Why I Am Proud To Be A Submariner

By: Robert Loys Sminkey,

Commander, United States Navy, Retired

In 1939, when I was 8 years of age and living at 5213 Beaumont Avenue in the City of Brotherly Love, my father asked me to go to an evening movie by myself. The reason for this unusual order was that he was building a Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia set by purchasing one volume each week at the Doris Theatre on Woodland Avenue in West Philadelphia at very reasonable prices, was well into obtaining all the books, but didn't want to see the movie that was playing that week. So, I went to see the movie ... and buy the volume being sold that week. I remember that the volume was "W" as big posters showing the scuttling of German pocket battleship Graf Spee in Montevideo Harbor, Uruguay, were prominently displayed in the theatre lobby. The Graf Spee "incident" was one of the significant events of the first year of World War II ... in 1939...between German and British participants.

The movie being shown that evening was "U-29"...the story of a German submarine's adventures during the First World War. The movie was graphic, vivid, and spell-binding...and...when I walked out of that theatre, I knew there was only one thing I REALLY wanted to be when I grew up - a submariner. And, so, that's what I became.

On my seventeenth birthday, I went to the recruiting station at 13th and Market Street in downtown Philadelphia, and told the petty officer there that I wanted to join the Naval Service. He asked me if my parents would sign consent papers. I told him they would...so he gave me the enlistment classification test. I scored high enough to be guaranteed any part of the Naval Service I wanted...so chose, of course, submarines. On 17 September 1948, I was sworn into the United States Naval Reserve...and assigned to the Submarine Division that drilled at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. We frequently had "weekend cruises" aboard submarines departing from, and returning to, the Navy Yard. The first one I took was aboard USS Threadfin (SS-410) on 22 February 1949. Will never forget the thrill of steering that submarine down the Delaware River to the Bay...and on into the Ocean. And the first dive (we made 20 dives and surfacings that weekend).

When we got back in, I was "hooked." I was a submariner ... for sure. And, little did Seaman Recruit Sminkey realize then, that, twenty years later, he would be Executive Officer of USS Threadfin (SS-410).

During my 31-year submarine career, I served in USS Sea Leopard (SS-483), USS Burrfish (SSR-312), USS Sennet (SS-408), USS Guavina (AOSS-362), USS Becuna (SS-319), USS Sea Robin (SS-407), USS Francis Scott Key (SSBN-657), and USS Threadfin (SS-410). All of these submarines were built and served in the Second World War except USS Francis Scott Key...which was a fleet ballistic missile submarine - nuclear powered - which first went to sea in 1966 - with me aboard.

Since all submariners in the U.S. Navy are volunteers, there is no problem with crew members having "problems" living in cramped quarters under sometimes difficult conditions. All potential submariners are screened many times, with and without their knowledge, during the eight weeks they go through the Basic Submarine Course at the Submarine School at New London, Groton, Connecticut. Any "incompatalilities" noted are evaluated...and the appropriate action taken. About one in four students don't make it through the course.

The World War Two diesel-electric submarines were of two classes ...Gato and Balao. I served 20 years in those types; four years in the "nuke"...the remaining seven years in several shore duty tours.

The diesel boats were the true submarine...like you see in the old World War Two movies. They were rugged, awful to live on...and we just loved them. And, with just 2-1/2 percent of all the personnel in the U.S. Navy during World War II manning them, they sank 55 % of all Japanese ships sunk during that conflict...a pretty impressive record.

This is why I am proud to be a submariner...and why all other members of the "Silent Service" are...too.