What Is A Pigboat Anyway?
PIGBOATS. I am sure that the term probably has many people wondering with a grin
on their faces why we are discussing floating swine. In reality, it is a term,
both complimentary and derogatory, that describes a group of warships from the
first decades of the 20th Century that were the genesis of the awesomely powerful
and sophisticated nuclear submarines of today's United States Navy
But, were did the term come from and what did it mean to be a Pigboat sailor?
Our earliest subs were built without periscopes. In order to see were they were
going, they had to frequently pop to the surface so that the captain could see
through small deadlight windows built into the access trunk that stuck up above
the deck. After a brief check of his bearings, the captain would take the sub
back down and continue on their way. Legend has it that amused surface ship sailors
(who thought of the early subs as nothing more than toys) thought this repeated
surfacing and diving looked very much like the action of a swimming porpoise.
Old time sailors referred to porpoises as "Sea-pigs".
The early subs were tiny when compared to their cruiser and battleship brethren.
Because of their limited range, for long voyages they were hauled out of the water
and carried on the deck of larger ships. Any small craft that could be carried on a
larger ship was called a "boat". The combination of these terms led them to be called "Pigboats".
It became an even more appropriate title when the conditions inside the boats
were considered. There was little or no fresh water and the sanitary facilities
consisted of an open bucket. Ventilation was poor at best and the air was permeated
with a combination of gasoline or diesel fumes, ozone, smoke from frequent
electrical shorts, human sweat and sea spray. Combine that with stifling heat
and humidity and you can imagine what our first submariners must have looked
and smelled like when they returned from a run at sea. Until the late 1920's,
there was also no viable method for escaping from a disabled sub. If the boat
suffered even a minor accident, the usual outcome was death for the entire crew.
How did these men cope with these arduous conditions? Frequent and intense swearing
(in and of itself an unheralded stress reliever), biting sarcasm, bawdy humor, the
spinning of barely believable and outlandishly humorous sea stories, and locker
room style practical jokes all served as a relief valve venting the frustrations
and stresses they faced. When they returned from sea, the Pigboat sailors lived
life as if there was no tomorrow, their drinking and partying escapades becoming
the stuff of legends. It was a reaction to being locked up in a steel tube deep
under the sea: you were restless and eager to move around in the open air again
and exhilarated that you had made it back alive.
It is common that when a group of diverse people are thrown together under
perilous and difficult conditions a bond of sorts will develop between them; a
unique type of fraternity born out of a shared dangerous experience, stronger
than any brotherhood. Due to the boats' small size and unique nature of operation
every man aboard also had to know the job of the all the others. The rigorous and
vital process of learning every system, every valve, lever, and gauge became a
test of not only your mental acuity, but of your character as well. If you passed
the test, you were awarded the highly coveted "Dolphins" insignia and you became
a real submariner. The friendship that developed between you and your shipmates
was like no other in the Navy. Your buddy may have been rude, crude, and socially
unacceptable and you wouldn't trust him near your sister, but by god you would go
to the end of the earth for him. You were immensely proud of your boat and your
shipmates and you literally wore this on your sleeve in the form of your embroidered Dolphins.
What else made men want to be Pigboat sailors? Contrary to popular belief,
our first submarines were by no means primitive. When taken in the context of
the times, they were vessels of incredible ingenuity and sophistication which
pushed the existing technological envelope to its' limits. It is an apt comparison
to say that they were the manned spacecraft of the early 20th Century Industrial
Revolution; just as advanced a concept and because of that, just as dangerous to
operate. Like the spacecraft of Project Mercury they represented a challenge: did
you have the manly, devil-may-care machismo that it took to push the envelope and make it look easy?
Forward thinkers in the early 1900's also understood that submarines represented
the cusp of a revolution in naval warfare. They had a virtually undetectable warship
that fired a deadly weapon that there was little defense against. This made the
battleship sailors who dominated the navy at that time very nervous.
It took a while, but eventually the surface sailors began to see submariners
differently. Amongst themselves, they may have looked down their noses at their
smelly and socially obnoxious brethren, but deep inside they respected their
technical know-how and their fearlessness in the face of danger. When they said,
"Look, here comes a Pigboat!" their voices dripped disdain…but if you listened
close enough you would pick up the hidden admiration and respect.
David L. Johnston
© September 2007