Finding Brotherhood Beneath the Waves : Navy: Sailors aboard nuclear submarines are serious about their work--and play. They'll do anything to enliven the tedium.

THE WASHINGTON POST

The newcomer arrives raw and wide-eyed at this hundred-yard undersea vault, ready to submerge himself in the brotherhood of a nuclear submarine. Naturally, there is a hideous initiation.

His fellow sailors pour Nair in his shampoo. Just the right amount, a bit more every day. When his hair starts to fall out, they whisper loudly in his presence about radiation sickness.

Or they send him on a snark hunt for "compass bearing grease."

Or they dress him up in a wet suit and tell him he has to swim to the surface for the "mail buoy."

Submariners are above-average sailors with above-average practical jokes. The guys in the torpedo room are explaining all this to a reporter, long past midnight in the waning hours of a 24-hour visit. The official tours are over, the public affairs escort is in bed and eight or 10 enlisted men conduct a ribald free-for-all seminar on the life of a submarine warrior.

These are troubled times for submariners, unsure of their place in the new world order. Are they obsolete, relics of the Cold War? On the surface, this is a valid question. But down below the surface, it is a different world order altogether, no place for Great Questions.

There is tedious confinement without fresh air, fresh food or news. The fabric of life twists around quirky camaraderie. For the new guys, there is a complex ritual of assimilation. The business with the hair remover, of course, is strictly forbidden. "The CO banned that two years ago," says Petty Officer 3rd Class Scott Gallant, grinning broadly at the reference to Cmdr. Robert P. Dunn.

These days you can't even tape up a newcomer like a mummy; Gallant got hauled in and disciplined just for "wrapping the tape a couple of times around" his latest victim.

Still, the Navy's underworld traditions have a way of persisting. And they have their purposes, according to those in the fraternity.

"It's a brotherhood," says a mid-grade submarine officer, too nervous about his career to be quoted by name. "You can't go out and have a few beers with the guys, so you have to do something for bonding and team spirit. That can make or break a new guy, if you do something like this Nair trick. If he can laugh about it, he'll fit in. If he gets too upset, it may show he'll have trouble weathering the tough times."

Everything about the first year aboard a submarine, for enlisted man and officer alike, is geared to remind him that he is a "nub"--a "non-useful body," unfit to wear the twin-dolphin insignia of a qualified undersea warrior.

Dolphins, so incongruous as an icon of war, capture exactly what submariners think of themselves: They're clever mammals who adapt to the sea and count on their brains to survive.

Even experienced submariners spend much of their spare time in study. In the junior officer's toilet on one recent visit, the stainless-steel magazine rack offered this choice of reading: Defense Intelligence Agency Manual 5725011 YR, the East European Naval Recognition Guide (September, 1990, revision). A bit behind the times, politically, but technically sound.

For nubs, the dumb and dolphinless, no moment is safe from the amiable persecution by their betters. It's a not-so-subtle incentive to drill and learn. If a nub fails to qualify within a year, by mastering a considerable sum of technical knowledge, he'll be exiled to surface ships--the "skimmer Navy," as submariners call it.

This being an all-male crew (average age: 23), the conversation tends to focus on sex. The guys in the torpedo room can hardly tear their attention from the subject.

Though they speculate intensively on the whereabouts and conduct of their wives and girlfriends, the Grayling's crew members have little by way of actual news. Unlike most military personnel, even other sailors, submariners rarely get mail. Stealing silently beneath the surface, sometimes for more than two months without coming up, they almost completely forgo contact with the outside world.

Periodically the Grayling ascends to periscope depth and pokes an electronic mast above the waves to collect transmissions. Once a month, if a crewman is lucky, he'll get a "family gram." Forty words maximum. There is no shred of privacy about them: Any number of intermediaries get to read the things before they reach the sailors.

The skipper and executive officer have the power to withhold bad news in the interest of good discipline and morale, and they use it.

The 15 officers and 107 enlisted men aboard a Sturgeon-class submarine seem to think of themselves as an extended family.

Two or three sailors are looking depressed and discouraged during this visit aboard Grayling, and their buddies work hard to cheer them up.

Somehow or other they have to live together in an enforced intimacy that provides only 90 racks for 122 men. The most junior crewmen have to "hot-bunk," or sleep in shifts.

The bunks are stacked four high in odd spaces around the boat, no more than elbow-to-fingertip from the top of one mattress to the bottom of the next.

On the surface it may be rough and stormy, or--on this trip--an arctic desert of sea ice at 40 degrees below zero, but aboard Grayling it is eternally 70 degrees and fluorescent. The air is constantly monitored for nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, water vapor, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and two kinds of Freon.

Still, this is not an environment conducive to starched uniforms and snapped salutes. The hot, dirty diesel days of World War II bred a culture of informality in the submarine service, and that culture outlasted the sweat and grime.

The skipper's blue coveralls appear never to have met an iron. Other uniforms have holes. Some of the guys wear sneakers and T-shirts. When Cmdr. Dunn walks into a compartment, no one tenses or jumps to a salute.

Outside the sub, the environment is deadly. At 400 feet there are 25,344 pounds of water pressing against every square foot of hull. There are ice keels in the Arctic that reach 100 feet below the frozen surface and could pop the Grayling like a balloon.

Powerful and invulnerable while undetected, a submarine has nothing but stealth to protect it from human enemies. There is no armor to speak of. The sub cannot take a punch. Silence is the overriding imperative, and everything about its location and operational pattern is classified. The sign on one metal hatch: "THINK QUIET! DO NOT SLAM DOORS!"

To guard against potentially fatal errors, the sailors restate every order they receive.

"Make your depth 180 feet," Dunn says, standing at the conn in the control room. The order is relayed and repeated four times.

This unvarying discipline of "repeat-back" and "verbatim compliance" is the legacy of Adm. Hyman Rickover and the elite force of nuclear submariners he created in the 1950s and after.

The problem for Rickover was overwhelming: How to pack 122 men and a nuclear reactor into a confined space and eliminate every likelihood of disaster. His answer was to design detailed procedures and tolerate no deviation. Half a turn on the valve means just that, not one degree more or less.

Over the years this rigid discipline has migrated from the reactor spaces manned by the nucs--pronounced nukes--at the stern of the boat to the forward compartments as well.

Submariners call the phenomenon "creeping nuc-ism."

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