Submarine Decommissioning Syndrome

Contending with a new reality

Writer’s Note: What you are about to read comes from the result of attempting to flush out my own experience and is not meant to be representative of every submarine sailor. I believe I’ve stumbled upon something worthwhile to share in struggling with my own desires to save something that has been important in my life. So these are my struggles and if they happen to align with others who served on submarines, then that’s value added. 

What is “You”?

You are surrounded by the darkness of water, separated by only a thin but tough barrier that keeps you alive in your own environment. The outside forces are kept at bay, forces that would draw out your life in mere moments if given a major breech. Inside, you are provided with everything you need to survive, to live your life, to fulfill your journey – to fulfill your mission – not to be seen by the world, to remain hidden until it’s time.


USS Bremerton pulls into Subic Bay, Philippines in 2013. Source: US Navy photograph

USS Bremerton (SSN698), her crew’s home away from home, pulls into Subic Bay, Philippines in 2013. Source: US Navy.


Submariners are unusually attached to the boats they serve on. Navy Submarines are both a lethal weapon ready for war and a home for crews of over one hundred in an environment that is not unlike a huge space ship. Sentimentally, or in some bizarre maritime psychology, there is a relationship to being inside the womb of a mother on those long underwater periods.

Crews are detached from the normal human environment, without even the stars to keep the submariner in touch with his native environment often for weeks or months on end. They are surrounded only by the deep dark ocean. Disaster can strike at any moment and send the crew and their submarine down to the deep; hence, continuous vigilance, a sense of ownership and superior leadership are paramount.

It is no wonder that this sophisticated undersea fighting machine manages to create a lasting sense of affection and goodwill towards her from her crew who are, in turn, responsible for her health and fulfilling of her purpose in this symbiotic relationship.

Submariners and their Submarine are Unique

I would venture to say that there is no other military unit that can develop such a fondness for their vessel or machine than that of a submarine crew for their submarine. There may be tighter units, but none that are like generations of submarine crews who have an attachment towards their beloved boat. With the average life span of a submarine being about 30 years, that results in a lot of crew members.

Like many sailors, in the old tradition, we refer to our vessel as “she” or “her.” Moreover, we use “my” and “our” as though we imply some squatters’ right of ownership. A submarine unlike any other vehicle, vessel or aircraft, is 100% responsible to sustain the living environment of her crew over a long period of time while in her designed environment.

At least in an aircraft or a surface ship, their crews can see the light of day and the moon at night, feel the wind at their faces and pull in or touch down in a wide variety of ports of call. This is not the case for the crew of a submarine.

Our days are artificial and the ports of call are limited. Life attached to a submarine is much more oriented to the precise purposes for which she was designed and that is centered around the necessity to keep herself hidden and unknown.


The Strain of Decommissioning Begins

It is no surprise then that the mind of a submariner, even one that has long left the service for many years like I have, can be strained when the time comes for the decommissioning of his boat. The fact is, the only nuclear submarine that has been preserved as a waterborne monument is the USS Nautilus (SSN571), the very first one which amazed the world in the 1950’s with her ability to circumnavigate the world without refueling and other amazing record firsts.

Now, with nuclear propulsion designed into every US Navy submarine, it is necessary for the “gray ladies” to immediately go through a deconstruction and recycling process. The image and process of her cold and systematic destruction can be unsettling. It is for me.  I want to let you know if you are a submariner and feel or have ever dealt with these kinds of feelings – you are not crazy.

Submarine Decommissioning Syndrome

This mental struggle goes on for days or it could go one for longer and it could revive itself with any number of triggers.

Processing the reality appears more easily accepted by my shipmates who have been in the service for more years. I speculate it is because they have had more opportunities to process their feelings or being in the presence of other sailors who went through the process already. Of those who served on more than one submarine, they have had a chance to process these feelings many times over and also have been able to think things through within a community of those who already understand the realities.

My feelings this last week were not unlike a mild form of manic-depression and anxiety. It was challenging to focus on my work. It was challenging and strange.

One moment you have a vision and feel inspired to accomplish something great to save the boat, and not long after, feel the sense of apathy of being powerless to do anything knowing that I am just one person like a grain of sand on a beach, and I don’t own the beach. What was “mine” and “ours” and the home of so many important experiences, then becomes something we need to release back to the universe from which it came.

When I look at a list of US Navy submarines destined for decommissioning and have undergone their decommissioning, their names changed from USS [Submarine Name]  to EX-[Submarine Name], I realize my shipmates and I are not alone in this ongoing cycle of life and death.


Key Obstacles to a Waterborne Monument

I don’t want to say it is impossible to save a modern nuclear submarine for a waterborne memorial, yet the obstacles are formidable under normal circumstances. Here is a  summary of three:

1) Nuclear powered vessels are excluded from the Navy’s Ship Donation Program, this is supported by Navy instructions. Furthermore, the guidelines for nuclear power plant oversight are supported by an Executive Order and are in effect for the life of the vessel, something that is a non-issue for conventionally powered vessels.

2) Historical Significance – with USS Nautilus (SSN571) as a benchmark and the significant operations performed by most if not all submarines, where do you begin to compare and differentiate?

3) Much higher costs to preserve a modern submarine like a 688 when compared to maintaining WWII era boats which are smaller and less sophisticated. Costs of maintaing WWII boats are still costly.


There’s a bizarre reversal of the relationship of time and naturally occurring events

An oddity that twists reality and the way we think about life of the people and “creatures” we care about, is in virtually all cases, we do not know the time and place life will end, and even when people are ill, you hope that they will make a recovery and live. However, when it comes to the decommissioning of a submarine, there is a schedule and the ending is well known in advance. My mind had to begin processing that reality.

What About the Captain(s)?

Here I am just musing big time. I was only an enlisted man, and a member of one of the largest divisions of the boat. I can’t imagine what the Captain of a boat being decommissioned must feel and I won’t venture to guess, as I haven’t yet had the opportunity to hoist a few beers before posing the question to a skipper of a boat being decommissioned. But I can only imagine, and this is just one mild example, the Captain is referred to as the same name as The Boat when he, the Commanding Officer, is either arriving or departing, there’s most likely something of even a greater attachment.

In Closing

After a week running around in a fire control state, what many of my shipmates have said rings true and what holds water the best: It’s the crews that make the submarine special.

I know that people are capable of achieving what they can envision. That does not mean the path is an easy one nor does it mean every fight that comes to mind requires your commitment and giving up your life for. You can assess, you can choose. You have to choose your fights after making peace with your heart that what you believe is possible. Such is the beauty of the freedom we have living in this great country and I hope the spirit of that heritage remains alive and, by the way, that’s one of the reasons why most of us served in the military in the first place.

What “Save The Bremerton” (#SaveThe698) means to me now is not narrowly limited to the dream of preserving the boat waterborne, particularly having discovered the monumental obstacles to achieving that goal. In the end, aside from the efforts to preserve the boat or parts of the boat, it’s taking the opportunity to help each other get through life and if that means taking the opportunity to get together, to help an old shipmate or just to remember about old times, and honor those who have gone before us, with those it matters to the most…

If that’s what it means then that’s what it means.


A word of thanks

Thanks to all my shipmates who helped me get through last week, including those I, in a state of passionate oversight, shanghai-ed into this crisis. In relation to saving the boat waterborne, I received some encouragement, given I felt the true calling, while others who were just as well meaning, were careful to present the facts and hurdles as defined by the Navy and precedent. I sincerely appreciate all of your views.


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Challen Yee

Challen Yee

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One Reply to “Submarine Decommissioning Syndrome”

  1. Greetings Challen,

    Surviving through, as you call it, Submarine Decommissioning Syndrome (SDS) is probably more challenge for some than others. I think there’s probably a correlation between the number of boats one served on the degree to which (SDS) has on them. For those who made the navy a career, the Bremerton is probably one of many boats they were on. For others, like myself, she’s the only boat we were on.
    As one of the early crew members of the Bremerton, I remember the day we cast off lines from her birth place in Groton Connecticut, to circle navigating the globe, bring her to what would become her home port for the next 30 plus years.
    There’s so much about my time of the boat I remember …the good times, the bad times, and the even the scary times. I look back at those years – everything, and everyone is frozen in time. When I think of the Bremerton, all I see the navy’s newest submarine, and everyone still the age they were when I left them in December of 84.
    Over the years the Bremerton has become much more to me than just a submarine I served aboard. She represents a coming of age. She embodies one of the major theme of my life, a starting point, a collection of realities no one can ever take from me! In many ways she’s the culmination of a journey many of us took on our way to becoming men.
    I remember standing topside, in my dress whites, the very last time I walked across her hull. I remember wondering what was to come of her and how long she would serve. I remember stopping to touch the side of her sail, wishing, in some way I could say goodbye and to thank her for all she’d given me. I remember thinking, how silly it was, but I wanted to place some kind blessing upon her and all those who would come after me. I remember wandering at that time, if was alone or if anyone else ever felt that upon leaving. It was a strange flood of emotions – wanting to leave, but in some way wanted to hold on to that which had become part of my own identity.
    Over the years when I’m alone in my own mind, I sometime find myself thinking back to those years. It has always brought me great comfort knowing that at that very moment, someone, someplace was still standing watch, carrying on the work I had left. That someone was still there keeping the light on walking her decks while I slept. When I think about her final demise I think of a day when she’ll enter a dry-dock to be cut up to be no more. She’ll slip into history as just another ship. And while that is sad, it’s also rewarding that she will have made it so far. If you think about it, she’ll be among a few to have maintained a state of controlled bouncy for almost 40 years, and for that I’m very proud to have played even a small part in.
    My hope is that for those of us who still care we can be there in the end. To not just say goodbye, but to retouch an anthem of our own lives. It would be nice to retouch her to say well done good and faithful servant of the deep!
    Joel Walton MM2/SS