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Sharing The Submariner Experience
by Joseph J. Buff, [IMAGE]2007

ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED AT MILITARY.COM, March 26, 2007

Photo Courtesy: Walter P. Noonan
[IMAGE] This essay was adapted by the author from his Foreword to Subsim.comís 2007 Submarine Almanac, edited by Neal Stevens.

In every generation since the historic transition from sail to steam and from wooden hulls to steel, no type of ship or sailor has played a more vital, versatile role in peace and war than the naval submarine and her crew. From harbor defense to fleet escort, from marauder of enemy seaborne logistics to reliable sinker of surface combatants dozens of times their own size, subs and submariners have been there, done that to the max. As platforms for relentless strategic deterrence, for amazing intelligence-gathering and undersea salvage capabilities, for countless covert insertions/extractions of SEALs and other commando teams whose stories must go forever untold, subs have a proven track record for delivering the goods, and their present-day and future utility remain indispensible.

Whether their vessels were (or are) powered by human muscle, or gasoline engines or diesel and batteries, or by nuclear reactors, or by several different kinds of air-independent technologies, submariners have always been a breed apart. For raw courage and grit, for long separations from family, for extremely rough living conditions in crowded and claustrophobic spaces deep under the waves, no other branch of military service compares. Weeks of repetitive, uneventful watchstanding can change without warning, in a moment, into a frenzy of well-coordinated thought and action where the lives of every soul aboard, and sometimes the fate of humanity, are instantly at stake. For instance, if an emergency action message comes through to a boomer, if a fast-attack suddenly detects a hostile contact approaching, if Tomahawk launch mission orders arrive unexpectedly on a guided-missile sub -- a submariner must be everĖvigilant for conflict. Even in peacetime any one of a myriad potentially deadly mechanical casualties might occur. A sub is always at war with its natural elements: the wild sea and the oceanís relentless crushing pressure at depth. But the career of a submariner is not without its unique rewards. The degree of bonding and camaraderie that results from so many perpetual challenges is hard for laymen to comprehend. The heavy burdens of command can be especially elusive.

Human nature being what it is, many people do want to understand and participate vicariously in the exciting adventures that can only be experienced by those who go down into the sea in ships designed to dive instead of sink. The best way of learning and sharing, of course, is to clamber through the hatch and go for a ride. But with America at war against terror on a global scale, and this nationís Submarine Force stretched thin by an extremely demanding operational tempo, such first-hand opportunities are scarce. Whatís a submarine enthusiast to do?

Visiting a museum ship, such as USS CAVALLA in Galveston, U-505 in Chicago, the Juliette-class Soviet SSG in Providence, or USS NAUTILUS in Groton, is certainly a good way to start. And chatting with Submarine Veterans is always informative and fun; these great guys will have sea stories that leave you chuckling uncontrollably or literally make your hair stand on end. For decades, memoirs, novels, and movies have been excellent methods -- part education, part entertainment -- for savoring the submariner experience. Yet as realistic and scary as these depictions can be, their plots are predetermined. Given the form of the medium used, whether an old war movie you might have watched on black-and-white TV as a kid, or an e-book you plan to read at the beach with a PDA on your next vacation, your involvement is limited to being somewhat passive, once removed. Alas, with such pre-scripted content, no matter how well it might keep you on the edge of your seat with heart pounding, you just arenít completely there. Itís not you making those impossible tradeoffs, those split-second decisions against wily, ruthless enemy sub and destroyer captains or antisubmarine aircrews all hell-bent on your demise. Itís not you peering up through the periscope. Itís not you ferociously giving the order to fire.

Then along came personal computers and installable (not arcade) videogames. The two grew up together, symbiotically, more capable PCs and laptops allowing more complex and textured first-person and multiplayer games. Actual real-time submarine simulations became first an achievable dream, next an affordable passtime, and eventually a entire industry as games about various sorts of subs and missions of different eras competed and multiplied. Aided by the worldwide connectivity of the Internet, players wanting to meet or chat with other players, trade tactical tips and technical help, exchange product reviews and software patches, even plan group get-togethers on one continent or another, were able to conveniently do so. Most of all, at long last, whatever particular game you were playing, you were there.

The games have kept getting better and better during the memorable past few years. The experiences available are just starting to rival those possible in some computer-controlled team simulators at the New London Naval Submarine Baseís fabled SUBSCHOL. About the only things missing now in the best commercially available gaming software are the various pungent odors inside a submerged sub of various eras, the prolonged too-little sleep in a coffin sized ďrack,Ē and the feel of freezing, windblown salt spray in your face up on the bridge in foul weather. Players will have to supply those sensations themselves ó and if youíre inventive enough, there are ways that you can!

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Joe Buff, President
Dutchess County, New York

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