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"Air on those [nuclear] submarines is more pure than what you breathe outside." (Video Interview, 10:24)

   David W. Dickens
Collection image
David Dickens [2004]
War: Korean War, 1950-1953; Vietnam War, 1961-1975
Branch: Navy; Navy
Unit: Submarine Service; Submarine Service
Service Location: Key West, Florida; San Diego, California; Charleston; New London; Rota, Spain
Rank: Chief Petty Officer
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In his twenty years in the Navy between 1954 and 1974, David Dickens spent much of his time aboard submarines, at first attracted by the extra pay he could earn. He saw the Navy transition from diesel to nuclear power and became such an expert in the latter that he taught other sailors how to operate the new systems. During the Vietnam War, his sub did photographic patrols along the coast and also launched rubber life rafts manned by special operations sailors. Dickens provides a handy guide to how a submarine achieves buoyancy and the basic differences in the two kinds of power that propelled his various boats.

Interview (Video)
»Interview Highlights  (6 clips)
»Complete Interview 
Download: video (37 min.)
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»Submarines: The Silent Service
 Video (Interview Excerpts) (6 items)
As a farm boy, he didn't know what a submarine was, but he did know that submariners received hazardous duty pay; his first duty was as a mess cook until it was found that he had a good educational background and he was trained to be an electrician; shows a photo of his first sub, USS Sennet, a WWII-era diesel model; attended the boat's first reunion. (02:11) Spent eight years in Charleston, SC, instructing sailors on various systems aboard nuclear submarines; saw the transition from diesel to nuclear take place; spent all his career in the Navy aboard subs except for one short stint on an ammunition ship, which he did not care for. (01:50) Explaining three stages of buoyancy for submarines: positive, when it is on the surface, negative, when it is diving, and neutral, when it is level underwater; WWII era sub was about 300 feet long, with crew of 80; every available space is used for supplies, which would start to run out during course of voyage; his most desired item when they would return to port was fresh milk; on sub, galley was always open, so you could go in and fix yourself something; old diesel subs had to surface much more frequently to replenish batteries and air; nuclear sub create their own water and purify the air so well it's better than what you breathe outside. (04:02)
Did photographic missions off the coast of Korea and Vietnam; launched Navy SEAL or demolition teams from rubber life raft on their deck and then submerged; would pick them up later and take them back to their home ship. (00:49) How they stayed in touch with family while at sea: through "familygrams" they would receive by floating a wire antenna to receive messages once a month; sailors could not send out messages to keep their locations and mission secret; skipper once offered him the opportunity to attend funeral of a family member: a helicopter could pick him up and take him to nearest land (in this case, Spain), where he could catch a commercial flight; realized the timing would not work out and he declined the offer. (01:45) Speed of attack submarine; control personnel must wear seat belts to avoid being thrown out of their seats; nuclear subs rarely travel on the surface; explanation of diesel electric engines; tube to surface can draw in fresh air; can last 24 to 48 hours submerged; air in one of those subs can get so thin you cannot light a match; one time, sealed off compartment he and another sailor were in and pressurized it to stop a leak. (03:46)

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  October 26, 2011
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