To their classmates at Annapolis the submariners were known as "nukie-poos." They were men of precision and enormous intellect who saw the future of the Navy in nuclear power and resolved to be part of it.
Nearly everyone in the class of 1965 with energy and brains wanted to become a nukie-poo. For while the Marine Corps had its aura of machismo and Navy Air its devil-may-care romance, it was the nuclear Navy -- and particularly nuclear submarines -- that seemed to combine the technoligical mystique and leadership opportunities that a modern officer craved.
A midshipman had to be personally approved by a most famous and imtimidating figure in blue -- Adm. Hyman G. Rickover -- to become part of this rarefield world. When that formidable test was passed, the nukie-poos entered the most elite, prestigious and fastest growing branch of the service with zest and ambition, striving for almightly gold dolphins beneath the waves as hard as pilots worked for wings in the sky.
But the nukie-poos soon discovered that the demands of the nuclear Navy left little room for inspiration imagination or creativity. While their classmates in Vietnam were starting to question some basic precepts about the military and war, the nukie-poos suffered disillusionment of another sort. And so they began to drop out.
The nukie-poos in fact became more disenchanted with the regular Navy than any of their peers. Of the top 50 members of the class of 1965, 22 joined the nuclear service.Today, 16 years later, only seven remain on active duty. "The glamor and excitement," said John Charles Allen, one of those who quit, "wore off kind of quick."
In the beginning, of course, it was much different. The nukie-poos' story opens with Rickover, a man of legend and legendary demands, and a place called Main Navy-Munitions.
Main Navy was a dreary collection of mortar and wood buildings erected on the Washington Mall in 1917. The complex housed parts of the military bureaucracy and was supposed to last only until the end of World War I, but in 1965 it was still standing, doing its architectural duty between the Reflecting Pool and Constitution Avenue NW.
This was where Rickover worked. He was a silver-haired man with a nose like a bird's beak, a bent for exactitude, and a military will as strong and durable as Main Navy.
If you wanted to become a submariner in the United States nuclear Navy you had to see him first. So one by one, early in 1965, the top first-classmen of the academy traveled from Annapolis to Main Navy for a series of rigorous interviews that culminated in one with him.
They knew not to take Rickover lightly, for in many ways he held the key to their future as submariners. He was a veritable titan, the father of the world's first nuclear submarine, a mastermind who had painstakingly nurtured and directed -- from scratch -- the expansion of the American nuclear fleet that included 53 submarines and surface ships in 1965.
He was, in short, a living Navy legend, the subject of many tall and terrifying tales, and the midshipmen viewed him with boyish awe and trepidation as they prepared for their interviews."During our first-class year the admiral gave a lecture at the academy," said Judd Halenza, who entered Navy Air. "Usually, speakers tell a few jokes or give a light introduction before they talk, even the marines. Not Rickover. That guy just jumped right in and with this tirade about how our grades weren't high enough and how we had to work our tails off."
So they knew the admiral could be very humorless.
Then the stories -- some of them no doubt apocryphal -- filtered out about the infamous and classic interviews of the past. There was the poor guy who went in to see Rickover at Main Navy-Munitions and was told point-blank to choose, right then and there, between a career in the nuclear service and a family life with his soon-to-be wife. That guy thought a moment, then picked up the phone, called his fiance, and told her the wedding was off. As soon as he got off the phone the admiral told him to he didn't want him in the submarine service because he was too easily pushed around.
So they knew the admiral liked to test their loyalty, too.
Then, the class of 1965's own interviews began at Main Navy-Munitions, and fresh tales of the unusual were spun. Patrick Donnelly, a first-classman who played halfback on the Navy teams Roger Staubach quarterbacked, was promptly dismissed from the admiral's office with shouts of "Football! Football!" and was ordered to meditate a while on priorities in life.
So they knew the admiral didn't think much of football, either. The interviews lasted, on average, 45 seconds -- but those were highly charged because everyone knew the purpose of the interview was to see if the admiral could shake you. If he could shake you then, he, or someone else, could shake you anytime. To this day, 16 years later, the men of the class of 1965 -- all of whom passed the Rickover test and became nukie-poos -- recall the Rickover interviews as the highlight, or lowlight, of their careers in the submarine service.
"The thing I remember most is sitting in that armchair in front of him in his office at Main Navy," said George Sudikatus. "It was a straight-back chair whose front legs seemed to be two inches shorter than the back. You felt like a board. You had to sit up straight."
"The admiral only said to me," Wayne Warnken recalled. "'You're in a phone booth, Mr. Warnken. You put a dime in, planning to make a call. Instead, Mr. Warnken, a lot of coins started dropping out of the phone like rain. What do you do?' I knew the admiral was a fanatic for honesty so I said, real quickly, 'Sir! I would call the operator to find out how I could give the money back to the phone company, Sir!' He said 'Dismissed.' I figured the interview was a tremendous success."
But the most ominous interview was Dennis Morit's, for Rickover gave him a stern first-hand account of the Primary Creed all of them would be expected to live by in the nuclear service."He had a grade sheet in front him when I marched in," Moritz remembered. "The first thing he said was why did I get a C in complex variables. I said I had an A in complex variables. But then I made a real blunder. I said his computer must have made a mistake. He carried on for five minutes, hitting his fist on the table, and shouting about how machines don't make mistakes, people do."
That last statement about machines and people was a kind of motto around which the submariners' lives were structured once they were finally accepted in the service. The nuclear program was basically all about machines, after all, a strange new world of complicated gadgets, atomic power plants and awesome nuclear power.
"It was a very elite group of people," said Regis Matzie, "brilliant scientists and engineers. It seemed to want only the smartest guys it could get."
But it didn't take lone for disenchantment to set in, and much of that disenchantment had to do with Rickover and the Primary Creed.
"Basically, it was a world of negativism, which is ironic because I joined the service with a great deal of optimism. I wanted that challenge and responsibility," said John Markowicz, another nukie-poo who quit. "But most of the time I was quite depressed. One symptom of the nuclear program is you're always looking for something wrong, in machines, computers, weapons -- the underlying problem in the program is people. Officers and enlisted men have to be appreciated and rewarded. They have to be made to feel more than somebody else's excuse for finding and correcting a mistake.
"I think the admiral would have liked for us to be like him," Markowicz said, "to have that meticulousness and all-out dedication at the expense of everything else. I couldn't. There was an element of humanism that the service sorely lacked."
Human or not, this was the new Navy and it required a new type of officer to run it, one who was as well versed in physics and nuclear engineering as he was at standing straight and squaring his hat.
In adapting to this new Navy, the academy underwent a near-revolution itself in the mid-'60s, as the academic curriculum was strengthened, mid-shipmen were encouraged to take scientific electives, and the cornerstone of academy tradition -- the plebe indoctrination system -- was relaxed so that the midshipmen could concentrate on their books.
Where once it was a matter of training leaders of men, patriots who could inspire underlings to swing right full rudder or steam full speed ahead, now, in the nuclear service, it was a matter of making technocrats, managers of machines.
The nukie-poos' work was grueling, painstaking stuff that started with 18 months of hard training in places as obscure and far-flung as Windsor Locks, Conn., and Arco, Idaho. They learned nuclear theory, learned how to operate an on-line nuclear power plant, and learned how to naviagate and engineer a sub.
Then came years of sea duty in which they tried to master every duty station from navigation to engineering, and spent untold hours checking rechecking and memorizing mountains of manuals on nuclear safety and operations.
It was in many ways a world made by Rickover, who devised a personnel training and safety program that was tougher, more demanding, and more stringent than programs run by private nuclear utilities. If, as Rickover said, men make mistakes, then it was a matter of training and retraining, and checking and rechecking, until they got it right.
"It was a very regimented, mechanized organization," said Paul Damrow, "and after a while it was almost second nature to feel like a machine yourself."
So much attention was given to machines that human problems seemed secondary, the men said. One of them said life aboard a nuclear submarine was akin to running a household in which nothing ever got done. To cook a hot dog, he said, would require a checklist of 200 items, and if one of the items was ignored, the person monitoring your performance would tell God and you would be struck by a lightning bolt out of the blue.
Damrow, trained as a technician, said he spent so much time trying to master the training program that he was left speechless -- unable to come up with an answer -- when an enlisted man asked him one morning why he had to shine his shoes.
It was busy, brainy work that offered little inspiration, the men said. With Vietnam and the turmoil at home as distance blips on the technocratic mind, the submariners went to sea, receiving only sketchy telex reports of news from home and dedicating themselves to a life spent as much afloat as ashore. They checked manuals and tinkered with values in a new underwater world of fluorescent lights and ballistic missiles.
John Charles Allen was one who said he simply gave up when he found he couln't inspire some of his charges aboard ship who dropped LSD and shot up with heroin simply, he said, "to be able to feel like something other than a robat."
"Frankly, I didn't want to risk my life," Allen said. "Marijuana, LSD and heroin were easily accessible in Guam and Pearl Harbor, and the problem was very severe aboard the boat. To a certain extent it was understandable because the nature of our lives on a nuclear submarine was such that there were no ready outlets for leisure.
"Officially and professionally, I was setting myself up for disciplinary action because these were my men. On the boat you could see the dazed looks and glassy-eyed stares of the guys. I'd say more than a fifth of the enlist men were steadily getting high. The boat was never totally incapacitated, but the potential for danger was there. I have no doubt that if the order came for us to fire a few torpedoes or missiles, the man on duty would have said, 'What?'
"The kicker, for me, was a guy who I considered on of my better friends on the boat. He was a machinist firstclass. I saw him slowly degenerate through drugs. More and more needle marks appeared on his arm. It was a very cynical environment. One screwup could ruin a person's career. We were sure to be criticized for our mistakes and shortcomings, but there was never any reward for anything done well."
When naval officals bemoan the service's low officer-retention rate of 42 percent, they often point to money, or the lack of it, as the prime cause. In fact, money is usually the last thing the nukie-poos of 1965 talk about when they list the reasons they left the service. Mainly, they say, it was the life itself, separations from families half of every year, 14- and 16- hour days of duty aboard ship, certain weekend duty, and the ulcers and headaches that often accompany high-stress endeavors.
"I gutted it out for four years, but I didn't see any changes on the horizon," said John McKlveen. "It was only the same hardships to come with. I had this illusion that when you worked hard on sea duty, you'd have an opportunity to play golf or relax once in a while. My CO [commanding officer] told me that I could look forward to 14 years straight at sea. I looked around at wardrooms, with their 100 percent divorce rates, and realized it just wasn't for me."
A few did gut it out, though, paid their dues and got their dolphins. Their inspiration, of course, was as old as the serivce and the officer corps itself: the promise of one day becoming captains of their own ships.
"You have to try to become the head guy. You have to be willing to sacrifice and endure," said Hugh Adair, a Northern Virginia resident who now works on Rickover's staff and is awaiting assignment soon for a CO tour. "Because of the way the system works, and the complexity of weapons, you can't teach somebody in a minute what it takes years and years to learn. Rickover can't hire the president of Xerox and make him the CO of a sub . . . The only way to make one is to grow one.
"There's a certain power and beauty to my job because I know there's only a few people in the world who can do it."
Edwin Linz, another member of this class and once commander of a nuclear submarine, put it another way. Referring to his job and the men who left the service, he said, "I feel sorry for the country just knowing that it has lost a good cadre of leaders."
Those who remain nukie-poos today are the few exceptions in a service that wreaked despair and disillusionment among the class of 1965 who entered the nuclear program with so much optimism and enthusiasm 16 years old. As John Markowicz put it, "only a few people can be like Rickover."
Rickover declined to be interviewed for this story. "We all know it isn't easy," said a spokesman for the admiral, referring to the submarine service. "We all know the retention rate in low, and as it gets lower the work environment gets more and more difficult because of the extra burden added by those who quit. It all feeds on itself."
For those who left, meanwhile, the mystique is gone, replaced by the empty ceremonial perks attendant to service in the reserve officer corps in which, for two weeks every year, they get to board a boat and play officer for a while. "I don't normally attend many Navy functions anymore," said Markowicz, "because I don't like to be put in situations where my decision to leave the service is questioned. I think there is a feeling among some career officers that we who left are quitters."
So Annapolis, Main Navy-Munitions and shouts of battle-stations have receded to that part of the mind reserved for sandlot baseball and model ships, another world and period in the past separated forever from lives now totally berefit of the military mystique.
They returned to books, studying everything from law to real estate, and wandered their own separate ways into a civilian world that had been alien to them for may years. The nukie-poos, the pilots, the black shoes and the Seabees, 34 in all out of the top 50, accompanied by all the discipline and rigor of lives spent in the officer corps, turned their attention to the comforts and traumas of the civilian world.
Wayne (Monk) Warnken became a hotshot New York City lawyer. Pilot Judd Halenza became a financial adviser to a Hollywood game show host. David Walter Robinson, the Annapolis problem plebe, experienced a "charismatic renewal" in the Catholic Church after his experiences in Vietnam and now works as an analyst for a financial consulting firm in Durham, N.C.
And Alan Siebe, whose marriage fell apart after he left the service; who was a quarterback who found himself five spots behind Roger Staubach; and who had been trained, as a warrior and a leader, never to look to anyone else for assistance, made the toughest decision of his life last year when he desperately turned to a psychiatrist for help.
"For the first time since Annapolis," he said recently, sipping scotch in a Miami bar, "I had to face myself. The problem was I didn't like what I saw.