U.S. Submariners’ Right Stuff

Discussions of warfighting prowess invoke crucial personal and institutional traits, including deep commitment, selfless sacrifice and unflinching daring in the face of danger. They cast uncommon initiative and coolly embracing significant risk as keys to remarkable success amidst the “fog of war”.

While these characteristics have stood out in combat and other high risk environs – and we inherit a vivid legacy of examples from Submarine Force exploits – there is even more beneath the waterline.

The following article, authored by renowned psychologist and columnist Dr. Joyce Brothers, was published following the loss of USS THRESHER in 1963. In the wake of that nationally impacting tragedy, her probing exposé of the psyche of submariners was and remains a revealing set of observations.

The article speaks for itself, with remarkable insight regarding U.S. submariners’ principal strengths, as applicable today as they were in 1963. A fundamental observation is that “… there is nothing dare devilish about [submariners]. They know themselves better than the next …, [and] take every measure to make sure that safety, rather than danger, is maintained…”. In the ever hostile environment of submergence in the open sea, nothing less than that circumspect mindset is warranted, to assure maximum understanding and successful exploitation of the full operating envelope when it must be brought to bear.

Dr. Brothers expressed several of our crucial traits in masculine terms and context (our Submarine Force was male-only, as were many other elements of our society in 1963). One may readily apply gender-common terms to her observations, though. Her observations remain enduringly insightful regarding the intellect, the team-working inclination and the perseverance of all who serve in today’s Submarine Force, who in Dr. Brothers’ words are “… willing[ ] to push themselves a little bit farther and not settle for an easier kind of existence.”

The tragic loss of the submarine THRESHER and 129 men had a special kind of an impact on the nation.....a special kind of sadness, mixed with universal admiration for the men who choose this type of work.

One could not mention the THRESHER without observing, in the same breath how utterly final and alone the end is when a ship dies at the bottom of the sea....and what a remarkable specimen of man it must be who accepts such a risk.

Most of us might be moved to conclude, too, that a tragedy of this kind would have a damaging effect on the morale of the other men in the submarine service and tend to discourage future enlistment. Actually, there is no evidence that this is so.

What is it then, that lures men to careers in which they spend so much of their time in cramped quarters, under great psychological stress, with danger lurking all about them?
Togetherness is an overworked term, but in no other branch of our military service is it given such full meaning as in the “silent service”. In an undersea craft, each man is totally dependent upon the skill of every other man in the crew, not only for top performance but for actual survival. Each knows that his very life depends on the others and because this is so, there is a bond among them that both challenges and comforts them.

All of this gives the submariner a special feeling of pride, because he is indeed a member of an elite corps. The risks, then, are an inspiration rather than a deterrent.

The challenge of masculinity is another factor which attracts men to serve on submarines. It certainly is a test of a man’s prowess and power to know he can qualify for this highly selective service.

However, it should be emphasized that this desire to prove masculinity is not pathological, as it might be in certain dare-devil pursuits, such as driving a motorcycle through a flaming hoop. There is nothing daredevilish about motivations of the man who decides to dedicate his life to the submarine service. He does, indeed, take pride in demonstrating that he is quite a man, but he does not do so to practice a form of foolhardy brinkmanship, to see how close he can get to failure and still snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

On the contrary, the aim in the submarine service is to battle danger, to minimize the risk, to take every measure to make certain that safety, rather than danger, is maintained at all times.
Are the men in the submarine service braver than those in other pursuits where the possibilty of a sudden tragedy is constant? The glib answer would be to say they are. It is more accurate, from a psychological point of view, to say they are not necessarily braver, but that they are men who have a little more insight into themselves and their capabilities.
They know themselves a little better than the next man. This has to be so with men who have a healthy reason to volunteer for a risk.

They are generally a cut healthier emotionally than others of the similar age and background because of their willingness to push themselves a little bit farther and not settle for an easier kind of existence. We all have tremendous capabilities but are rarely straining at the upper level of what we can do, these men are.

This country can be proud and grateful that so many of its sound, young, eager men care enough about their own stature in life and the welfare of their country to pool their skills and match them collectively against the power of the sea.

(This is a report made by Dr. Joyce Brothers after the loss of the USS THRESHER in 1963.)