. With a rolling boat and slippery wet deck, the only way to stay on board was to be chained to a track built into the deck and which ran its full length. When Dutch Larch went to the Nautilus he had the misfortune of being carried all the way to the stern by a large wave, and the chain and canvass strap broke. He ended up in the sea to be picked up by helicopter. It took a while in the hospital for him to recover from the shock.

Speaking of the North Atlantic, when the Irex was later fitted with the new passive sonar chin mount in the Philadelphia yard, we were able to hear a whale follow us all the way from the Newfoundland Banks to the North Sea, singing to us her sad song the entire way. I believe it was love. That chin mount ended up sitting on the bottem of the Long Island Sound—one of our dives was a bit too deep.

During longer cruises, as one day followed another, we usually just slept between our watches. That was easy to do because the After Battery was pitch black, the air was cool because of the air conditioning needed to protect electronic equipment, because of the peaceful rumble of the engines as we snorkled and the soft foam mattresses. We would be up for a four hour watch after slurping some coffee to become alert, and then sleep for eight. Slowly our metabolism dropped and we slept profoundly the instant our watch was over, and we consumed less and less food (except, of course, for the coffee). The Navy got the idea that hibernation wasn't it meant by preparedness, and so it introduced the unfortunate practice of periodically having the lights turned on, and bunks would be up for all hands to do some cleaning.

The short training cruises out of New London tended to be fairly routine. However, even then, there could be the unexpected. Once, when training sub school students, as each student cleared the bridge, he grasped the hatch wheel and little by little the dogs slowly turned out. When the boat submerged one time, the hatch couldn't be closed, and the Long Island sound began to pour into the Conning Tower. For some reason, the Loran was mounted under the hatch and so was drenched with salt water. We hosed it down with fresh water and dried it out in Wishafsky's oven, and then it worked just fine.

After over ten years in service, the electronics equipment was getting old, and insulation was crumbling off the radar's wires. The captain was not too happy that the easiest method I found to keep the radar going was to give it a sharp jab in the side with my knee. He finally insisted that I do some restoration work. It was just as well I did, for one time we came up the Thames in a fog so dense that we had to rely entirely on radar to find our way back to the pier. Finally, an empty pier loomed out of the darkness and we gratefully tied up to it. Only then did we realize that were at the State Pier in New London, not at the sub base in Groton!

At high tide it was impossible to maneuvre the Thames and clear the railroad bridge past the Gold Star Memorial Bridge. The trick was to have the lookouts look for the rivets on the girders. If you couldn't see the rivet heads, the boat wouldn't make it, and we had to wait for the tide to go out a bit.

While life on a sub was certainly interesting, in port when you had the watch it was rather dull. We acquired a TV set and tied the antenna to a periscope. To pass time at sea we had the Philaelphia yards install a juke box beneath the crew's mess. We set it up to get several plays for a nickel, and used the proceeds to buy more records. Speaking of the 'scope, I discovered that if you pointed it directly at the sun low on the horizon, you could project its image on the wall of the Conning Tower. That image was so large and clear that the sunspots were clearly visible, and you could watch the sun rotate. Well, anything to pass the time!

However, even in port, there were surprises. I had a bottom bunk in the After Battery, and I awoke to find my arm draped over the side of the bunk, submerged in water. There was only a thin deck and leaky hatch between the sleeping quarters and the battery below, and if salt water entered the cells, it would generate chlorine gas. We had to get rid of that water fast. It seems that some inexperienced or groggy sailor had not closed the sea valve in the head after using it, and the water had come in that way.

The head was a complicated affair, for each time it was used, air pressure was used to force the contents of the holding tank out to sea, and there were many valves and a guage needed for the job. A new crew member had to master it as his first duty abnord.

The head was located in a small compartment in the after section of the After Battery. With it were also two small shower stalls and sinks. Fresh water on a sub is precious. When it runs low, it must be made with a still located in the Forward Engine Room, but it generated so much heat that we had pitty on the enginemen and generally didn't bother with showers. After a week or two, most of us were unshaven and stank. Even showering didn't eliminate all the diesel smell from our clothing. You could always tell a submariner from this smell, just as you could spot an electrician by all the acid holes in his dungarees.

The food on board a submarine is reputed to be excellent, and that was certainly true. Our cook, Stan Wishnafsky, was a genius, although drawing a vacuum when snorkeling tried his soul as he tried to bake. Reporting in for duty in the morning, the first thing was to sit down for a breakfast of delicious steak and eggs. The steaks were in great supply, frozen in cold storage in carboard boxes. We had an allotment of lobsters that non-New Englanders avoided, and so we waited until an opportune time, and those of us who relished the animal would start eating boiled lobster and continue right though the night until breakfast the next morning. However, after a couple of weeks at sea, the foot situation became less appealing. The remaining milk went sour and the potatos rottee. So we had to make do. One way was to use a bottle of thick dark liquid and use it to make a purple chemical drink that vaguely tasted like grape and was called “panther piss”.

At sea, we drank great quantities of coffee made in the urn next to the passageway between the galley and the crew's mess. To amuse ourselves we would upon occassion add a little denatured torpedo fuel (“pink lady”) to the coffee, which didn' seem to cause us great harm. For the elite (those who were on very friendly terms with the quartermaster), gyro alcohol was available. I remember drinking a glass of it straight and having the odd sensation of it's penetrating the skin of my throat before reaching my stomach.

Standing a four-hour topside watch at night in port could be very tedious, for there was nothing to wile the time away, and it was usually damp and chilly. You could see lights from the otherwise dark base, the sound of machinery running, and the slap of lines blown against aluminum flag poles. In the winter a small wooden shack with an electric heater helped. Of course, the result was often that we fell asleep on our feet.

Fiddling with the .45 sidearm was about our only source of amusement. Once we had to trade all our stored up canned ham for a diver to come down at one o'clock in the morning to recover the .45 that the topside watch had managed to drop overboard when playing with it. We used to take the gun apart to pass the time, and so naturally it didn't work. This was OK with us, for we had agreed that we had no intention of shooting a border anyway.

Especially older crew members who had experience of World War II were pacifistic. It might seem hard to reconcile this with being on a ship of war, but our relative isolation from the outside world made war exercises seem abstract, not really aimed to harm others.

Our other gun, a Thompson machine gun, worked better because it was only used once a year. We would take turns shooting at sharks or cardboard boxes to use up our allocation of ammunition.

But I'm reminded of another story. We had a young ensign right out of school come aboard, and when the steward managed to bring his cup of coffee up to the bridge filled to the brim and without spilling a drop, he complimented the experienced crewman in a patronizing way (actually, it was no mean achievement, for inside the new fiberglass sail there were some very tall ladders to negotiate). In any case, the steward, irritated at the officer's tone, explained that the trick of his successful delivery was really quite simple: he took a mouthful of coffee before beginning his long ascent and then spit it back into the cup when he about reached the top. We all ribbed the younger officers (except Dickey, of course, for whom we had too much respect). One of the culprits was ET1 Stan ≴Jack” Jackson. We had a degree of class consciousness, which may no longer be the case today.

For some obscure reason I can't recall, I felt I had to wear my “civies” as long as possible when we put to sea. I hung them in the new sonar shack beneath the Control Room, but held off changing out of them as long as I could. One time we were well at sea before the Captain asked if I intended to remain in civies for the whole cruise, and I thought best to change my habits.

This sonar shack was my hide-away. I could smoke my pipe in a quiet comfortable environment and read (I think I was into existentialism at the time). I found that I could take the tapes (meant for recording sea noises), home and record music that I could enjoy while at sea. Having good hearing, I was sent off to Key West to learn to use the passive sonar to distinguish the heading and types of ships heard at sea. I also learned to distinguish the various fish sounds, such as the typewriting of shrimp, the siren call of whales and the grunts of groupers.

Being a deck hand was rather incompatible with pipe smoking, for when a “heavey” was thrown to have our mooring lines pulled to the dock, several times my precious pipe was knocked from my mouth to bounce hopelessly off the tank tops into the sea.

There are a lot of stories, some of which can't be repeated. Many, though, were harmless enough. For example, we took up the practice of arming outselves with water pistols and would shoot each other with them as opportunity arose. If I recall, Captain Gallemore participated in the sport. Gallemore won the crew's greatest respect, not only for his competence, but also his personality. Although quiet and serious by nature, he was at the same time open and friendly. One time when standing below the ladder to the Conning Tower, a mess cook struggling up to the bridge with a greasy can of garbage managed to drop it on the Captain's head. Fortunately, he was not hurt and took the incident in good spirit.

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