Act as Camel
Act as Camel
We first saw the handwriting on the wall when our skipper received a message that included the phrase "ODAX to act as camel for" a nuclear-powered submarine. USS Odax (SS-484) was the name of our boat, as we referred to it, our diesel-powered submarine with an honored history of service that extended back to 1944. Our boat had established a significant first early in its career, when it became the first GUPPY.
Guppy was an acronym for Greater Underwater Propulsion Power. The "Y" never stood for anything. Such was the state of the art in acronyms in the late 1940s, I guess.
In any case, the Guppy conversion was an experiment in streamlining the older fleet submarines and in modifying the battery installations, for greater underwater power and speed. This experimental conversion of our boat worked so well that all of the hundreds of such boats that were still in service during the 1960s had received the Guppy conversion within a few years.
But now it was 1970, twenty years or more after our boat had represented the state of the art in delivering death and destruction from beneath the sea. This was a new era. The quiet skill and competence of our officers and crew no longer mattered much. Our honored history of always being in good repair, of always being ready to go to sea to fulfill our own commitments or to fill in for the less reliable sister ships in the squadron, was just quaint, and not valuable. Our boat was now old-fashioned, out of style, and it was OK to treat us with such contempt as to ask us to act as a camel.
But the real mistake was that the message was carried on the Atlantic Fleet Submarine Broadcast. Every submarine, whether nuclear or diesel powered, saw the message.
A camel is a narrow, sturdy raft that is placed between a ship and a pier to minimize damage to the ship's hull from rubbing against the pier. Camels are especially important to submarines, since the shape of a submarine hull leaves it quite vulnerable to damage by sharp features on the pilings that support the pier. Without a camel, a submarine can slide up under the top deck of the pier and rub against all manner of underwater hazards on the pilings. So here we were, a ship of the line, with honored assignments still in our future and commendations to be received that were as yet unimagined. And yet headquarters was equating our once-glorious name and capabilities with those of a camel, an inert lump of wood.
It was dangerous to be around our skipper for the next few days after the "camel" incident. The very next time that we got to port he went to see the Commodore, and many Admirals and their staffs became involved in smoothing over the hurt feelings that had spread from the Odax to the hundreds of other conventional submarines still in both fleets. And this particular incident was finally forgotten by most people. But the basic problem would only get worse as "progress" continued.
There were hundreds of such slights, intentional or otherwise, over the next few years. And one time in particular the contempt that the headquarters staff felt toward us smelly Diesel submarines became expensive and dangerous, as well as profoundly stupid.
Yes, yes, everyone seems to think that USS Irex was the first Guppy, but that's not the way it was. Irex was the first Fleet Snorkel. Odax was the first Guppy. I was just an Ensign at the Submarine Birthday Ball in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1970, but I had an interesting chat with a Captain. He had served on Odax when it was first converted. He described the sea trials the first time Odax put its propulsion batteries in series while submerged. He said that the stern planes couldn't function adequately at the higher speed, and that's why the hydraulic pressure for the stern planes had to be increased from 600 psi to 900 psi. They lost control in the vertical plane three times and had to perform emergency surface maneuvers.