On June 19, 1963, Bill Wilde eagerly enlisted in the United States Navy at the young age of 18. After reading about the sinking of the nuclear-powered attack submarine named the U.S.S. Thresher, which was the first submarine lost at sea with all 129 crew members and personnel, Bill became fascinated by submarines. He worked hard to maintain his place in the top 10% of his classes to qualify for the navigation department of submarine duty, and eventually, working up to the rank of Petty Officer First Class (E-6) during his enlistment.
Bill proudly served in both the Cold War and the Vietnam War, but his missions were classified. His service in the US Navy spanned six years and his recollection of submarine life is filled with excitement, laughter, and fondness, as well as physics lessons on the unit of pressure pound-force per square inch (PSI) and atmospheric pressure versus water pressure.
“Submarine life is very different,” Bill explains.
The average submarine assignment is about 80-90 days, and instead of the average 24-hour days, they had 18-hour days where the crew worked in three shifts of six hours per shift. Bill then adds that all of the lights on the submarine were “rig for red,” because red is a lower intensity than white light, and therefore, preserves night vision.
Bill also explains that on submarines, they made their own air and drinking water, and that even the toilets flush differently because the subs are nuclear powered. He describes the septic system, which has a big tank that is built into the ship, and when flushing, the crew had to pull on a ball valve that opened a water valve to flush the waste into the tank and then shut the valve.
However, Bill says, “When you have 125 guys on board, it has to get emptied every so often.”
To empty the waste, there is another ball valve that empties the tank out into the ocean and the water outside pushes in, so there is a flapper valve with a sign that says “Danger: Blowing Sanitary Tanks,” which meant “Whatever you do, don’t flush!” But every once in a while, Bill said, one of the crew members would be half asleep and pull the valve open, blowing all of the contents of the toilet all over until they could slam the ball valve shut.
Overall, Bill explains that life on the sub was pretty boring aside from problems that would arise, which made life exciting. Although the submariners were isolated for extended periods, Bill describes the living conditions as pretty nice.
“We had movies, a library, and it really wasn’t bad! We had the best food in the Navy!” Bill shared.
Bill describes the training as intense, especially during submarine school, where sailors were trained to escape in a big, deep tank. Instructors would place students 50 feet down in the tank and then make them swim to the surface without any oxygen. At that level, the pressure in your lungs is 25 PSI or 25 pounds of air, so when they were trying to surface, they had to continuously blow the air out like they were blowing out a candle, or else they could die when they got to the top because the air expands your lungs. And, if divers stop blowing out air while they are in the tank, instructors would “come out of nowhere” and punch the students in the chest, so they would expel more air, Bill shared.
One of the proudest moments for Bill in the Navy was getting his dolphins. “When you get your first assignment to a submarine, you get treated like dirt because you don’t have your dolphins,” he explains. Before sailors earn their dolphins, which takes about a year, they have to have a fundamental understanding of every system on the ship. Then, they had to go in front of a board that would ask them a litany of questions about the ship, and if they knew enough, the board would give the submariners their “dolphins,” which are the submarine warfare insignia depicting two dolphins that they wore on their left breast.
“When you get your dolphins, they have a party for you and it’s one of the proudest moments of your life. After that, you belong to this fraternity called the Submarine Sailors, and you never get out of that. I got out of the Navy in 1969 and I still correspond with my buddies in the fraternity!” Bill shared.
After separating from the Navy in 1969 after six years, Bill says he couldn’t sleep in a bed because he was used to sleeping on a submarine, where his bed was one of three makeshift shelves in the wall—each with a curtain, air conditioning, and a light. He was so used to sleeping in this confined space, that he had to sleep on a couch when he separated, and to this day, Bill says he still likes sleeping on the couch.
Bill recalls a stark difference between the ways civilians responded to him when he separated in 1969. On one occasion, he was in uniform and went into a restaurant for a cup of coffee. When he went to pay, the owner told him that his money was no good there because he saw the dolphins on Bill’s uniform and conveyed that his daughter had been extracted out of Russia by a submarine. On the other hand, when he enrolled in Penn State, there were people that would call veterans “baby killers” because of what was going on during the Vietnam War.
After getting his degree in education, Bill taught physics at Northampton Area High School for almost 20 years before retiring in 2013. While teaching, one of his students asked Bill if he would write a letter of recommendation to help him get into the Naval Academy, but Bill says he takes no credit for him getting into the academy because he was a smart young man that worked very hard. After being accepted, the young man followed in Bill’s footsteps with submarine duty. “The last I heard, he was a commanding officer of a fast attack submarine,” Bill gushed with pride.
Bill’s advice to veterans is to stick together because it’s a different world today that we live in, but serving creates a lifelong bond for sailors, marines, soldiers, and airmen alike. Bill still keeps in contact with a few of the people he served with, all of which are eternally proud submariners.
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