Dead Wake

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Having just finished Eric Larson’s Dead Wake about the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-Boat, I got interested in visiting the Submarine Museum in Groton, CT.  Naturally, I arrived when part of the museum, including the actual submarine were closed off due to a Change-of-Command ceremony.

After heading to a local diner, eloquently called The Shack and packed for lunch, I was able to come back and have the full sub experience.  No, I didn’t have a sub for lunch, although that would have been poetic.

    The tallest point of a sub

The tallest point of a sub

The film told the history of submarines in the U.S., starting in 1900, when the Navy bought a sub from Holland for $150,000 (This ignores the historic submarine written about previously in this blog).  In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt took a 3-hour trip on the second U.S. sub, leaving from his home in Oyster Bay and sailing around Long Island Sound.  He declared it “fun.”  I say, “bully!”

Over time, safety became a priority, with the shift to diesel power from gasoline with its danger of asphyxiation and engineering improvements–angle of diving, the rotating and retracting periscope, and the control room.

But life on subs was woefully hard.  Called ‘pig boats’, subs were basically ‘glorified sewer pipes’ that were cramped, dirty, and smelly.  Little water was available, so no one could bathe or brush their teeth.

One drunk sailor returning from shore leave had a skunk on a leash and apparently argued with the on-board duty officer that the potential smell was no worse than the existing, and everyone would get used to it.  I don’t know the outcome–if Pepe le Pew became a submarine pet–but I bet not.

(Overall, it probably helps to be a man.  I sure couldn’t do it.)

After Pearl Harbor, the US Navy was able to enter the game of war quickly because the submarines were spared.  Within days, unrestricted sub warfare was engaged, with US subs sinking Japanese ships.  Interesting that among the visitors at the museum were Japanese tourists.

Subs continued to play a big part in the Navy through the Cold War.  We “hounded the Soviet Navy,” one captain declared.

On board the Nautilus

On board the Nautilus

The real reason to go to the museum is to board and crawl around in the Nautilus, the nuclear power sub.  I followed a bow-tied, curly hair, bespectacled man with two children.  He explained each thing to them, in terms I could understand, so I didn’t even have to listen to the audio tour.  Apparently, he had worked on a nuclear sub!

The stairways are really, really narrow and the steps very steep.  Discovery number 1: you have to be skinny to work on the sub.

Step way up and duck at the same time

Step way up and duck at the same time




The bunk beds–8 to a closet–are teensy.  Discovery number 2: it helps to be short if you work on a sub.

The hatch opening between areas are kept small, so not only do you have to duck, but you also have to step over the the bottom of the opening to the next compartment–probably about 2 1/2 feet high.  Discovery number 3:  you have to be agile to work on a sub.

Do you qualify?  I, for one, was plenty ready to climb those steep stairs back to the deck.  Clearly, I’m not built for sub life.

The commodious officer's dining room

The commodious officer’s dining room

8 bunks, 4 on each side

8 bunks, 4 on each side

The facilities

Better accommodations

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This electric submarine resembles a whale

This electric submarine resembles a toy whale

One thought on “Dead Wake

  1. You now know more about subs than you ever wanted it, right? Was surprised at how low it was. You’re pretty tall (not as tall as some men), which only says how low the ceiling must be for them. Love the skunk story and the commadore’s “silver” serving set?!

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