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Saturday, August 05, 2006

 

The Bravest Man by William Tuohy

William Tuohy’s The Bravest Man is a great read and as good as it gets in describing the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, and life aboard a WW2 vintage submarine. I have first-hand experience of both. I was a midshipman at the Academy from the summer of 1954 until I graduated with the class of 1958 and served in USS Bream (SS-243) a “fleet boat” stationed in Pearl Harbor from 1960 until 1963, when I was transferred to new construction of a Polaris boat, USS Alexander Hamilton (SSBN 617).

My time at the Academy was 20 years after the period described during the time of Richard O’Kane, the Bravest Man of Tuohy’s book, but things had not changed much during the interim. In fact, I doubt if things had changed much since the 1920s. We still wore dress shirts with detachable collars and the Academy laundry was the only facility left in the country that still had the machines to iron them into the stiff, neck chaffing torture devices they were; almost impossible to get buttoned on to a shirt and a necktie tied without destroying their perfection.

We still wore sock garters; elastic, calf encircling devices that attached to the top of non-elastic, calf-length cotton socks to hold them up–no elastic-topped socks for us. The elastic in the garters deteriorated rapidly as a result of sweaty calves and not only wouldn’t stay up, but were notorious for coming undone while marching in formation leaving the garter dragging behind a drooping sock, resulting in the unfortunate victim of the garter getting “gigged” by an observant duty officer and a five-demerit (one-hour extra duty marching with a rifle) penalty for “being out of uniform.”

During my time, plebes (freshmen) were still subjected to harassment by upperclassmen, but it fell short of “hazing,” and was confined to enforcing strict discipline and to learning a high standard of professionalism. Mealtimes were especially hectic with the plebe sitting on a 2-inch edge of his chair, “eyes in the boat” i.e. looking straight ahead, and being barraged with questions: “What’s the main armament of an Iowa-class battleship, what’s the movie in the yard (the Academy campus), and what’s the menu for evening meal." If the answer was one you were supposed to know because it was “plebe knowledge,” and you didn’t know, the answer had to be “I”ll find out sir.” and never, never under any circumstances was “I don’t know.” acceptable–even if it was a question that you weren’t supposed to know. Failure to correctly answer a question correctly resulted in a “come around.” from the upperclassman and the dreaded “Bring your atlas.” The atlas, a broad, flat book, was not for the purposes of a geography lesson, but rather used to deliver “swats” to your behind. I still have mine after 50 years and it is still bent to the shape of my 18-year-old ass. No plebe I knew ever thought the discipline or the punishments were excessive and were in fact a source of pride that one could “take it.” If there were ever excesses in dealing with plebes, I have long since forgotten them.

Tuohy also has the New London Submarine School and the fleet boat experience down pat. Although my time in subs in the Pacific was after WW2, it was not that long afterward and we sailed in the same boats with many of the same men who sailed them during the war. My boat Bream had a permanently misshappen hull due to depth charging by the Japanese during the war, which restricted its maximum depth during dives. Other than the fact that the boats had been retrofitted with snorkels, which allowed for charging batteries while submerged at periscope depth, the boats still smelled the same, the torpedoes still occasionally misbehaved the same, the food was still the best in the navy, and the boats were still just as dangerous as ever when riding out a typhoon. I spent a watch or two topside on the surface, chained to the compass binnacle to keep from being washed overboard, and under water for as long as a minute at a time when huge waves washed over the bridge. And except for the fact (a huge except I’ll admit) that we weren’t facing danger from the Japanese, we still had some anxious times with Russian submarines and “trawlers” as well as a bit of harassment from the Chinese in the South China Sea. The Pacific ocean was still as treacherous and the same shallow water shoals were still in the same unpredictable places.

And the submariners were still the same intrepid, brave, adventurous, and sometimes mischievous men depicted so accurately by William Tuohy. I was proud to be one of them then and I am still proud to have faced the perils without ever thinking of quitting when the going was uphill.

I enjoyed William’s Tuohy’s book tremendously and I recommend it heartily. It’s real. It’s honest. And it’s accurate. My only complaint was Tuohy's grave mistake in calling midshipment "Middies." That term was especially offensive to a midshipman and I'm surprised that no one pointed it out to him. We were either "mids" or "midshipmen," and never, ever, "middies."

You can order the book directly from Amazon.com by clicking on the link below.

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