Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
the smoke boat service, there was a marked absence of formal ceremony.
It was called the 'dungaree navy' and it didn't care a whole helluva lot
for 'peacock strutting' or doing the dance of the fifty doo-dahs for
visiting surface royalty and transient brass. We took care of our own…
Took care of business and let the other elements of the forces afloat do
whatever it was they did.
We had no ritualized 'uniform of the day'… Our uniform of the day was
simply whatever you had in your bunk or side locker that didn't smell
like a saddle blanket off a Billy goat. We wore black high top
boondocks known on Requin as 'Mammy Yokums', after the weird boots worn
by the old weather-beaten granny in the Snuffy Smith hillbilly comics.
lads from the west wore cowboy boots called 'shitkickers'. I wore Mammy
Yokums… Alcatraz loafers. They were fairly watertight, damn near
indestructible and created a fashion statement that drove the Orion
master at arms nuts. If you wanted instant entertainment, just carry a
message up to some clown in the Orion wardroom decked out in a faded
dungaree shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a non-regulation wool ball
cap with Dolphins pinned in front, red lead-spattered Mammy Yokums, and
acid-eaten dungaree pants.
"Hold up son, where in the hell do you think you're going?"
"Officer's country, Chief…"
"Jeezus Christ! You look like you crawled out of the ragbag… You
ever hear of uniform of the day?"
"Heard about it… Not sure I know what'n the hell it is."
"Well horsefly, it ain't what you're decked out in… Take my
"Well, it passes for the daily uniform in the operating, go-to-sea
"Son, there's no gahdam way you're entering our wardroom dressed
for the ragpicker's ball."
"Okay with me… Let me give you this message from my skipper and
I'll tell our Old Man that the tender fashion police nabbed me and will
handle our boat business… Here, this goes to Captain Rice, SUBRON
"Hell, I don't want that… Listen horsefly, I'm going to pretend I
never saw you… You don't know me… I don't know you… Just haul your
raggedy ass out of my sight… Son, if anyone asks you what navy you're
in, do me a favor and tell them you're a Mexican Sea Scout."
In the pre-nuke days, it was easy to identify a boat sailor… He always
had little light yellow dots in the crown of his white hat, readily
identified as hydraulic oil, which previously belonged to some overhead
operating vent gear. You could wash the damn thing with Clorox and never
get it all out.
On rare occasions, we would form up topside aft of the conning tower
fairwater in dress canvas… Class 'A' uniform… Shined shoes… Reg
neckerchief and clean white hats. We looked sharp… Any sailor, who
tells you he didn't feel thirty feet high and bulletproof standing
topside where God and all the Orion brown-baggers could see your
Dolphins and how proud he felt, must be one cold-hearted sonuvabitch.
I remember a visit by vice admiral Elton W. Grenfell, COMSUBLANT… The
Big Sea Daddy of the East Coast Underwater Navy. Admiral Grenfell was
the gent camped out on the apex of the submarine big cheese pyramid in
our force. He was a great sailor who took care of his bluejackets.
I was a sideboy when he arrived… Stokes, our skivvy-waver (signalman)
piped him aboard.
After the admiral was aboard and the customary wardroom greetings had
been exchanged and handshakes all around, they dismissed the side boys
and we took our place in the two rows of ranks assembled aft. We were
sharp and silent…
All you could hear was the gentle popping of the ensign aft, the nylon
Squadron Six pennant (burgee) and the Division 62 pennant. Funny, I can
always recall the sound of that gentle popping nylon… Day… Night
topside watch… Always that light snapping in the breeze… It's the
'common denominator' in my memory. It was a big part of the life I
loved… Cups of coffee shared with my forever mates and nylon popping.
Admiral Grenfell passed down our ranks…
"What's your name, son?"
"Where are you from?"
"Quincy, Illinois, sir."
"Six hundred miles outside your 72 radius."
The admiral smiled… Anyone who ever met Stuke immediately liked him…
You couldn't help it.
"What is Quincy known for, son?"
"The finest thing the sub force ever got, sir."
"And what would that be?"
I stood there waiting for Grenfell to wring his neck… My running mate
was a total idiot.
"Well seaman, the next time you get to Quincy, tell 'em to send us
He moved on.
"What's your name, son?"
"Where are you from?"
"Arlington, Virginia, sir."
"Navy feeding you okay?"
"Three weeks out it 's still bug juice and mystery meat, sir."
Dress canvas topside in the company of fine men and seagulls crapping on
fresh pressed blues… It never got any better than that.