The Difference Between Submarine and Surface Crews

comparing service on navy submarines to service on surface ships.
Composite of submarine USS Scamp and cruiser USS Port Royal

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

My Navy career was rather unusual as I served on both submarines and surface ships. These were considered “different navies,” with different traditions and duty requirements. In that era, very few sailors ever made a switch between surface and subs. For the most part, the only sub sailors who typically went to the surface fleet were those kicked off subs for disciplinary issues, and who also lost their “Qualified in Submarines” status.

I qualified submarines on USS Scamp, SSN 588. I maintained my submarine qualification status when, years later, I joined the Aegis Cruiser USS Port Royal , CG 73. This dual service gave me an interesting perspective on the different communities that make up our U.S. Navy.

A Quora Question

So a while back I answered another Quora question: How different are submarine crews compared to surface vessel crews?. I decided I really need to repost my answer in this humble blog.

I think I’m pretty qualified to answer this, as my Navy career started on a nuclear fast attack submarine, and ended assigned to an Aegis Cruiser.

First, submarine crews. Small crews (100 – 130 people), closer-knit and better trained. Overall more intelligent as a person needs a higher level IQ to get into sub duty. Some issues, like uniforms, don’t get a lot of attention other than for formal inspections and stuff. Other things, like being lazy or flat out antagonistic, simply isn’t tolerated. Submarine crews are far better trained and work together, which makes them overall tighter crews. They look out for each other in port.

It goes without saying sub crews generally look down on surface navy (skimmers) crews.

Surface navy crews do not have the same tight-knit comradeship as sub crews. Ships are generally bigger with larger crews, and on the cruiser I honestly did not know everyone on board the way I did on a sub. People are more specialized, so overall not as well trained. They don’t work together as well as sub crews. They sweat uniforms and appearance even at sea when who the fuck cares. I dealt with some crew members who were flat out belligerent and antagonist and they normally got away with their crap (not from me). Because the ship was bigger (more hiding places) and bigger crews someone could be really lazy and get away with that, too.

They don’t watch out for each other in port, in fact may get into non-play fights (had to escort a kid to the emergency room once when he and a shipmate got into a bar fight. The other guy got picked up by Hawaii’s finest and went to jail).

The biggest difference is in the ““Submarine Insignia” vs “Surface Warfare Insignia.” When a person qualifies in Submarines, they are awarded their Dolphins, the submarine insignia pin. This is not just a qualification, it is a rite of passage for the person. A non-qualified person on a sub is a “non qual puke” who’s lower than whale shit and generally worthless. The moment the captain pins on their insignia they’re “qualified in submarines” and fully accepted by the crew. The person joins a lifelong community.

The surface warfare insignia does not have that same level of rite of passage. The insignia is a voluntary qualification but a person will not get advanced beyond a certain rank without it. It’s just something that needs to be done for promotion and I thought it was generally considered as such.

Also, surface sailors really dislike, even resent, submarine sailors. Seriously dislike them.

My $0.02 worth of observations.

Quora Answer

Bonus Commentary

I served on two different types of submarines; a nuclear fast attack and diesel-electric research sub. I later migrated to the surface community via sea duty on a submarine tender and then, as my final sea tour, commissioning crew of the Aegis Cruiser Port Royal. The sub tender had a mixed crew of both surface sailors and submarines sailors. So, I later considered the submarine tender assignment as a “halfway house” in migrating from subs to surface navy.

Surface Navy Bad Blood

It wasn’t until I joined the Port Royal that I learned just how much the surface navy disliked submariners. One officer advised me to “take off my Dolphins,” as people would always wonder about my loyalties. At that time I was shocked that there would be a question about “loyalties.” I mean, weren’t we all supposed to be on the same side? It turned out, that officer was right about wearing my Dolphins.

I caught a fair number of snide comments and nasty remarks on being a former sub sailor from my shipmates on Port Royal during the years I served. I will admit there were a lot of aspects about life on a surface ship and the crews that I truly disliked. I suspect that, had I not gone submarines when I joined, I would not have made the Navy a 22-year career.

Submarine Navy Attitude

One result of my tour on the sub tender was seeing how submarine crews treated non-submarine crews. It was an eye-opener for me, and gave me a non-flattering outsider viewpoint of the submarine navy.

I was stationed at Naval Base Point Loma, San Diego, California, for thirteen years. I joined the sub tender USS Dixon (AS 37) after duty on two submarines homeported there, and then as a instructor at the base training command. So, by the time I reported to Dixon a lot of people on the waterfront knew me from my prior tours. I quickly learned that my submarine background didn’t matter to the crews of the submarines we tended. I was a “tender puke,” in their eyes scamming out and avoiding real sea duty. Even people I had previously served with, who were now stationed on the subs I worked on, quickly started looking down on me.

After a few nasty run-ins with submarine crew members, I became disillusioned with the sub service in general. I couldn’t help feeling that their attitudes were overblown given the “stupid stuff” I witnessed them doing on a fairly regular basis.

Final Observation

Given this observation, I have to admit I understand why surface navy sailors resent sub sailors. However, all things considered, I preferred my submarine service over the surface navy. I’m still proud that I never took off my Dolphins when I joined the Port Royal, as that one officer advised.

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