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Cold War Warriors

My Life In A Sewer Pipe

Commander Mike Cuseo, USN Retired

Yahoo! A Seventy-Two...

In Navy language, that means 3 nights off, from Friday afternoon until Monday morning. It happens every three weeks, if the boat is in port. It's a little less than 72 hours, but what the hell, it's THREE GREAT NIGHTS OFF!

The first thing to do was try to wipe away the grime and smell of 40 days at sea on what you surface pukes call a sewer pipe. We took that as a compliment. We had the honor to serve on board a heroic fighting machine. It was one of the many fleet submarines that went into harm's way during WWII, sinking several Japanese ships. Though the war was over, and we missed it, we still were proud to be on board. I was serving on my first submarine, the U.S.S. Grouper (SSK-214). The "K" stood for "killer".

It was a submarine built to fight, and with no thought of where to put the crew, we were wedged above the large batteries that propelled us when submerged and between the torpedoes in both ends of the sub. The space was very cozy and claustrophobic. There were approximately 100 men on board. Two hundred smelly feet, two hundred smelly arm pits, plus several other disgusting orifices. We slept 3 or 4 deep in very restrictive bunks, head to toe. Someone else's feet were always in your face.

In addition, we lived and slept in close proximity to the diesel engines that powered the boat. The natural smell of unburnt fuel, plus the smell of its exhaust permeated the whole submarine. In those days (1949-1958), smoking was permitted onboard, even while submerged. Now, blend all these delightful odors in one horrendous smell. It permeated our clothes, our bedding, even our hair. We became used to it and after surfacing and clearing out the submarine with a fresh air flush, many people became ill from this new smell (fresh air!).

Naturally, coming on land for a 72 entailed getting rid of some of our horrible odor. There was one tiny shower for the whole crew. It was the size of a coffin, set up on end. Water was a vital and scarce commodity aboard these "old" submarines. Therefore, only one shower a week was allowed each crew member. It was controlled by the COB (Chief Of the Boat, the senior enlisted man on board). You would enter this claustrophobic coffin, and the COB would give you a very little warm water shot (cold water if he didn't like you), just enough to get wet, You then lathered yourself up. Being in such a tight space, you couldn't reach everywhere. Ready or not, the COB gave you another shot of water, ostensibly enough to remove the suds. But, if he was in a bad mood, you didn't get much water. Cooks and food handlers had this privilege every day; we envied them.

I hadn’t considered these things when I signed with the Navy, in fact, I hadn’t considered the Navy at all. I wanted to be a Marine. I dropped out of school the day I turned seventeen, and headed for the USMC recruiting office. I walked 4 miles to town, getting to the combined Recruiting Center (USA/USN/AF/USMC) at about 12:30. The only one present was a Navy man. I told him I wanted to join the Marines. After settling down from a good laugh, he said I didn't look that stupid. After a short discussion of superiority, USN vs. USMC, he gave me the military IQ battery of tests and confirmed what I already knew— I WAS A GENIUS— and he could get me into any of several electronics programs. Being quite gullible (remember, I was 16 the day before), I signed!

After fourteen weeks of boot camp at Great Lakes, 6-month SONAR School in Key West, 8 weeks Submarine School in New London, I was on the awesome Fleet Submarine of WWII fame. This was the first submarine converted from a conventional WWII fleet submarine exclusively targeted against other submarines (but it could still sink surface ships). The Navy had captured many new U-boats in 1945 and stripped them of their sophisticated sonars. We had 52 fourteen-foot long sonar hydrophones around our conning tower, thanks to Admiral Donitz. They were very sensitive and we could track Soviet missile submarines at great distances. Besides the large hydrophone array around the conning tower, we had several other detection systems for tracking and attacking other submarines. These were operated by me and my boss - "Gunner" Donahue – a true WWII hero and character.

After the war, the deck guns were removed from all the submarines, so the Gunner's Mate rating was eliminated on submarines. If Donahue wanted to remain on subs, he had to transition to a new job, and he chose sonarman. I was a junior seaman and he became a senior petty officer, yet I had more training and experience than he did, plus he had been hearing impaired from the gunfire he experienced. Augmented by the officers and a fire controlman, we made up the Attack Team when pursuing a target.

While engaged with an active target, the ship was rigged for "ultra silent running". The procedure was that all men not on watch or at attack stations were to be in their bunks. Anyone moving on the boat was in stocking feet. All unnecessary equipment and pumps were shut down. All verbal communications were in whispers

Sonars were of two classifications: PASSIVE, where we picked up all ocean noises through the hydrophones (listening), and ACTIVE, where we transmitted a blast of energy into the water and listened for echoes, obviously not used while tracking a target. Active was used just before firing a torpedo and when we were in close contact, and both adversaries were in an underwater "dog fight".

Passive listening was fascinating even without a target. We could hear the "voices" of various sea creatures, the songs of the whales and the snapping of shrimp. We could hear conversations within the sub. We could hear the dishes being washed in the galley. We could hear every pump and valve opening and closing within our sub, therefore we were "ultra-silent" when tracking a target.

Target contacts developed slowly. First, we would get a noise spike. We would have the other sonarman and an officer listen to confirm we had something. It would get louder and we could determine its type, course, and speed, by the propeller noises and bearing change. It became a "cat and mouse" game. Had they heard us? We had to wait and see. With all machinery shut down it became uncomfortably hot in tropical waters, and cold and clammy in the north. Whisper... whisper... move slow... no metal to metal contact.

We had just returned from a 6-week operation against Soviet subs. We could stay submerged for several weeks because of our snorkel, a device that could be raised above the surface at periscope depth. It would suck in air for operation of our diesel engines, and exhaust the fumes just under the surface, dissipating the smoke fumes through a few feet of water.

We did this for 22 straight days. During heavy seas, the snorkel would be swamped causing a delayed shut down of the diesels. Before coming to a stop, the engines would suck air from the sub, causing a painful vacuum, devastating the eardrums. The exhaust would dump strong and thick fumes into the boat. The unbearable pain added to the choking was debilitating. These oil smells stayed in our clothes, our hair, and our bedding.

Living on board these ships (affectionately called "boats") left a lot to be desired. To remain undetected from our surface foe, we did not let anything leak out of our hull, which included our natural "effluents". They were held in a "sanitary" tank. It had little sophistication to it. It had two valves on top, a high-pressure air inlet, plus a vent valve that vented into the after-battery crew's living compartment (lucky us). A lower valve was egress to the sea.

There was a very special procedure to both use the toilet, and also to flush the tank out to sea while deep under the ocean surface. There were only two toilets for the crew. The officers had their own in the forward torpedo room. That became a fun "toy" for the crew to get even with the officers.

The toilets had an air-tight flapper valve that dropped the effluent into the tank. There were two times to use the "vent" valve. As pressure built up in the tank from fermentation, and after you have used the high pressure air to blow the "effluent" out the lower "to sea" valve. You never wanted pressure in the tank when dumping the flapper valve because everything would fly up into your face. You could add a little pressure to the tank from a remote station, which we often did while the unpopular officers or a novice sailor was using the device.

Needless to say, with the sacrifices we made and odors we endured, the 72 hours of freedom was a highly anticipated. After a shower, shave, and shine, we took out our very best dress blues that we kept under our very thin mattress. Yes, we slept on them to keep them pressed. We had no other place to store them. Exiting the after battery hatch with a big smile on our faces, we requested permission to go ashore, saluted the flag and the gangway watch, and expeditiously found our way to the rallying point, Ernie' Cafe, which was a really sleazy bar in New London, Connecticut.

After a few beers I headed for the train station. I lived 90 miles away in Westport, CT, and usually took the NY, NH, and Hartford trains, about a 2-hour trip. After a few minutes passed, I was aware of many stares and people moving away from me. Great! More room for me! I was met by a buddy who brought my car, and we had a few beers and headed home. Some strange looks from the home folks, too. I ran in the house, into the closet and got my "civvies" out, hung my uniform on a hanger (inside-out, of course), took a nice long, hot shower, dressed and headed into town in my 1928 Model A Ford.

Life was good! But the hours went by fast, and it was soon time to return to the boat. I went to the closet, and as I opened the door, a horrendous smell would greet me. I pulled out my uniform, which reeked. "What the hell died in this closet?"

Yeah, you guessed it. It smelled like a sewer pipe.

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