by Patrick Meagher
TMC(SS) USN RET.
none of today's submariners know the origin or the significance of the
Diesel Boats Forever (DBF) pin. Most former Diesel boat sailors are
also ignorant of its origins, even though it is worn with pride on many
The last diesel attack boat built for
the US Navy was commissioned in October 1959 (1). At that time there
were five classes of nuke boats along with two "one off" designs
in various stages of construction and pre commissioning trials along
with USS Nautilus SSN-571, and the four Skate class boats in
operational status (2). The diesel boat force made up predominantly
of modernized fleet boats (Fleet Snorkels, Guppy 1A's, Guppy 2's, Guppy
2A's, Radar picket, Regulus missile, troop carrier, and hunter-killer
conversions), six Tang's plus Darter, Growler, Greyback, the two Salmon's
and the three "B" girls had become the source of pre-commissioning
crews for the nuke boats. There was a steady stream of 9901's passing
through the diesel boat force, spending seven months onboard learning
the boat and earning their dolphins before departing for nuke school.
A smaller number of career enlisted electricians, machinist mates, enginemen,
and electronic technicians also volunteered for the nuke program. Admiral
Hyman Rickover personally interviewed all officers applying for the
nuclear power program as well as many of the senior enlisted submariners.
Tales of Rickover's interviews consistently reported on his efforts
to intimidate and discredit the accomplishments of the officer interviewee's,
alienating many who interviewed with him. Disturbing reports from senior
enlisted veterans of the nuke boat navy in favorite submarine "watering
holes" ashore indicated Rickover's new operating philosophy was
at work in the engineering spaces. "Don't trust enlisted engineers."
Nuke trained officers consistently checked, double checked, and triple
checked the work and system lineups of the enlisted engineers, a major
change to the long standing professional relationship between enlisted
and officer submariners. In addition, "front-enders" the non-nukes,
were reporting excessive wardroom focus on the engineering plant at
the expense of the historic mission of the submarine. They were also
describing the "no-touch" rule from the reactor compartment
aft. If you were not a nuke, you couldn't touch any part of the engineering
plant-period. You could learn it in theory, identify major components,
valves and panels, but that was it. Gone was the traditional submarine
qualification program that demanded standing all watches under instruction
as well as rigging all compartments for all evolutions. Lost on most
submariners was the reason Rickover imposed the new operational Philosophy
which is best summarized by Gary E. Weir (3)
"The potential for major disaster in the nuclear propulsion program
caused him (Rickover) to elevate professional competence, discipline,
and responsibility to the rank of absolute virtues required of every
naval and private participant
..Unfortunately for a great many
people, Rickover's personal and professional manner made the lesson
difficult to learn." (pg. 168)
early 1967 total nuclear submarine crews numbered in excess of one hundred
counting blue and gold SSBN crews with sixty-four nuke boats (forty
one of which were SSBN's) in commission. The thirty-seven Sturgeon class
nuke boats would start to commission with the lead ship in March of
that year. The Diesel boat fleet in contrast numbered slightly over
one hundred in commission with most of the modernized fleet type boats
nearing the end of their useful lives. Former SSR's, SSK's, and Fleet
Snorkels would start to decommission within eighteen months to be followed
shortly by the guppy conversions.
and more Rickover trained officers were appearing on squadron and force
staffs bringing with them Rickover's operational philosophy. It was
apparent to all that the diesel boat navy were dinosaurs soon to be
extinct along with their officer community who were either unwilling
to become nukes or passed over by Rickover as unfit to become nuke boat
engineers in order to ascend to command of a nuke boat (4). Diesel boats
were still conducting most of the non-deterrent submarine operations
including "special missions." Nuke attack boats were "wowing"
many with their performance and potential along with occasional contributions
such as "a mission of great value to the government of the United
States of America." The nukes were not without their teething problems
however. It was not uncommon for a nuke boat to be unable to get underway
as scheduled due to an "engineering problem." A refueling
every three to four years also required a shipyard stay of from eighteen
months to two years again reducing the number of nuke boats available
for operations. So it was left to the diesel boats to pick up the slack.
'Dex' Armstrong (5) describes the thinking of the enlisted smokeboat
sailor during these years. "We were it
One crew. Nobody took
over our boats when we came in. When the old girl went to sea, we were
there. The same names, same faces, same officers forward. If someone
failed to maintain a system or piece of equipment, the Chief of the
Boat knew precisely what butt to put his boot into when ass-kicking
time rolled around. Those were great days
Didn't know it then,
that came later
much later. We knew nuclear boats represented progress
but we didn't think much about it
We could see the future
of submarining floating in the after nest. The big, fat, black monsters
getting all the attention. High speed, deep-diving ugliness rapidly
sending our smokeboat fleet up the river to the scrapyard. To us nuke
boats were like elephants
They were big as hell, uglier than sin
and none of us had any idea what went on inside of the damn things.
They were just there." (pg.5)
This brings us to the DBF pin. In 1969
USS Barbel SS-580, the lead ship of the last class of diesel
boats built for the US Navy was deployed to WesPac. While on a "special
mission" in early 1970 the control room gang got into one of those
nuke boat vs. diesel boat discussions.
It was pointed out during the discussion
that on a number of occasions a diesel boat would have to get underway
for a "broke-down" nuke boat again proving the superiority
of smokeboats over unreliable nuke boats. Someone suggested there ought
to be a pin for smokeboat sailors, something like the new Polaris Deterrent
Patrol Pin for "boomer" sailors, for the times you had to
take a nuke boat commitment because they were broke- down. A contest
was commissioned to design the pin. ETR3(SS) Leon Figurido's winning
design was a broadside view of a guppy boat with SS superimposed on
the North Atlantic sail. There were two bare breasted mermaids, one
on the bow and one on the stern facing in with arms extended. Completing
the design was a ribbon underneath the boat with holes for stars, and
centered on the ribbon the letters "DBF". ETR3(SS) Figurido
received appropriate recognition for his winning design along with a
prize of some sort, now long forgotten. Upon Barbel's return to Yokosuka
the design of the DBF pin was hand carried to a local manufacturer of
nautical gewgaws where a batch were cast and brought back to the ship
and sold at cost to Barbel crewmembers that began to wear them ashore.
As the DBF pin grew in popularity within the diesel boat community it
continued to be cast and sold in shops around Yokosuka eventually making
its way to Pearl Harbor, San Diego, and on to the east coast. Most "smokeboat"
sailors assumed a gold star would be placed in the ribbon for each diesel
boat served on. However, it was confirmed to the author years later
by Capt. John Renard, USN RET. Skipper of Barbel at that time, a star
was to be placed on the ribbon for each time a diesel boat you served
on had to get underway for a broke-down nuke.
The DBF pin continued to gain in popularity
among current and former smokeboat sailors who wore them with pride
as either a pin or on a belt buckle, all the while collecting the ire
of the senior nuke officer community. As the wholesale decommissioning
of the fleet type boats occurred during the early 70's scores of career
electricians and enginemen were forced to "surface" as there
was no room for them on Rickover's boats. Their designation was changed
by BUPERS from "SS" to "SQ" indicating they were
excess to submarine force manning requirements although they were still
allowed to wear their dolphins. Soon they too would be gone along with
their collective histories. In 1973 Rickover issued an edict that Midshipmen
would no longer go on summer cruises on diesel boats. Rumor had it that
too many were showing up at his interviews with "bad attitudes"
about nuke boats picked up on their summer cruise on the smokeboats.
It was reported in favorite submarine hangouts ashore that on more than
one occasion nuke boat skippers banned the wearing of DBF pins by their
crew members, typically "front enders" the non-nukes, implying
that to do so would indicate disloyalty to the nuke submarine force.
In the mid 70's the DBF pin went into the display of submarine insignia
maintained at the Pacific Submarine Museum then located at the Submarine
Base, Pearl Harbor. The caption alluded to an "unofficial"
insignia worn by a disappearing breed of submariner nostalgic for the
days of diesel boats.
In July 1975 the last guppy submarine
in US service, USS Tiru SS-416, decommissioned in Charleston
SC. A handful of the guppies sailed on in foreign service into the late
90's with two, ex-USS Cutlass SS-478, and ex-USS Tusk SS-426
continuing to serve today in the Republic of China (Taiwan) navy as
training boats. The last diesel attack boats in US service were USS
Darter SS-576, USS Barbel SS-580, USS Blueback SS-581, and USS
Bonefish SS-582. They decommissioned between 1988 and 1990. Two
Tang class boats, ex-USS Tang SS-563, and ex-USS Gudgeon SS-567,
recently decommissioned in the Turkish Navy with ex-Gudgeon slated to
be Turkey's museum submarine. The Turkish skipper of ex-Tang when asked
about the difference between the German designed and built replacement
boats for their retiring ex-US boats is reported to have said, "American
submarines are built for war, German submarines are built for export."
It's ironic that 15 years after decommissioning
of USS Blueback SS-581 at the Submarine Base in San Diego, a
Swedish Navy Type A-19 Gotland Class Air Independent Diesel Boat is
conducting weekly ops there to "familiarize" US Navy ASW forces
with the operating characteristics of advanced non-nuclear submarines.
When the Swedish crew comes ashore on Friday after a week at sea they
still look and smell like the smokeboat sailors of old. Our current
crop of submariners avoids them. The DBF pin, originally designed by
a USS Barbel SS-580 crewmember as an unofficial insignia to recognize
the diesel boats ability to fill-in on very short notice for broke-down
nuke boats, now resides with pride on the blue vests of Submarine Veterans
who qualified and served on smokeboats. Today the DBF pin is the unique
symbol of the professionalism, discipline, and camaraderie of American
smokeboat sailors who sailed on, unloved, unwashed, and underpaid as
their era was coming to a close. DBF!
1. USS Dolphin AGSS-555 was completed and commissioned
after the Barbel class were operational. Dolphin, a deep submergence
research submarine, is diesel-electric. She continues her research projects
out of San Diego.
2. USS Seawolf SSN-575 was in the yard at EB
having her liquid sodium reactor replaced with a pressurized water reactor similar
to Nautilus. Seawolf would not rejoin the fleet until late 1960.
3. Wier, Gary E., FORGED IN WAR, The Naval-Industrial
Complex and American Submarine Construction 1940-1961, Brassey's,
Herndon, VA, 1998.
4. The following is the gist of a conversation the
author had with the CO of HMAS Onslow S-60 in early 1972 during a cocktail
party onboard the boat while they were in port in Pearl Harbor:
long standing custom and tradition the RN viewed nuclear propulsion
as just another method of making steam and decided that with proper
training their engineering officers would have no problem operating
the plants. Following this line of thinking they also determined that
submarine commanders did not have to be qualified and experienced nuclear
engineers to ascend to command of a nuke boat." The RN continues
to follow this operational philosophy to this day.
5. 'Dex' Armstrong, The Take From A Trash Dumper,
THE PUMP ROOM, The Mare Island Base Newsletter, Volume VII, Issue
10, October 2005, USSVI.
6. Reported to the author in January 2004 by a USS
Pampanito SS-383 volunteer who had just returned from a trip to
he had filmed submarine operations onboard ex-USS Tang SS-563.
About the Author:
Patrick Meagher, TMC(SS) USN RET. Qualified
and served on USS Cusk SS-348, USS Andrew Jackson SSBN-619B,
and USS Barbel SS-580. He served on active duty with the
Submarine Force from 1960 through 1977. A life member of USSVI, and
associate member of USSVWWII, he wears a DBF patch on his blue vest.