The Navy Submarine Force has seen a sea of change this year, and it hasn’t been without some rockin’ and rollin’ in the small, tightly knit, community.
For the first time in the force’s 110-year history, the smoking lamp will be extinguished. Studies have shown that, despite air purification systems, there’s too much second-hand smoke in submerged subs. For the more than 40 percent of submariners who light up, partly to relieve stress while submerged for months, drug-free smoking cessation programs are now made available. Butts go out December 31.
But that’s not the only big change coming to the submarine fleet. By this time next year, women will join that community.
“Putting women on submarines recognizes the talent and capabilities [women] bring to the table,” said Vice Admiral Ann Rondeau about the newest submariners.
Rondeau is the president of the National Defense University, a center for professional military education. Surface warfare qualified, she’s served the Navy in leadership, staff and command assignments ranging from sea and air to strategy, policy, training and shore installations.
Initially there were some waves in the small, tight-knit submarine community when the ban on women as submariners was lifted this spring. These waves have ebbed, but the initial reaction isn’t totally unexpected. Since 1900, crews have always been men.
It wasn’t until 1978 that the Navy allowed women—officers or enlisted—to serve on noncombatant vessels. In 1993, they boarded combat ships, and earlier this year 19 female graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy and college NRTOC programs – commissioned ensigns—were selected to train as submarine officers.
In December 2011–after one year of nuclear academics, complete with hands-on nuclear training, and 10 weeks at Submarine Officers Basic Training School—16 of these women officers will board four different submarines. As with men undergoing this training, some of the candidates will wash out.
These new officers will be joined by eight senior women, all surface warfare qualified.
These women aren’t the first female pioneers upon the high seas, however.
Looking back, Joy Bright Hancock, a veteran of both World War I and World War II, was one of the Navy’s first women sailors. Hancock was one of more than 11,000 ashore “yeomanettes” who supported over 530,000 fighting sailors. She was also among 84,000 WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services) who answered the Navy’s call during WWII. Two years after the war, 12 of these women were the first to formerly join the Navy – six as commissioned officers, including Hancock, and six as enlisted. From 1946 to the early 1950s, Captain Hancock directed the WAVES.
Major changes in Navy regulations started occurring in the late 1960s when the first of nine women officers—including Commander Elizabeth Barrett—who would serve in Vietnam arrived. Barrett, who arrived in Vietnam in January 1972, was the highest ranking woman naval line officer in Vietnam. By November, she had become the first female commander in a combat zone, leading the 450 enlisted men in the Naval Advisory Group, a position she held until she left Vietnam in March 1973.
In 1974, the Navy saw its first six women aviators. They were the first such female pilots in the Armed Forces. Just five years later, when now-Rear Admiral Nora Tyson received her Navy commission in 1979, there were no women on combat ships. Earlier this year she was appointed as the first woman commander of Carrier Strike Group Two, comprising an aircraft carrier, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and eight squadrons of aircraft. This year was also the first time all four Sailors of the Year were women.
The U.S. Naval Academy’s Class of 1980 was the first to include women. Janie Mines, the first African-American female graduate, was among them. A year later, the Naval Academy graduated Wendy Lawrence and Kathryn Hire who became Navy combat pilots, and later astronauts.
In 1995, Lieutenant Commander Mary Townsend-Manning was the first woman to become eligible to wear the submarine “Dolphins” pin after completing submarine engineering duty officer qualifications.
Several women have achieved the rank of vice admirals before retiring, but Admiral Patricia Tracey was the first. She earned her third star in 1996.
Officially, there were no women officially serving in military service until the 1940s.
In the 63 years after their official welcome to the Navy, women have made incredible strides. Tthe first 16 women submariners will deploy on four of the Navy’s largest submarines. They will serve aboard guided missile submarines USS Ohio and USS Georgia, and ballistic missile submarines, USS Wyoming and USS Maine.
All four subs have blue and gold alternating crews of about 150 officers and enlisted sailors. Each deploys for about 75 days at a time and remains submerged for the majority of that time, with meals being the only indication of the time of day. Although each of these submarines measures more than the length of two football fields, the total living space aboard any of them is about the size of a large three-bedroom house.
Working and living on what the crews call a “shark of steel,” will have three women sharing one of the officers’ staterooms. On the door of the single shower/head (toilet), they’ll tack an “occupied” sign when it’s in use. Aside from living conditions, they’ll have pretty much the same experiences as any other junior officer on a submarine. It’ll take up to a year to learn about every piece of equipment and its operation, and only when they pass extensive oral and written tests will they qualify for the submariner’s coveted “Dolphins” pin.
Though it may take some adjustment for the ship’s crews—and the women—Rondeau isn’t concerned about whether these first women submariners will fit into life on their assigned submarines.
“They will fit in because they will be professionals, just like the men on submarine crews,” she said. “They will not expect favors in qualifying for their Dolphins. They will expect to be rated on their abilities to perform their duties just as any other member of the crew.”
To the Navy’s newest submariners: Fair winds and following seas, keep a level bubble.
Nancy Yockey Bonar is a civilian, and a member of the Military Writers Society of America and life member of the U.S. Submarine Veterans, Inc.