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What It Takes To Be a Submariner in 1917 

Letter from Captain William S. Sims to Walter S. Meriwether 

February 9, 1917,

My dear Meriweather:-

Referring to you letter of the 17th, I will try and give you some information about the qualifications required for submarine work.

I am not able to give you very much, but I can indicate to you where it can be found, and you, in your capacity as a writer, will have the duty of picking out the high lights and putting in the sparkle.

You doubtless know that every man who serves in a submarine must be a highly technical and highly trained man. There are no landsmen their for instruction. Every man must either be a very competent machinist, or an electrician, or a gunner’s mate for gun and torpedo work. Their must also be a radio operator in case the boat carries wireless.

In addition to all these technical qualifications the men must have distinctive moral attributes. They should be men who have volunteered for this duty, and not men who have simply been assigned to it on account of their technical knowledge.

They must be the kind of men who are willing to take a sporting chance. Men who have not the mental habit of imagining disaster; that is men who have not too much imagination. Moreover, they must be the kind of men who set no store by physical comfort. With all this, they must be men who have been proved by experience to be practically immune from sea-sickness, that is to say, proved in submarine craft, which of all vessels are the most trying on the stomach in sea-way.

In a trip of 2,000 miles made by a certain submarine,1 all hands where at first totally incapacitated except the commanding officer and one man, though the bulk of them recovered after a certain time. The point is that the crew must be trained by actual experience in rough weather to resist sea-sickness. This is, of course, particularly true of the cook.

I have never heard of any sickness or ailment due to the sense of being confined in a submarine. This is not likely, however, to occur with men of the type indicated above. Members of a submarine crew cannot tell, after the conning tower hatches close, whether the boat remains on the surface or foes down 200 feet except by looking at the depth indicator. And therefore if they do not let their imaginations impress them with what might happen in case anything went wrong, they will not be likely to be bothered by their position. I don’t know anything about the so-called “periscope eye”. I don’t see any reason why a man who uses a periscope should suffer any more eye strain than a man who uses a gun telescope. In either case, if the eye is used continuously for a certain length of time, eye strain will be felt, but as far as my experience goes, it never amounts to anything more than a temporary tiring of the eye. I have never known of a pointer’s eyes being injured by the uses of the telescope.

As to the relative number of submarine disasters that have occurred in various countries, you will find this in THE SUBMARINE TORPED BOAT, wrttin by a Mr. Hoat, and published by D. Van Nostrand Co., New York, N.Y., in 1916.2

The above book will give you much other valuable information, and is the best book thus far to be published in this country.

If however, you are looking for the human interest element, nothing could be better that Kipling’s “The Fringes of the Fleet”.3 I should think that with these two publications, a trained writer like yourself would be able to get up a song and dance that would be interesting to the man on the street.

                     Very sincerely yours.

                                                   Wm. S. Sims.

Mr. W. S. Meriweather,

Naval Training Association,

31 Nassau Street,

New York, N. Y.


DLC, William S. Sims Papers. At the time of this letter, Sims was President of the Naval War College. At the time of this letter, Walter Scott Meriwether was a writer for the New York World newspaper. In March 1917, he obtained a leave of absence to serve as “publicity manager” for the Naval Training Association, described as “an organization of patriotic men who are seeking to improve Uncle Sam’s first line of defense”. In addition to publicizing the Naval Training Association, Meriwether was to produce “feature articles on the life in the navy.” Editor & Publisher, 17 March 1917, p. 22.

1. It is not known which submarine Sims was referring to, but the voyage from San Francisco to Honolulu, which U.S. Navy submarines made with some regularity, was 2,100 miles.

2. Allen Hoar, The Submarine Torpedo Boat: Its Characteristics and Modern Development. [New York, N.Y.: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1916]. In a chapter entitled “List of Accidents,” Hoar lists thirty-two accidents for the period 1864 to 1915. Ibid., pp. 192-94.

3. Rudyard Kipling, The Fringes of the Fleet. [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1915].

Published: Fri Oct 27 11:18:55 EDT 2017