Nuclear power means virtually unlimited endurance; a submarine could stay at sea for years at a time, if power were all that mattered. But it is not. How long the crew can endure is a significant limit, as is how much food can be carried. Food for the crew is the bulkiest commodity in a submarine and becomes the limiting factor for patrol duration. Fresh food lasts about two weeks, then it is canned, dried, and frozen food for the rest of the patrol. When a submarine leaves on patrol, food fills every available corner.

Eating takes place in the crew's mess. Despite the tight galley space, good meals are the rule, with the same menu for officers and enlisted men. Extra funding for food makes submarines the best "feeders" in the Navy. But the mess deck also is virtually the only common space aboard a submarine for training and study, or where off-duty sailors can unwind by watching video tapes, playing games, or talking. Volunteer "lay leaders" may also conduct religious services on the mess deck; submarines do not carry chaplains.

Trash Disposal Unit (TDU) Breech
Disposing of trash, like many other activities that are relatively straightforward ashore, require special arrangements in a submarine. Trash is tightly compacted in a cylindrical steel mesh container. A 7-lb (3.2 kg) weight ensures that it sinks to the bottom of the sea. Since the end of the Cold War, submarines operate under stricter rules about when and where they can discharge trash overboard, and some materials, like plastics, can no longer be discharged at all. TDU operation can be relatively noisy. When a submarine is rigged for quiet running, trash can accumulate on board for days or even weeks, lest the sounds of disposal alert a potential foe.

Coffee Brewer and Juice Dispenser
Much mess deck gear is just what you might find in any institutional kitchen and dining room, as witness the coffee machine and juice dispenser from USS Trepang (SSN-674).

Sea Stories
The chief of the boat, or COB, regales some crewmates aboard USS Alexandria (SSN-757) with sea stories. The COB is a position unique to submarines. As the senior enlisted man, he is responsible to the executive officer for the day-to-day running of the boat, as well as the morale and well-being of the crew. His job entails everything from showing newcomers the ropes to acting as father confessor to his younger charges. Navy photo by JO1 Robert Benson

The cramped spaces aboard a nuclear-powered submarine make it difficult to stay in shape during lengthy patrols. In missile submarines, crew members may run laps around "Sherwood Forest," the nickname for the compartment through which the missile tubes pass. Others prefer stationary equipment such as bikes and treadmills crammed into any available space.

Pizza Night
Saturday night is traditional "Pizza Night" aboard the Los Angeles-class attack sub Pasadena (SSN 752); here the mess specialist places toppings on the crust before baking. US Navy photo by PH2 August Sigur.

Crew Mess Tables and Benches
These are two of the five mess tables and benches from the mess deck of an attack submarine, USS Trepang (SSN-674). Such a small area works reasonably well for the roughly 120 enlisted men, who eat in overlapping shifts. The noncommissioned officers, called chiefs in the Navy, use two of the five tables, which are somewhat larger than the other three. Although they all eat the same meals, the commissioned officers have their own separate eating space, called the wardroom.

Dolphin Qualification Status Board, with dolphins
After they complete formal schooling ashore, officers and enlisted men are assigned to submarine duty. To qualify as submariners, they must thoroughly learn the ship and its systems, both through the supervised performance of their jobs and by devoting much of their off-duty time to study. The status board shows how each man is progressing. A formal board of officers or senior enlisted men examines each candidate and keeps track of his status. Officers average 12 months to qualify, enlisted men 6 to 8 months. In the end, the candidate either earns his dolphins and becomes a true submariner or fails to qualify and is dismissed from the Submarine Force.

Pole Ball
Crew members of USS Seadragon (SSN-584) play the North Pole's first ball game, 25 August 1960. Courtesty Naval Historical Center


Back to: Homepage / Operating a Nuclear Submarine / Life Aboard

Copyright © 2000, The National Museum of American History