- Special Sections
- Public Notices
These words are familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Hollywood film about a submarine. The words are always followed by a warning signal and the unmistakable sound of “a-rooo-ga, a-rooo-ga.”
To professional submariners, the combination of these words and sounds mean only one thing: It’s time to go to work. Rest assured that their jobs, their workdays and the stress of submarine life are not normal under the best of conditions. Yet these amazingly intelligent, brave and dedicated young men accept this as their norm.
As the commands are given and acknowledged in the Navy way, by verbal repetition, the boat – never the ship – prepares to dive beneath the cold, dark waters of the Pacific and take up its station for whatever mission has been assigned by COMSUBPAC (Commander, Submarine, Pacific). The men may be gone for a few days, a few weeks or for a major deployment of six months. But whatever their task, they do it willingly and with dedication.
While at sea, or should I say, under the sea – for a submarine spends as little time as possible on the surface – these well-trained submariners perform their duties in a way the average civilian cannot fathom. They work on a daily cycle of 18 hours, not 24. They cannot go home after their shifts; they have no restaurant, bar or club to let off steam; they can’t even go for a walk. Do you get the picture?
Even though their time is structured for three six-hour shifts, the reality is that they are always on duty. The necessity for vigilance, both within and outside the boat, never ceases. Their training and drills are never-ending and become so second nature to the crew that they are just another accepted part of their jobs.
The Tiger Cruise
Recently, I was privileged to receive an invitation to a Tiger Cruise. This is a public relations creation of the Department of the Navy, dating back to World War II. It allows family members to join their naval relatives on board a submarine and experience a part of the men’s daily life. Due to the small size of both our submarine fleet and the submarine itself, this type of cruise isn’t offered very often.
My son, Lt. Adam Miller, is a department head and weapons officer on the USS Jefferson City, a Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine with 12 officers and 120 sailors on board. This was the first time in his 16 years in the U.S. Navy Submarine Service that I was given this opportunity of a lifetime to join him, and I jumped at the chance.
Due to the nature of his missions in the past, Adam could never say anything about what he did or where he went. We only knew when he was in a foreign port because he would call. Now, I was actually going aboard – not just for an hour’s tour at his sub’s berth – but for a four-day mission. I lived as the crew lived, ate as the crew ate, trained as the crew trained, slept (or tried to) as the crew slept, and experienced for the first time the excitement, the tense pressure, the fear of the unknown and everything these elite young men experience every day at sea.
Life under the sea
As a senior officer and department head, my son has the advantage of sleeping in a cabin a little larger than a closet. The cabin, shared with two other officers, is referred to as a three-man berth. The beds are more like coffins, and the concept of privacy is almost unknown on these boats. The officers and crew on submarines are all sleep-deprived, to put it bluntly.
Adam had the 1800–2400 watch stand on Saturday. I stayed with him in the control room and absorbed what it was like to see a submarine commander at work. It was amazing, to say the least. He had so much data to follow, computer screens to monitor, people to give orders to, and people from whom he received acknowledgments that I was totally overwhelmed. He, on the other hand, wasn’t even breathing hard. Oh, to be that young again.
To relax, we went to the officers’ wardroom, which is their private place, if anything can be called private on a submarine. This room is capable of holding about 15 men, uncomfortably. Here is where the officers on board eat, meet, plan, and discuss the issues of everyday life. Adam and I were eating our “mid-rats,” which is what the 2400-hour meal is called, and decided to go right to sleep.
We crawled (getting into the bunk is not an easy task) into bed and I immediately fell asleep. I got what is considered on the sub a “good night’s sleep,” about two and a half hours.
Because my son is a qualified watch officer, he is usually topside on the bridge, the area we all know from war movies as the top of the conning tower. He “drives” the boat when it is on the surface.
As I stood on the pier watching the sub arrive to pick up us lucky 13 guests, there he was, standing tall and guiding the boat into its berth with the help of a large tug.
Now that was impressive.
View from the bridge
I was fortunate to be on the bridge again as we sailed out of San Diego and stood anchored to the deck plates. Anyone on the bridge when the boat is at sea must wear a heavy-duty safety harness that hooked into the deck.
It was an amazing to watch the bow wave wash over the sub with what is called a Bernoulli effect. This causes water to flow from side to side, rather than down the sides.
The sheer exhilaration of standing 40 feet in the air on the top of a nuclear submarine traveling at 21 knots is not easy to convey in simple words. “Wow!” will have to suffice.
The best part was watching the friendly dolphins traveling along with us. There seems to be a natural affinity between submarines and dolphins. These wonderful mammals love to race alongside the boat and jump the bow waves. My son said the pod of dolphins we ran with was the largest he’s seen. There were more than 200 of these fun-loving creatures cavorting with our little boat.
All in all, this experience is right at the top. What was the most exciting part was seeing my son at work. I saw the respect he was shown by both his fellow officers and the crew, and saw for the first time how important a job he does for all of us.
– Editor’s Note: This story by Bruce Miller was reprinted from Living in Sun City Carolina Lakes magazine, where it appeared under the title, ”Dive! My Four Days on a Nuclear Submarine,” in the January 2011 issue.