Life aboard WWII submarines was brutal

No one has ever claimed that life aboard a U.S. Navy ship was luxurious. Even on the most advanced warships on the planet life can still be cramped. Though today amenities are much improved, the sailors patrolling the oceans in World War II had a much different life than their modern counterparts.

For one thing, the submarines of World War II were much smaller. Though only about 60 feet shorter than a modern submarine, the Gato and Balao-class submarines the U.S. Navy operated in World War II had a displacement of only about one third that of modern Virginia class submarines.

In that small space, the submariners — some 60 to 80 in all — had to store themselves, their gear, and provisions for 75 days.

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Real World War II galley attire: T-shirt and apron over dungarees. This June 1945 snapshot is of George Sacco, a cook and baker in USS Cod (SS 224). (Courtesy of the USS Cod Submarine Memorial)

Each crewmember had only about one cubic foot of personal storage space aboard the sub. Each crewmember also had a bunk, scattered throughout the many compartments of the boat, including in the torpedo rooms. As many as 14 men crammed into the forward torpedo room along with 16 torpedoes.

A submarine of that size simply could not fit all of the necessary provisions for a long war patrol in the appropriate spaces. To accommodate, the crew stashed boxes of food and other things anywhere they would fit — the showers, the engine room, even on the deck until there was space inside to fit it all.

Also read: 27 incredible photos of life aboard a U.S. submarine

There was one upside though. Because of the dangerous and grueling nature of submarine duty, the Navy did its best to ensure that submariners got the best food the Navy had to offer. They also found room to install an ice cream freezer as a small luxury for the crew.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time or space to enjoy that food. Most of the time the men were lucky to get ten minutes to eat as the boat’s three “shifts” all had to pass through the tiny galley in a short amount of time.

The serving of food was often times also dictated by restrictions on the submarines movements. Submarines were under strict orders not to surface during the day when they were within 500 miles of a Japanese airfield in order to avoid aerial observation and attack. In the early days of the war in the Pacific this meant just about everywhere as the Japanese were in control of vast swaths of territory and ocean.

This meant that the submarines stayed submerged during the day and only surfaced at night. In order to compensate, many crews flipped their schedules doing their normal daily routines at night. The crews called this “going into reversa.” This allowed the crew to take advantage of the time the sub was on the surface.

This was important because once the submarine dove after running its diesel engines for hours, the boat would quickly heat up. The engine room temperature could soar to over 100 degrees before spreading throughout the sub. Combine that with the 80 men working and breathing and the air inside could quickly become foul.

The men knew the air was getting bad when they had trouble lighting their cigarettes due to the lack of oxygen (oh the irony).

To make matters worse, there was little water available for bathing and on long patrols most men only showered about every ten days or so. Laundry was out of the question. Because of these conditions submarines developed a unique smell – a combination of diesel fuel, sweat, cigarettes, hydraulic fluid, cooking, and sewage.

On older submarines, the World War I-era S-boats — often referred to as pigboats — the conditions were even worse. Without proper ventilation, the odors were even stronger. This also led to mold and mildew throughout the boat as well as rather large cockroaches that the crews could never quite seem to eradicate.

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The USS Grayback was one of the WWII submarines lost to enemy action during the war. (Photo: National Archives

If the conditions themselves weren’t bad enough, the crews then had to sail their boats into hostile waters, often alone, to attack the enemy.

Submarines often targeted shipping boats, but sometimes would find themselves tangling with enemy surface vessels. Once a sub was spotted, the enemy ships would move in for the kill with depth charges.

Of the 263 submarines that made war patrols in World War II, 41 of them were lost to enemy action while another eleven were lost to accidents or other reasons. This was nearly one out of every five submarines, making the job of submariner one of the most dangerous of the war.

A further danger the submarines faced was being the target of their own torpedoes. Due to issues with the early Mk. 14 torpedo that was used, it had a tendency to make a circular run and come back to strike the sub that fired it. At least one submarine, the USS Tang, was sunk this way.

Despite the dangers, American submarines performed admirably. In the Pacific, American crews sank almost 1,400 Japanese ships of different types, totaling more than 5.5 million tons.

They also rescued 504 downed airmen from the sea. Submarines also evacuated key individuals from danger areas, including the U.S. High Commissioner and President Quezon from the Philippines.

History: That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

On special missions, submarines landed reconnaissance parties on enemy shores, and in a few cases used their 5” deck guns to bombard enemy positions.

The bravery of the submarines was well-known in World War II. Presidential Unit Citations were awarded 36 times to submarine crews. Seven submarine skippers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions at sea.

American submariners in World War II set a tradition of duty and bravery that is carried on by American submarine crews today.

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