March 14, 2007

Life aboard a submarine

The scullery (above left), where I spent many hours washing dishes during meals aboard the Blueback. The galley (above right) was where the cooks worked amazing feats of culinary magic, feeding more than 90 men out of a space barely bigger than three phone booths.

When I was a newbie, non-qual, low-ranking crewman aboard the USS Blueback (SS-581), one of my first assignments was as a “mess crank,” assigned to assist the cooks in the crew’s mess.

That meant I was a dishwasher, busboy, janitor and gofer for the cooks, Chris “Lips” Lipka, John “Hoobs” Huvler, Bob “Pappy” Strong and Kevin “Samurai” Carver.

They worked for Senior Chief Mess Specialist (Submarines) Layon, a dapper Filipino who always managed to sport perfectly-pressed khaki uniforms, no matter how long we’d been at sea. Layon owned a chain of banks back in the Philippines (or as we said, the P.I.), making him a wealthy man by any standard. But he was close to getting his Navy pension and was going to finish his career in uniform, enriching his bottom line.

Layon had an endearing habit: he was driven to paroxysms of apoplectic rage if anyone dared refer to his food as “shit.” His fury was so overwhelming that his normally-accentless English lapsed into an almost pidgin Philippines patois.

It would go something like this.

One of the guys, bored and looking to provide some entertainment, would pause halfway though his meal, nudge his neighbor in the ribs, and call out to Chief Layon, who was standing at the galley entrance, coffee mug in hand.

“Hey, chief! Whattaya call this?”

“It’s pork adobo,” the chief said with a proud smile, “my own recipe.”

“Yeah? Well, this is some good shit!”

Layon froze, his coffee mug inches from his pursed lips. Narrowing his eyes, he slammed it down onto the galley counter, startling Pappy Strong, who was sweating over the grill.

“Chit? You say chit!?” Layon stalked over to the table, jabbing his index finger at the offender. “You call my foods chit? Goddam mudderpucker! I don’ serve chit! You wanna eat chit, I gib you chit, mudderpucker! Goddam. GODDAM! Puck you! PUCK YOU! I gonna kick your mudderpuckin’ ass!”

The rest of the guys would placate the irate senior chief, reassuring him that, no, we most assuredly didn’t think his "foods" was shit. Layon would grab his mug and retreat, muttering, to the Goat Locker, to commiserate with the other chiefs about the ungrateful bastids he wasted all his good food on.

The crew's mess, looking aft (above left). The dreaded supply locker was on the left, just forward of the engine room hatch, visible in the background. Looking across the mess (above right) from the galley entrance shows two of the tables; the ladder in the background was added after the Blueback was decommissioned, eliminating one of the large, six-man tables.

Chow was served family style, on platters passed around to the men, twenty at a time in the mess at four tables, the two closest to the galley seating six each, with two booths next to the port bulkhead, each sitting four men.

I’d be in the scullery, doing dishes when not serving, scrubbing the white plates and bowls with their navy blue trim in scalding water, then dunking them in rinsewater treated with Betadine, a disinfectant that reeked of iodine.

When the meal was done and the crew had left, I’d fill a No. 10 can with hot, soapy water and scrub the deck on my hands and knees with a green 3-M scrub pad, using rags to dry up before moving on to the next section.

The worst part of the job was always after we left port for a long cruise. Before weighing anchor, we’d form a human chain, passing food hand to hand from the pier, across the brow, along the deck, through the hatch and down 15 feet to the main deck, thousands of pounds of supplies, one crate at a time.

Then it all had to be stowed away, the perishables into the reefer and freeze boxes, the canned goods stuffed into storerooms until full, the rest lining the decks from the engine room, throughout enlisted berthing, then forward to the torpedo room.

We’d all be walking hunched over for a while, the boxes of food raising the deck level about 18 inches throughout the boat. It was a hassle, but a full war load-out meant carrying more than five weeks of food in a really small boat.

Here’s the part I hated. Before each meal, the cook would hand his galley slave a list of all the ingredients needed for that days meals; it was my job to find all the canned goods needed to make breakfast, lunch, dinner and mid-rats, scattered throughout the boat.

The crates out in the open weren’t the problem; it was the damn storeroom in the aft, starboard corner of the crew’s mess that I dreaded.

A narrow, L-shaped compartment, it was about 5-and-a-half feet tall inside, with rail-lined shelves along the bulkheads. And it was packed, floor to ceiling – er, deck to overhead – with cans, crates and boxes. I’d start pulling stuff out, burrowing my way in, looking for everything on the list. It’d take hours, and inevitably I’d find myself stuck at some point, contorted in the aft-most corner, sweating and cursing as I tried to free myself, unable to find the freakin’ “corn, creamed.”

It’s hard to imagine how frustrating it was – and in retrospect it seems silly – but I was positively berserk by the time I’d reached the end of the list, ranting and raving to myself loud enough to be heard by passers-by, “Where’s the peas? I can’t find the freakin’ peas! For the love of God, where are the peas?! AAAAGGGGHHHHH!”

Sometimes, tired of the maniacal ravings coming from the storeroom, one of the senior enlisted guys would close the door and lock it. Which really helped. I’d inch backward until my feet made contact with it, then begin kicking, cursing a blue streak, until Pappy would let me out.

I’d tumble to the deck, glaring, wild-eyed around me. Pappy stood there, looking down at me, and said, “You find those peas yet, Leafy? What are you waiting for? Stop screwing around.”

Yo ho, yo ho, a sailor’s life for me.

Posted by Mike Lief at March 14, 2007 05:46 AM | TrackBack


That's a funny story. And submarine galleys all look the same no matter what boat you were on.

BTW, is that all you did back then, was complain? Holy crap. No wonder you became a lawyer... LOL!

Posted by: sonarman at March 14, 2007 03:41 PM

Thanks. I'm trying to put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard?) more often, memorializing the hijinks aboard the boat.

As to my carping . . . . C'mon, Sonarman, enlisted men have been griping since the Roman Legions. The complaints are the same; only the uniforms have changed. How else were we to pass the time?

You're also right, 'though. According to my parents, my first word was "No!"; lawyering was inevitable, in light of that fact -- and that arguing was a favorite pasttime in my house.

Posted by: Mike Lief at March 14, 2007 03:58 PM

Ugh- what a grim reminder of my cranking days aboard the L.A. (SSN 688). My worst 2 month stint was when the Nay awards were up for grabs and the Senior Chief had me cleaning the screw heads on the reach-ins with a toothpick at 10:00 p.m. Fortunatly, we came in on a shift work routine and got sauced before our shift. It made the mundane and ridiculous job go a lot smoother.

Oh, we didn't win.

Posted by: Trickish Knave at March 19, 2007 12:19 PM

I really don't remember “Hoobs” being my nickname.

And I had a few of them...

Posted by: John Huvler at October 25, 2008 09:34 PM

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