Posting date 16 July 2002

BESS--the Navy's Basic Enlisted Submarine School--makes submariners out of mere men.
Robert A. Hamilton is the defense writer for the New London Day.

As a young Sailor in 1976, John Carcioppolo proved to an examining board that he knew enough about the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Archerfish to handle just about any emergency. Capt. Sibley L. Ward III presented him with the pair of silver dolphins that designated him as "qualified in submarines." The back of the pin was engraved with the name of the boat and the date that Carcioppolo earned them.

Carcioppolo rose to become a Master Chief Radioman before retiring after 22 years of service, after which he put the dolphins in a box for safekeeping at his Connecticut home. Then he met Seaman Dean Adams, a student at the Navy's Basic Enlisted Submarine School in New London, Conn., and a member of the Silver Dolphins, the school's special color guard. Adams so impressed Carcioppolo with his eagerness and intelligence that, when Adams qualified on the nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) USS San Francisco, Carcioppolo sent his own dolphins to the submarine to be pinned on the young machinist mate's chest.

"Wear them with the same pride that I did, my friend," Carcioppolo said in a letter read at the pinning ceremony. "You have followed in the steps of thousands of men who have served the U.S. Navy and the United States with honor. There are men ... there are Sailors ... and then there are submariner Sailors. Submariners are the best of the best."

Immeasurable Meaning

It was in March 1924 that Acting Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt Jr. authorized the wearing of silver dolphins by qualified submariners. There might be only a few dollars worth of metal in the two-and-a-half-inch pin, but the meaning the dolphins hold for the men who earn them is immeasurable. Silver dolphins signify that the enlisted wearer has passed through rigorous screening and arduous training--and has upheld the legacy of generations of undersea warriors.

Submarines operate in the most unforgiving environment on the planet, the crushing depths of the ocean, and they do it with a relatively small number of men. There are about 130 crewmembers on board when a 9,600-ton Seawolf-class submarine heads to sea; an Arleigh Burke-class Aegis guided-missile destroyer of about the same displacement has a crew two-and-a-half times larger, about 340 Sailors.

That means that the performance of each and every crewmember on a submarine is vital. Every man must know his job--and much of everyone else's, in case he ever has to fill in--and a host of emergency procedures. Finishing his "quals" identifies a man as someone whom the other members of the crew can depend on to save their lives. Electronics Technician 1st Class Robert Torresin, an instructor at the Basic Enlisted Submarine School, or BESS, said that everyone in a submarine's crew, from the captain to the "NUBs" (for "nonuseful body"--i.e., someone who has not finished his "quals"), recognizes the importance of the pinning ceremony.

"We had one guy who was getting close just a few days before we were supposed to go through the Panama Canal, so we were really pushing him to get everything done, and we did the pinning topside in the Canal," Torresin said. "Anything we can do to make it more special, we do."

The men who choose to "go subs" routinely cite the camaraderie of the tightly knit service as their reason for joining, but the challenge also is a key attraction.

"As soon as you have a handle on one thing, they're going to give you more," said Electronics Technician 3rd Class Brian T. Speed, who qualified this year aboard the USS Memphis (SSN 691). "I like that chance to get extra responsibility as quickly as I can handle it. It's my opportunity to shine." Speed went to college for a year out of high school, then to a technical college for three years, earning a degree in electrical engineering technology. After working for a few years for a manufacturer of two-way radios, he said, he became bored.

"I picked out the toughest thing I could think of, and that was submarines," he said. "I paid $11,000 a year," Speed said, commenting on his three years at the technical college, " ... and the six-month [Navy] Nuclear Power School I attended in Charleston [S.C.] gave me the equivalent, and maybe even more, in terms of education."

A Small Crew And a Sophisticated Ship

Sailors know that on submarines they will be part of a relatively small crew working hard to keep their sophisticated warship operationally ready, often on missions and in areas where logistics support is not available. Hospitalman 1st Class Thomas J. Guest, who also qualified on the Memphis this year, started his Navy career on an aircraft carrier, one of 40 corpsmen on the ship, and was not allowed in the engineering spaces even if someone was injured. Aboard the Memphis he is expected to know the layout and working intricacies of the engineering spaces as well as he knows the tiny compartment--more closely resembling a closet--that serves as his dispensary.

"On a carrier, the ORSE [operational reactor safeguards examination] was just something that happened while I was on board--it never really involved me," Guest said. "On a submarine, an ORSE is an all-hands event, On the Memphis, there was a captain who was going through my programs 20 minutes after he got on board and, let me tell you, he looked at everything."

The submarine force seeks out Navy recruits with the highest scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, and who seem the most motivated in boot camp, because the qualification process is so rigorous. The real journey toward qualification begins at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, Conn., with a six-week regimen at BESS. Starting with indoctrination in week one, and culminating with small-arms training in week six, those selected for submarine training spend 60 hours a week or more in classrooms and study halls, reviewing everything from the engineering systems associated with the sonar dome in the bow to the propulsion plant in the after part of the ship.

Reveille is at 5:00 a.m; the Sailors muster at 6:00 a.m. and march off to breakfast, but have to be back for room and uniform inspections at 7:00 a.m. By 7:30 a.m., they are back in the classroom, hitting the books. Late afternoons are spent in physical training, but the emphasis is on academics and operational training.

There are four major tests administered during the BESS regimen, and activities are squeezed into every spare minute--from time in the "dive-and-drive" trainer to casualty drills in the school's flooding and fire simulators, all of which are designed to be as realistic as possible. If students cannot quickly fix the leaks in the flooding trainer, for example, they are soon up to their necks in cold water.

"There's a whole ocean out there that wants to get into the ship, and it will use any hole it can find," said Machinist Mate 2nd Class Joseph Tomasello, a BESS instructor.

"We know that, by the time they leave here, they have the capability to earn their dolphins," he added . "If they can pass our tests, we know they have the capability to learn and retain information."

Many of the instructors now teaching at the Submarine School learned their trade the same way that the first Sailors to come through the school did more than 70 years ago--with the help of crude sketches and classroom lectures, followed by on-the-job training at sea. Today, however, classroom instruction reflects 21st-century technology and methodology.

High-Tech Classrooms

When Sonar Technician 1st Class Warren C. Wright reported to the Submarine School three years ago, he presented his lectures using Powerpoint viewgraphs--which, at the time, represented the height of teaching technology. Today, in one of the school's more than 40 all-electronic classrooms, he uses a "smart board" that allows him to draw a diagram in front of the class, then save it to a disk that students can call up later.

Through headsets and microphones at each student's station, Wright can walk Sailors through a new concept simultaneously or take questions discretely on a separate channel to provide individualized instruction. He also can call up schematics of a submarine's most complex systems and use computer animation to explain in clear detail how they work.

And, if he notices from his instructor monitor that students are starting to be less attentive, he has an additional "teaching aid" at his fingertips: the computer lockout.

"If you're teaching, and they start to drift off, you hit that lockout and they can't do anything else with their computer," Wright said. "That gets their attention back on the lesson!"

Leadership and supervision also have evolved at the Submarine School through the years. Master Chief Electrician's Mate Michael W. Hurley, who recently finished a three-year tour as the school's command master chief, recalled that, when he was a student in 1979, the staff had a number of helpful options available to them that since then have been overtaken by technology. A chief petty officer who suspected a young Sailor might get into trouble, for example, might detain the student for a uniform inspection until his buddies left for weekend liberty and the bank had closed. Today, students use direct deposit and automatic teller machines to obtain ready cash, and cellular telephones to find their friends.

"They have opportunities today we didn't have, including the opportunity to get into trouble," Hurley said with a hint of a smile. But he prefers to focus on the positive. Only a small number of students violate curfew too many times and/or commit other infractions that will put them before a disciplinary board in any given week--0.2 percent of the school's population of 1,300 students, on average.

The Training Continuum

Training and qualification continue once a Sailor graduates from Submarine School.

Perhaps 10 or 15 students out of a class of 60 report directly to the fleet, as a mess specialist or yeoman, for example, or as a storekeeper or "striker"--i.e., someone who has not yet selected a rating (occupational specialty). The rest will attend "A" schools in various of the Navy's specialized ratings to learn how to be a sonarman, a radioman, a machinist mate, etc.

Once they report to their first submarine, trainees are thrust quickly into the first phase of shipboard training, which consists of learning the emergency systems, the location of first-aid kits, and other information that could save their lives--or their shipmates' lives. They also meet with the chief of the boat (or "COB"), the senior enlisted person on board, who tells them what he expects, and with the submarine's commanding officer (CO). In these meetings, the new crewmen are introduced to the CO's commanding philosophy and the clear expectation that there will be steady progress expected of them in their efforts to earn the right to wear the silver dolphins.

The second phase of shipboard training concentrates on damage-control systems, which make up about 50 percent of the qualification process. In phase three, Sailors learn how to stand a watch, both in port and at sea; in phase four, they learn the layout of the ship, space by space, in minute detail. During phase five, they complete final interviews and "walk throughs" of the boat from stem to stern, accompanied by senior personnel--and must to be able to identify and explain anything they pass.

Throughout this demanding process, the object of the new Sailor's quest--shiny silver dolphins--is on display in a case next to the galley along with a brief report on the status of the qualifications of each trainee. Every crewman passes this display several times a day. Anyone who falls behind in his qualifications is told repeatedly to "Get hot, NUB!" In today's submarine force, every member of the crew is expected to excel in all of his tasks.

"You have to learn how to ask for help," said Speed. "If you don't learn that, you are going to be in the 'hurt locker.' But if you stay busy and keep yourself squared away, the other members of the crew will line up to help you."

Every Sailor going through the qualification process is assigned a "sea daddy," usually an experienced leading petty officer. This mentor can provide advice on the optimum order to tackle the qualification requirements and direct the trainee to the experts who can help him learn each in detail. Submarines also run a weekly "School of the Boat," mandatory for nonqualified Sailors, usually consisting of a one-hour lecture covering two different topics.

When the submarine is at sea, the qualification process usually can move forward more smoothly and quickly. During the limited free time not taken up by watches, meals, and maintenance chores, there is nowhere to go, so the NUBs tend to spend more time on their qualification tasks. In port, the opportunity for liberty ashore competes for the trainee's time and attention, but each nonqualified Sailor is still expected to make progress. Woods started his qualification process aboard the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) USS Louisiana, which was still under construction at Electric Boat at the time.

"I remember coming in at 3 o'clock in the morning to do drills, but the firefighting system wasn't installed yet, so we used nylon ropes for hoses with tin cans on the end for the nozzles. We didn't have EABs [emergency air breathers] so we put coat hangers on the bases and would just hang them over a pipe."

Knowing What, Why, and How

Because of the technological differences, frequently slight, between submarines, each requires its own qualification card. To complete the qualification card for the fleet ballistic-missile submarine USS Alaska, for example, a trainee must have his seniors "sign off" on his qualifications in 106 different areas ranging from basic damage control (30 points, requiring seven signatures) to knowledge of the layout of different compartments (60 points, 15 signatures).

The word no Sailor wants to hear at any time in the qualification process is "dink," a shortening of delinquent. Anyone who falls behind just one week has to spend two extra hours a day, and Saturday mornings, studying until he catches up. If the trainee falls behind for two weeks, his sea daddy spends those extra study hours with him (and is not going to be particularly happy about the extra work). Anyone who falls more than three weeks behind risks a "page 13" entry--an adverse notation in the administrative remarks page in the individual's service record.

Sonar Technician 1st Class Mark Azarjew, responsible until last year for the qualification process aboard the USS Dallas, said there were usually four or five "dinks" out of 25 or so going through the qualification process at any given time. "We'll do anything we can to get the guy qualified, particularly if we see that he's really trying, and normally we have a pretty good success rate," Azarjew said.

Once all signatures have been collected to certify that the trainee has met the education goals for the submarine's different systems and a final walk-through of the submarine has been completed with a duty chief petty officer to demonstrate proficiency, the aspiring Sailor appears before three of the most seasoned submariners on board to answer questions.

"You have to know not just that you turn a particular valve in a particular situation, but why you turn that valve--and what it's going to do," said Guest. "And they [those asking the questions] remember that one thing that they had to go over with you six times because you just couldn't get it. Sure enough, that's the question they're going to ask you first."

Earning the silver dolphins typically takes eight to 10 months. Some Sailors have been known to finish in three; others must receive special permission from the captain to persevere longer than 12. Every year, there are a few on each submarine who never qualify and have to be transferred to other assignments.

But most of those who join the submarine force do qualify, and their commanding officers proudly certify in the ship's log that another dolphin-wearer has joined the ranks. Preparations then begin to present the undersea badge of honor to the new submariner.

A Time-Honored Ceremony

In past years such presentation ceremonies were often raucous affairs. The newly qualified submariners frequently were "tossed into the drink" after being presented their dolphins. The dolphins themselves might have been dropped into a glass of beer, which the recipient had to toss down, catching the pin in his teeth before the insignia disappeared down his throat.

Today's ceremonies provide a more appropriate recognition of the Sailor's unique achievement. The pinning ceremony may consist of a short gathering in the ship's galley, with the young Sailor's shipmates crowded around, as the commanding officer reads from a book of submarine heroics--usually a story from World War II drawn from such classic submarine books as Thunder Below, by Rear Adm. Eugene Fluckey.

"It's a huge relief--the burden on you just got cut in half, and everyone is looking at you and they've all been through the same thing, so they're smiling as you're standing there," said Speed. "They trust you now, because you're checked out to be able to save their life--in the middle of a fire they don't want to have to worry about whether a new watchstander is going to be able to help. Smoke builds up pretty quickly in a submarine."

Sonar Technician 2nd Class Scott Woods still recalls his pinning ceremony in great detail. It was his 21st birthday, he had just finished several months of hard work aboard the SSBN USS Michigan, and was on his first trip to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where the ship would embark aging crewmen who had served on the World War II submarine USS Bowfin, a veteran of nine war patrols with 16 Japanese vessels to its credit. A former chief of the boat on Bowfin had brought along his own dolphins, and a former commanding officer pinned them on Woods' chest, as the commanding officer read aloud from a book of World War II submarine exploits.

"I bought myself a new pair for everyday use," Woods said. "Those Bowfin dolphins are home, safely stowed away. They've come a long way, and I don't want anything to happen to them."

But even after pinning on their dolphins, the training and qualification process is not over for the new submariners--who must then complete division qualifications, in-rate qualifications, department qualifications, and other quals. "Having your dolphins frees up a little bit of time, but they quickly fill that in," said Speed.

"Once you get your qualifications, you're part of the boat, you're not just a guy filling up space anymore, and you start to feel comfortable in your surroundings," said Guest. "But being on a submarine is a constant learning process."

Pride and tradition run deep in the Silent Service.

"Take Her Down"
Pride Runs Deep in the Submarine Force

Machinist Mate 2nd Class Frank J. Harshman Jr. spent eight years in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps before he was old enough to graduate from high school. His JROTC experience gave him valuable insights into the merits of all branches of the U.S. armed forces. He chose to enlist in the Navy and to work his way through the rigorous training program required to qualify in submarines.

"You can't beat the crew on a submarine--there's none tighter," Harshman told Sea Power last month after Cdr. H.H. Howard III, commanding officer of the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Seawolf, had pinned on him the silver dolphins of a qualified submariner. "And there's the opportunity," Harshman continued. "It took me two years and three months to make second class. I know a 10-year yeoman who's still a second class."

Harshman glanced down at the gleaming metal pin that signified the completion of his intensive efforts to learn the ship from bow to stern, and pondered what it means. "Heritage. Commitment. Pride, definitely pride," he said. "A long, hard road to qualify--and the help of a lot of shipmates."

Howard concurred: "An individual doesn't earn his dolphins alone," he told the other members of the crew who had assembled on the pier to watch the presentation. "I want all of you to take great pride in what you have done to help Petty Officer Harshman achieve his dolphins. He had to do the lion's share of the work, but it was up to the crew to infuse that Sailor with what he needed to get through the process--to prepare him to enter the fraternity of submariners."

Harshman grew up in Glendal Heights, Ill., outside Chicago, and enlisted, under the delayed-entry program, when he was 17. "Once in a while, after I'd been up 36 or 48 hours straight, I might think, 'I really wish I'd stayed a mechanic,' but I never wished I was anywhere else," Harshman said. From the day he reported to the Seawolf on 29 August of last year, he knew he was where he wanted to be.

Harshman's "pinning" ceremony included a reading from submarine history, the account of Cdr. Howard Gilmore, commanding officer of the USS Growler in February 1943 when it was caught on the surface by the Japanese. Two men were killed in the battle that ensued, and three more, including Gilmore, were wounded. Gilmore ordered the crew to "clear the bridge" so the Growler could dive. As the last of his men reached the hatch, he realized he was too seriously wounded to make it below, and that the ship probably would be sunk if the crew waited for him. He gave his last order: "Take her down."

Gilmore was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor and sacrifice.

"The history of the submarine force is filled with stories of heroism, honor, and ingenuity," Howard said. "It's not hard to find a new inspirational story for every one of these ceremonies."