Senior Stories

Frank’s Excellent Submarine Adventure

Most men of our 50+ generation have a shared experience that no one younger can fully understand.

At one time or another, we were all in the uniform of the US Armed Forces. We endured basic training, suffered bad chow and chain of command, and in doing so we had some of the best and worst times of our lives.

To this day, we still have a soft spot for GIs everywhere.

My soft spot was touched when I read about the submarine USS Greeneville ramming and sinking a Japanese fishing boat, killing nine.

Not long ago, through the good graces of Bob Yoder, my fellow Army OCSer of long ago, I spent a day at sea aboard a similar nuclear attack sub, the USS Phoenix. I talked at length with members of the crew, from first-time grunts to the commanding officer. I learned how proud they all are of their jobs and skills, of their fellow crew members, of their mission and their boat.

It takes a lot of training to be a submariner. A lot of pluck as well, to accept the kind of life where you’re underwater and out of touch with your world and family for months on end. You’re stuck in a 33-foot wide tube only a bit longer than a football field with 130 or so other personalities, smells, and idiosyncrasies, some pretty bizarre. When you’re jammed so close together, privacy becomes but a dim memory.

Your life belongs to the boat.

To feel comfortable when on shore leave, submariners say they…

  1. Have the paperboy give them a haircut
  2. Replace all doorways with windows so that they have to step up and duck to go through them
  3. Sleep on a narrow closet shelf. Every couple hours, they have their wives shine a flashlight in their face saying, “Sorry, wrong rack.”

You need more than a good sense of humor to tough out what these guys endure. They work hard and with dedication 24/7. They warrant our respect, consideration, and trust, as they earn it every day.

Yesterday, I heard some guy on talk radio trashing the Greeneville and the Navy for “stupidly allowing such a tragedy.”

Submarine TowerObviously, someone screwed up. It was a terrible accident. If you’ve ever seen the row upon row of sonar equipment and operators on a Los Angeles-class submarine, it’s impossible to understand how such a thing could happen.

Critics also question the judgment of allowing 16 civilians on board.

I suppose someone should have questioned the judgment of actually letting me dive the Phoenix and, later, allowing me at the helm when we quick-surfaced, just as the Greeneville did when it came up directly under the Ehime Maru.

As far as I know, I hit nothing. Of course, I was supervised every foot of the way.

Suddenly Trivia: When did the US Navy acquire its first modern submarine? a) 1862 b) 1880, c) 1900, d) 1914, e) 1941?

After we surfaced, I climbed to the top of the conning tower, stood there (out of breath) for several minutes with the spray in my face and the power and might of our country’s defense directly beneath me. I was Lord of the Seas. The feeling was awesome.

Humbling, too.

At sea with a sub is a thrilling experience, one that probably has won the Navy more Congressional converts than any amount of lobbying.

Yes, the Greeneville killed nine civilians.

But, please, don’t go pointing fingers the Navy, or all submarines, or all the men of the Greeneville. Submarine crews are tightly knit. No doubt, the Greeneville’s crew has already burdened themselves with more self-blame than any outsider could ever lay on them.

One more thing. If anyone ever offers you a ride on a nuclear sub, jump at it!

Suddenly Trivia Answer: c) On April 11, 1900, the US Navy acquired the 53-foot Holland, powered by gasoline on the surface and electricity when submerged. Designs for underwater boats date back to the 1500s. During the Civil War, the Confederates built the H.L. Hunley, a hand-cranked submarine that sank a Union ship, the USS Housatonic, in 1864. (Salvors are raising and cleaning her as we speak.) But it wasn’t until World War I that the first truly practical submarines emerged.



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