Overnight Submarine Experience

Most people who know me well, understand that I have an insatiable attraction to submarines.  I am by no means an expert on the subject, but they fascinate me so much as I continue to learn more about them every day.  I like all submarines, but my favorite is the WWII diesel electric sub.

To date, I have been on 5 U.S. submarines, 1 German U-Boat, and 2 Soviet submarines.  Of the U.S. boats, the one I visit most frequently is 86.1 miles north of my house in Manitowoc-  the USS Cobia SS-245 which is now a National Historic Landmark and the main feature at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.

Distance from Milwaukee to Manitowoc, both of which have been home to the Cobia at one time or another.

The unique thing about this sub is that the museum has created a program whereby visitors are able to sleep overnight on the submarine.  I’ve had this wonderful experience twice and don’t think I’ll stop until I’ve hit some kind of record for the most nights slept on a submarine by a non-military person!  (I’m not actually working towards this goal as I’m sure museum staff has a head start on it)  Several years have passed since my first experience so I suspected it to have changed, but in a way, still knew what to expect.

Having just recovered from surgery, this was my first major outing.  I have only been back at work for 4 days, but as soon as I slid though the first compartment hatch in the Forward Torpedo room, I forgot all about taking it easy!

I left work early on Friday because I knew I would struggle to arrive in Manitowoc on time for the program to start due to rush hour traffic at the start of the weekend.

Don’t worry folks about me taking pictures while driving ! Traffic wasn’t moving as I left downtown Milwaukee.

Getting Closer !


I arrived with a few moments to spare, and waited patiently outside in line with the rest of the overnighters.

Cobia Crew Passage Door

After checking in and meeting our tour guides for the night, we (19 of us) watched a video about the sub/Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company.  Next was the forward to aft (head to toe) tour of the submarine.  The length of the sub is just over the size of an American football field.  I still remember how excited I was the first time I stepped on the deck.  (Technically that was my 2nd submarine tour because I had been on the USS Croaker (SS-246) in Buffalo, NY but my memories of that are vague.) The deck is covered in teak wood and painted black so that it blends in to the water at night to avoid being spotted by planes flying over head.

Looking towards the aft of the Cobia. The white stairs from the museum are slightly visible on the right.

Turning around, you see the conning tower

At this point in the tour, before going below deck into the submarine visitors are confronted with a plaque commemorating the one and only casualty in the 6 war patrols the Cobia embarked on during WWII in the Pacific.

Ralph Clark Huston, Jr. was killed in action, while on the surface, by Japanese machine gun fire, and subsequently buried at sea.  Click to read an excerpt from the Cobia logs about the incident.

Image of Ralph Clark Huston, Jr. on board the Cobia at sea.

There is a distinct smell when you get inside the submarine. I call it “smelling 1945,” and it clings to you long after you’ve left and gone home. My pillow, even after being put in the dryer, still smelled like 1945 for weeks after.  My purse held on to the smell for me so the next week while I was sitting at my desk at work, I could pull my purse out of the drawer and give it a secret sniff to take me back.
You have to experience it for yourself in order to know what I mean when I say it smells like 1945. First it hits you as sort of stale, like a cabin that has been closed up for the winter, mixed with a musty smell of an attic filled with newspapers and magazines that have gotten wet and dried several times over.  Finally add into the mix the lilting smell of diesel fuel and lube oil.  Add in there the remnants of 79 sweaty men working in a confined space where temperatures over 90 degrees with fully saturated humidity, smoking when ever they felt like it.   Hence submarine= pig boat.    I hate to mention things like that to people who have never been on a submarine before, because I think it might put them off to the experience.

This is an unusual view inside the conning tower. I’m at the top of the ladder before entering looking up at a mirror that is reflecting me and the floor.

I don’t mean for this post to be super packed with information about submarines and the experience of the crew because that can be saved for future posts.  I just want to highlight August 3rd -4th 2012 overnight program.  I highly encourage you to check out the virtual tour of the Cobia .  The museum website provides compartment by compartment views and information.

The tour is longer and more detailed than what is offered during regular museum hours.  So far each time, I’ve learned something new from the guides.  Usually at night, I take myself though the sub again in my mind and try to remember all the information given about each compartment or various pieces of equipment.

Once you enter the submarine in one of the torpedo rooms, you are already under water.  When you hear them say they are going to submerge to periscope depth, it means approximately 67 feet.  This is measured from the top of the periscope to the keel of the boat and this type of dive can be completed in 30 seconds during war time emergencies.

After the tour, and a brief intermission back inside the main museum, we were divided into teams to play a game on the sub.  It was so much fun, that I wanted to keep playing all night.  The guides would hand you a photograph which was taken somewhere of something on the submarine and you had to identify it.  It wasn’t as easy as some of the pictures I’ve posted here.  The pictures were zoomed in and cropped so that you really didn’t know which gauge was in the picture.  I must have run the length of the submarine half a dozen times looking for the items.   We were on a time limit and trying to be the team with the most identifiers.  Just by dumb luck the first picture I was handed, I had actually taken a picture of during the tour of a part on the sonar in the forward torpedo room.  They got much harder from there.  My second to last photo entailed locating a string of painted cables that ran into a wall.  if you stand still on the sub and look around, they are EVERYWHERE !  (wink) I found it though !!

This of course was a hard game, and I don’t mean just banging your knees on stuff as you hurry though the sub, but it was hard to remember where you’ve seen things before.  The men who actually serve on the submarines have a more difficult game to play than us.  They need to know where each and every thing on the boat is, what it’s for, how to operate and fix it, AND to be able to do it virtually blind in the dark or they wouldn’t be allowed in sub service.   Fun little games like us over nighter’s played, easily bring you back to the reality of war and how specialized of a service this was.

After the games we were broken up into smaller groups and got the chance to operate the deck gun and venture down into the pump room (below the control room), conning tower, and into the cooler and magazine (below the mess).  By now it was getting late into the evening and we were allowed to bring our over night gear onto the sub and pick out where we want to sleep.

Bunk assignments for two crew members aboard the USS Cobia circa WWII

I slept where both of these men are pictured.  My quarters that night were in the aft torpedo room, which I shared with two other men, whom were my teammates during the photo ID game.  It takes skill and acrobatics in order to get up into the bunk that is over the torpedo. The clearance between your bunk and the curve of the sub is maybe two feet.  See below

Those are my feet lying on the top bunk over the torpedo

Opposite end view on the top bunk over the torpedo

I would have been fine had I not needed to go back inside the museum one more time that night.  I then decided that it would be easier to make up my bed the next level down, adjacent to the torpedo storage rack, but still above another torpedo below.

I thought for sure that I would sleep good that night.  I had a full day at work and was tired.  Plus the running the length of the sub made me want to flop down and drift off to sleep before they were even ready to shut the lights off.  I knew from last time that our compartment had a red light on the ceiling that stayed on so being down a level would help to not have the red light shinning in my face.  The aft torpedo room was also the coolest place on the sub, temperature speaking.  The Cobia NOW has air conditioning on it, but in places like the crews quarters or even the control room, you couldn’t feel it.  In the aft torpedo room, there was a strong breeze from the air blower.   It also made a lot of noise.  I didn’t think about that.  Then there was the snoring I had to contend with.  I ended up putting my rolled up blanket over my face to block out the red light, and noise.  The smell intensified as well, and I sort of had trouble breathing.  Needless to say I didn’t sleep well.

When the air conditioning would turn off (I assumed it was on automatic and that we hadn’t lost power), you could hear the waves sloshing up against the hull, and hear water trickling.  You could also hear the traffic and police sirens outside.  Earlier in the morning hours, I could hear the sea gulls crying and even planes flying over.   I tried to be considerate and not make too much noise as to wake the other guys by shifting around too much in my bunk because it would squeak and rattle terribly.  I don’t think it was secured very well and was trying to slide back under the torpedo rack.  Of course with how those guys were sawing wood they probably didn’t hear me at all.  But lying there motionless like a corpse, I thought to how important it was for the real submariner to keep quiet during an attack so as to not give their position away.

As much as I wanted the air conditioning on, I liked it more when it was silent.  I think next year, I need to try another location even though it would mean being by more people in the general crew area.

My bunk would be below the surface and just beyond where the words Cobia is painted

In the morning, after 12 hours on the submarine, it’s time to pack up, clean up, and go home.  I always have so much fun, despite being dead tired.  They have 3 dates a year where families can sleep over night on the submarine in July and August.  I would love to try it when it was cold, snowy and icy.

If you have any questions about things I didn’t mention, please feel free to leave any questions in the comment section below because, like I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t trying to make a comprehensive post covering everything on and about the submarine, but I love discussing submarines.

To round out the post, here’s a quick list of my favorite sub themed movies.  Disclaimer, of course the fictionalization of sub service never quite gives you the true experience on board, I’m not listing them here with the intention of inferring that these movies are true and accurate.  But they sure are fun to watch !!!

(No particular order)

Run Silent, Run Deep – starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster

The Hunt For Red October – {{{awesome}}} starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin with the use of the USS Blueback sub located in Portland Oregon

U-571 – starring Matthew McConaughey- A movie about deception and capture

The Silver Fleet  A movie from Holland about Dutch Hero Piet Hein and sabotage

Down Periscope – starring Kelsey Grammer in a comedic role of sub captain to a crew of misfit sailors  filmed with the use of the USS Pampanito located in San Francisco

Das Boot – classic German U boat movie

Good Documentaries to watch

Attack and Capture- The story of the U-Boat 505  (located in Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industy)

Lost and Found: The Legacy of the USS Lagarto – about a Manitowoc sub lost at sea