The Silver Dolphin Issue
Point of View No. 020
NOTE: This essay appeared on page 78 of the February 1998 issue of "Naval Institute Proceedings" magazine. Also read Bob Barbee's follow-up letter (see POV-20a).


by Michael M. Rankin

The U.S. Navy must end the practice of awarding the enlisted submarine qualification insignia - the silver dolphins - to non-enlisted personnel: specifically, Naval Academy and NROTC midshipmen.

The awarding of silver dolphins is to acknowledge superior shipboard knowledge and excellence in performance of duties, and is one's sign of acceptance by shipmates as a worthy addition to the crew. It is little surprise that many midshipmen strive to obtain this award during summer cruise, even though - at least at the Naval Academy - they are told that their goal is to maximize learning, not to earn enlisted qualification badges.

Submarine commanders learned early that all crew members need to merge into the unit and contribute to its cohesiveness. No matter how well a sailor assigned to a submarine crew operated and maintained his gear, he didn't last long if he was not committed fully to the boat. A non-contributor was a threat to the performance and morale of the boat. More than most other military units, submarines require a high degree of esprit de corps. This is the primary reason that sailors volunteer for the Silent Service.

Submarine qualifications have taken on the appearance of a technical knowledge-acquisition program. Midshipmen are noncommissioned student officers - not enlisted men. But they have been awarded the cherished silver dolphins simply because they spent a few weeks on board a submarine and "worked their butts off." All hands on submarines work their butts off. All hands have worked very hard at some point in their naval careers. Did they get rewarded warfare devices in return? Could a midshipman be awarded aviator's wings, a surface warfare device, or even gold dolphins during a summer cruise? Of course not.

The meaning of silver dolphins has been lost. They never were intended to be a reward for hard work. They were meant to recognize the hard work, superior performance, and broad technical knowledge of enlisted professionals, not simply to decorate their uniforms. Silver dolphins once said that the sailors who wore them had worked hard enough and had learned enough to carry out their duties as watchstanders - and also that they had demonstrated the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary to bring the boat back to the surface, especially after experiencing severe damage. Silver dolphins were the mark of the sonarman who could fire a flare from the engine room signal ejector, or the nuclear-trained reactor operator who could surface the boat if need be. But the real significance of silver dolphins is as a symbol of respect among shipmates - acceptance as one of the crew, as an important and vital part.

Midshipmen can - and often do - demonstrate superior ability to acquire and assimilate technical knowledge during a cruise of six weeks or less. But it is wrong to give student officers who have not incurred any service obligation the enlisted man's silver dolphins. It cheapens the spirit and intent of the dolphins - gold or silver. It is a slap in the face of me and my fellow submariners, active and veteran. Also, it seems odd to give officer candidates an award as an enlisted warfare specialist - not the officer's device that they hope to attain eventually.

This is not meant to criticize midshipman. I hold them in the highest regard. But I am saddened by the abandonment of a Navy tradition. The Navy can - and should - end the practice of awarding enlisted warfare devices to midshipmen. This might disappoint a few midshipmen, but overall it would have a positive influence on the morale of the fleet. Perhaps the Navy can acknowledge the effort of deserving midshipmen with letters of commendation or maybe even the creation of a ribbon recognizing personal achievement in training. But let's save the silver dolphins for their intended recipients - the enlisted submariner.

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