Tuesday: 11.November.2003

Life on a Boomer

Here in the US, it's Veterans day. I am a veteran, thank-you very much. I served in the Navy, aboard a submarine, a nuclear submarine: called an FBM [Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine] .. colloquially referred to as a "boomer" .. home-ported out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

I've heard it said that "a boomer out of Hawaii" is the best sea-going duty you can get. There were two crews for the boat: blue & gold. We were "the goldies": the good crew. The "bluies" were a rather dysfunctional lot if you ask me. Too damn serious and always screwing things up .. things we had to fix.

Each crew took turns with "the boat". We each had it for 3 months, and would fly to Guam ("Guam USA: Where America's Day Begins" the signs read): a long-ass flight, crossing the International date line, to pick it up. There was a 5-day turn-over, where the bluies informed us of everything they broke during the previous 3 months, before flying back to Hawaii .. where you do nothing but lay around in the sun and spend the day at the beach for 3 months.

Guam sits about 13-degrees north latitude. Twice as close to the equator as Hawaii (21-degrees). Guam is pretty damn hot and muggy, even at 6AM. Step outside at any hour and you instantly begin to sweat. Right off the coast of Guam is the Marianas Trench: deepest spot on the planet. If you cut off Mount Everest at sea level, and stuck it in the Marianas Trench, there would still be a mile of water above it. That's deep. You don't want anything to go wrong over the trench.

They kept the boat like a meat locker: ice-cold. So, naturally, everybody got sick, going from sweltering humidity to freezing meat locker all day. But we still had to work 18 to 20-hour days. We did the math and figured we were paid about 75-cents an hour. Guys used to complain how prisoners had it better than we did: they were able to sleep every night and got to see the sun everyday. They had bigger cots than we did, much more living space, and better food. We wore the same uniforms.

They worked us like dogs. I can't even count the times I worked all day, all night and then all day again, with no sleep. You can do that when you're 21 years old. It would kill me now. You would think they might be concerned about a person being too fatigued and making a mistake while working on a nuclear plant. Apparently not.

We didn't even get time to do our laundry. I remember pulling clothes out of the bottom of my dirty-clothes bag because they weren't *as* dirty as the ones I was wearing. When they can't stand how bad you stink, they give you a few hours off in the afternoon on Sunday to go do laundry ("and hurry back").

The end result is that, now, nothing seems very difficult. When I hear people complain about how tough they have it, I think to myself: you have no idea.

My best memory comes after one "patrol". We had left Guam at 6PM and flown all night. The pilot announced in a quiet, calm relaxed voice: "This is your captain speaking. We'll be beginning our descent into Honolulu International airport. Please fasten your seatbelts. Local time is 6AM. It's 72 degrees and sunny. Today's forecast calls for sunny skies with a high of 88. Thank you for flying Flying Tigers airlines"

Because we crossed the date line, we got to live that day all over again (Sunday). When the plane landed, the pilot said, "Welcome to Honolulu." I thought everyone would jump up and and shout 'Hallelujah!'. But everyone just sat there, too numb to celebrate. Myself included. You could've heard a pin drop in that cabin.

In the taxi, on the way to Waikiki where we lived, with the sun coming up over Diamond Head, cruising down Ala Moana blvd, a song by Steely Dan was playing on the radio: FM (No static at All). The Dog said to the big, 400-pound Samoan taxi driver: "Can you turn that up a little?" Those were the only words anyone said the whole trip. I sat in the front; the Dog & Courtland sat in the back. It was early enough that not many cars were on the road yet.

A few joggers were running through Ala Moana park. It seemed as if they were running in slow motion. Sunlight flickered thru the palms. Seemed downright surreal. We hadn't seen colors like that in months. The visual stimulation was hypnotrizing. The Dog was my best friend in the Navy. Still is.

The reason they pick the length of the patrol cycle is because studies show that after 3 months underwater, people start cracking. The crack-rate increases. Anyway, I was just reminiscing about the good ol' days. Would I do it over? Knowing what I know now? No way. I have some good stories (*really* good), and would like to say more, but I think the government doesn't like it when you say too much.

Posted by Rad at November 11, 2003 01:26 PM


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Happy Veterans Day. My husband is out stationed on a sub in hawaii. I read your column and realize how much more you went through..despite my husband "still" complaining. It's a tough job. You guys deserve to know...that we support you for all that you have done for us!!

Posted by: james at December 9, 2003 12:07 AM

I can't remember anyone who didn't complain about the boats,But never about the chow that we had aboard them.
I put my time on a diesel guppy 2a, the job was tough but the food and liberty made up for it.
At least you guys on the boomers could take showers and do laundry.
We surfaced after 10 weeks submerged in an undisclosed part of the world with a soviet frigate a couple hundred yards off our port bow.
Our reward for this exercise was a dress yellow inpection by the nato commander when we reached port.
I think that only a diesel boat sailer could understand the experiance. It's funny though,that was the only time in my 4 years in the Navy that I was thinking of shipping over.
I know that there was difficulties involved in all the classes of boats, but after spending a day getting practical factors on mines aboard a DE
I was happy to be on a Submarine.

Posted by: TD at January 19, 2004 06:47 AM