Submarines strike terror in the hearts of any adversary. A submarine in the water scares the hell out of people at sea. Countries have to invest multiple resources to counter this threat. In World War II, it took nearly eighty persons to carryout anti-submarine warfare duties for every one submariner that they encountered. This coupled with dedicated ships, special weapons, shore infrastructure and personnel to counter the submarine threat certainly takes a large part of any navy’s budgetary allocations. Even to this day, the ratio hovers around the same figure as in earlier days to neutralise a submarine. Therefore, submarine warfare is a very expensive option for any country.
Submarines are like predators, always stalking their prey silently. Imagine if you are in the jungle, walking alone, and the air is alive with the sounds of birds, scary howls of animals and other forests noises, and you get the eerie feeling that you are being followed stealthily by an unknown animal, probably a wolf. A slight rustle here or a shadow there would make you very scared as this wolf could pounce on you at any moment. It is the fear of the unknown and unseen that preys on the mind of the target.
Every man onboard knows the other deeply well, as his life depends on collective actions by all. A diamond is recognised with ease as is a rotten egg, be it officer or sailor.
Similarly, the oceans are full of all types of sounds like fish chatter, dolphin talk, singing of whales, manmade noise from oil rigs, other ships and craft in the water and coastal industry. A submarine therefore sees with what it hears in the ocean. In earlier days submarines were equated to wolf packs, wherein, a group of submarines carried out an attack collectively like a pack of wolves from all sides on a convoy of ships, but convoys have disappeared now and hence modern submarines are more of lone wolves nowadays. It is true that modern technology has made the oceans transparent electronically but the vagaries of nature will always shield the submarine, the unseen predator.
It takes a very special breed of people to work in submarines. People who are motivated to lock themselves up in a metallic cylinder for days on end doing the job they are expected to do. These people develop a special psyche and would be ready to give their lives if the need arises. The real challenge is to maintain this motivation level amongst the crew. Due to living in close proximity, the levels of bonding increase and the line between officer and sailor thins out a lot. Every man onboard knows the other deeply well, as his life depends on collective actions by all. A diamond is recognised with ease as is a rotten egg, be it officer or sailor.
My submarine was putting out to sea for a long mission on one occasion in preparation for the sea sortie. Being the Executive Officer (second in command), I was busy with the usual activities preceding a long outing. Amidst all this hyper activity, I was approached by an officer onboard stating that our ‘one and only’ steward Joseph wanted to go on leave. Man management is really a science that cannot be taught through theory alone but requires years of ‘hands on’ experience to deal with different people having different problems. Since I could not arrange a relief for Joseph due to shortage of trained personnel, because even though Joseph was just a steward, he was also a highly trained submariner, I declined his request for shore leave for being dropped from this sailing. All personnel are multi-trained to perform different roles simultaneously and therefore, I just could not spare him.
Joseph continued to ask for leave and I decided to meet him officially. I asked, “Joseph, what is so important that you have to go on leave this urgently?”
Joseph replied, “Sir, my wife is pregnant with our first child and she is due for delivery within a week or ten days. I want to be by her side when this happens sir.”
I packed him off with the assurance that I would look into this and did try my level best to get a leave relief from our common pool but was unsuccessful. So I declined his request for leave and conveyed that to him. However, I did feel a bit guilty that I was not able to help out a needy person who wanted to be with his family.
We cast off in the normal manner and set to sea. Joseph the steward became busy serving the officers remaining awake at all odd hours to ensure all of us were fed well and got our mugs of sinful coffee at regular intervals. Such was his devotion to service and high motivation of being a part of this special clandestine mission which we were undertaking that he never showed any unhappiness or disillusionment. In fact, every time I was too busy and engrossed in work onboard, he would always come up to me silently and remind me to eat my meals. Once, I asked him if he had had his meal and he had told me that he would eat only after the last man which was me would finish. Such camaraderie is rarely found in other walks of life.
The moment I saw the message, I understood who it was from and knew that the Captain would blow his top when I told him the real story
When the action is hot, sometimes a person tends to lose track of time and barely has time to rest or catch a few winks. After about ten days into our sea sortie and a particularly long day of nearly twenty-four hours of continuous action, since there was a little lull in our activity, I had gone to my cabin to rest and catch a small nap. I might have just got my forty winks when I was shaken up by the compartment in-charge saying, “Sir, Captain’s compliments”. In naval parlance this means that the Captain is summoning a person to meet him immediately. I quickly wore my sandals which we wear at sea to prevent foot diseases by keeping our toes open, and knocked on the Captain’s cabin door. The moment I heard his “enter”, I stepped into his small 8 foot by 4 foot box which shipbuilders called the Captain’s cabin. I saw that his safe was open and the cypher and code books were out and he was bending over them with deep interest stroking his bushy beard. I must mention here that secrecy of information is very strictly followed in a submarine. Even some officers and members of the crew do not know the whole picture or what is happening or what is the purpose of the mission. Messages come encrypted and coded and these have to be decoded to understand our orders. On the submarine, only the Captain and his Executive Officer (second in command) know the whole picture.
Back to the scene in the Captain’s cabin, he beckoned to me to read the message which read “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. PERISCOPE UP”. He was perplexed with this message and said, “I just don’t understand this message and how it is related to our present mission and have not been able to decode it”. The moment I saw the message, I understood who it was from and knew that the Captain would blow his top when I told him the real story.
After Joseph had been declined leave in harbour by me, I had asked a friend of mine in the submarine operations department ashore to lookout for the wife and family of Joseph ensuring that she had a smooth delivery at the naval hospital. I had also asked him that if he could convey the result of the child birth using the code words I had given him, it would mean a lot to me. This was going to be a favour to me personally and totally not a done official thing, but since numerous messages keep flying up and down when submarines are at sea, I, in my eagerness to bring cheer and keep motivational levels high decided to do this. The message “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. PERISCOPE UP” actually meant that the lady had delivered safely and that it was a baby boy.
I hesitatingly told the Captain all this and was expecting a bottling by him for breaking rules etc. etc. But then submarine Captains are not chosen just like that. Their selection is a very stringent process and they undergo something known as a ‘Perisher’ course. This means that apart from professionalism, character, behaviour and psyche are also examined. If a person does not pass this course, he perishes in service, therefore the word ‘Perisher’. The Captain absorbed this piece of news silently awaiting my further explanation. I told him that I wanted his permission to declare to the ship’s company this good news about Joseph becoming a father in order to boost morale. The ship’s crew is also called the ship’s company in naval parlance. On getting his nod, I told the chefs to bake a cake and that we would cut it at evening tea time.
At tea time, all off-watch keepers who were not doing shift duty were summoned and the announcement was made by me that Joseph was blessed with a baby boy. The expression on Joseph’s face of happiness, relief and gratitude and the loud cheer from the crew will remain etched in my memory for a lifetime. No member of the crew asked me, nor did I tell anyone as to how I got this piece of news. Such is the absolute faith of the men in their officers.
After the tea party, the Captain called me to his cabin once again and I thought to myself, “Here it comes – the bottling”. But all he did was ask me with a smile from behind his bushy beard, “Aspi, what if it had been a girl?” To which I smilingly replied, “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. OPEN HATCH”.
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