About Commander Sminkey

by: Robert Loys Sminkey

Commander, United States Navy, Retired

PART 1 of 3

In 1939, when I was 8 years of age and living at 5213 Beaumont Avenue in the City of Brotherly Love, my father asked me to go to an evening movie by myself. The reason for this unusual order was that he was building a Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia set by purchasing one volume each week at the Doris Theatre on Woodland Avenue in West Philadelphia at very reasonable prices, was well into obtaining all the books, but didn't want to see the movie that was playing that week. So, I went to see the movie...and buy the volume being sold that week. I remember that the volume was "W" as big posters showing the scuttling of German pocket battleship Graf Spee in Montevideo Harbor, Uruguay, were prominently displayed in the theatre lobby. The Graf Spee "incident" was one of the significant events of the first year of World War II...in 1939...between German and British participants.

The movie being shown that evening was "U-29"...the story of a German submarine's adventures during the First World War. The movie was graphic, vivid, and spell-binding ... and ... when I walked out of that theatre, I knew there was only one thing I REALLY wanted to be when I grew up - a submariner. And, so, that's what I became.

On my seventeenth birthday, I went to the recruiting station at 13th and Market Street in downtown Philadelphia, and told the petty officer there that I wanted to join the Naval Service. He asked me if my parents would sign consent papers. I told him they would...so he gave me the enlistment classification test. I scored high enough to be guaranteed any part of the Naval Service I wanted...so chose, of course, submarines. On 17 September 1948, I was sworn into the United States Naval Reserve...and assigned to the Submarine Division that drilled at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. We frequently had "weekend cruises" aboard submarines departing from, and returning to, the Navy Yard. The first one I took was aboard USS Threadfin (SS-410) on 22 February 1949. Will never forget the thrill of steering that submarine down the Delaware River to the Bay...and on into the Ocean. And the first dive (we made 20 dives and surfacings that weekend). When we got back in, I was "hooked." I was a submariner...for sure. And, little did Seaman Recruit Sminkey realize then, that, twenty years later, he would be Executive Officer of USS Threadfin (SS-410).

During my 31-year submarine career, I served in USS Sea Leopard (SS-483), USS Burrfish (SSR-312), USS Sennet (SS-408), USS Guavina (AOSS-362), USS Becuna (SS-319), USS Sea Robin (SS-407), USS Francis Scott Key (SSBN-657), and USS Threadfin (SS-410). All of these submarines were built and served in the Second World War except USS Francis Scott Key...which was a fleet ballistic missile submarine - nuclear powered - which first went to sea in 1966 - with me aboard.

Since all submariners in the U.S. Navy are volunteers, there is no problem with crewmembers having "problems" living in cramped quarters under sometimes difficult conditions. All potential submariners are screened many times, with and without their knowledge, during the eight weeks they go through the Basic Submarine Course at the Submarine School at New London, Groton, Connecticut. Any "incompatalilities" noted are evaluated...and the appropriate action taken. About one in four students don't make it through the course.

The World War Two diesel-electric submarines were of two classes ...Gato and Balao. I served 20 years in those types; four years in the "nuke"...the remaining seven years in several shore duty tours.

The diesel boats were the true submarine...like you see in the old World War Two movies. They were rugged, awful to live on...and we just loved them. And, with just 2 1/2 percent of all the personnel in the U.S. Navy during World War II manning them, they sank 55 % of all Japanese ships sunk during that conflict...a pretty impressive record.

This is why I am proud to be a submariner...and why all other members of the "Silent Service" are...too

PART 2 of 3:


I entered the naval service via the Naval Reserve on 13 September 1948. When the Korean War started in 1950 I was striking for Quartermaster. At that time, the Naval Reserve was using "Emergency Service Ratings"...and I was designated a "QMQSN" (Quartermaster Quartermaster Seaman). The other Quartermaster emergency service striker rating was QMSSN (Quartermaster Signalman Seaman). When I made Third Class, I became a QMQ3(SS) (I was a submariner). When I made Second Class, I became a QMQ2(SS). I made Second Class in 1953. Then, I shipped over into the regular United States Navy and became a QM2(SS)...a navigating quartermaster, who could signal.

During that period of time, there were no Signalmen (SM) types in the United States Navy. However, the United States Naval Reserve had their QMS men...and they were, in fact, Signalmen...even though their rating badge identifying symbol was a steering wheel...the same as for Quartermasters.

The QMQ duties included: steer ships and taking soundings. Use range finder. Plot bearings. Know signal control and navigation. Send and receive International Code by blinker, searchlight and semaphore.

The QMS duties included: stand signal watch on the bridge, identify flags, use blinker, searchlight and semaphore, use range finder, searchlights, and signal apparatus.

Submarines rarely carried Signalmen. Quartermasters performed the duties of both Quartermasters and Signalmen. If Signalmen were aboard, they were required to be proficient in the various arts of navigation.

During Calendar Year 1956, the Signalman (SM) rating was being restored within the rating structure of the United States Navy. I was a QM1(SS) at the time and was asked if I wanted to remain a "navigating" Quartermaster or switch over to Signalman. I stayed a QM.

From 1956 to the present day, there have been, and are, Quartermasters and Signalmen in the United States naval service.

There is a Quartermaster "A" School at Great Lakes...six weeks long. That school used to be located at Orlando, Florida. The move took place during 1996.

Today, QM duties include: responsibility for the navigation of a ship. Stand watch as an Assistant to the Officer of the Deck and to the ship's navigator. They serve as steersmen performing ship control, navigation and bridge watching duties; and procure, correct, and maintain all navigational and oceanographic publications, charts, and navigational instruments. QMs must know basic seamanship, celestial navigation, naval charts, rules of the road, log keeping, radar operation, and various high technical electronic navigation "tools."

There is a Signalman "A" School at Great Lakes...five weeks long. That school used to be located at Orlando, Florida. The move took place during 1996.

Today, SM duties include: responsibility for manning the visual communication links by way of semaphore flags, flaghoist, and searchlights. In addition to visual communications, signalmen also must be proficient in navigation. Navigation duties include the reading, stowing, and correcting of charts; being able to help pilot a ship in restricted waters; and being familiar with the rules of the road, navigational aids, and using navigational equipment. SMs must also be skilled in voice radio operations and procedures; be able to properly render honors and ceremonies; be experienced in the principles of recognition, and be quick to recognize personal flags and pennants of United States and foreign officers; and be able to demonstrate know how in many other related skills.

PART 3 of 3:

I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the Great Depression. I grew up in the Philadelphia area (Philadelphia; Upper Darby, Pennsylvania; and Hi-Nella, New Jersey), worked in a movie theatre and a newspaper, as a display make-up man...before deciding to become a member of the United States Navy.

I enlisted in the Naval Service on 13 September 1948, in my home town of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In February 1949, I went through the basic course at the Submarine School at New London, Groton, Connecticut. I was a Quartermaster ... and, in those days, a QM was a Signalman, too - especially on submarines (no SMs carried).

Subsequently, I served in USS Sea Leopard (SS 483) and USS Burrfish (SSR 312) in SubRon Six in Norfolk. I Qualified in Submarines (Enlisted) aboard Burrfish in July of 1950.

In 1952, I went to Squadron Twelve in Key West and served in USS Sennet (SS 408) for 4 1/2 years...making 1st Class on board.

In 1957, I was assigned to USS Guavina (AOSS 362)...also at the northernmost city in Cuba. Guavina was a submarine seaplane tender. Duty aboard her was "most interesting" - and scary. The boat was in bad shape, and, carried 150,000 gallons of aviation gasoline. Ugh! However, I made my "Brownie Points" aboard her as leading QM (In actuality, I was the Navigator), and, as a result, was recommended as a candidate for the Integration Program (ADM Holloway's Seaman to Admiral Program).

In 1958, SubLant was short of Submarine School instructors and asked all who wanted to teach to submit their chits. Mine was in about two seconds after I read that ALSUBLANT. Several weeks later, we...me, wife, son and daughter...were on our way to New London.

I went through Instructor's School, then taught the Basic eight week course. While there, I also instructed the Greek crew who took over USS Jack (SS 259). And, also, while there, I got the word that I had been selected to go to OCS at Newport, Rhode Island.

In April of 1958, I reported to Officer Candidate School. Four - and-a-half months later, I was commissioned Ensign, USN (1100).

In September 1958, I reported to USS Becuna (SS 319) for duty. Becuna was a Squadron Eight boat based in New London. I earned my gold dolphins in Becuna...and was Supply, Commissary, 1st LT, Assistant Weps, EMO, and Communicator, at various times, while on that boat.

In January 1961, I reported to USS Sea Robin (SS 407) for duty as Engineering Officer. The "Bobbin Robin" was also a SubRon 8 boat.

In January 1963, I was SubDiv 81 Engineer for several months ... then, was ordered to The Fleet Intelligence Center, U.S. Naval Forces, Europe (FICEUR), at Port Lyautey (Kenitra), Morocco, for duty as Underseas Warfare Officer in the Amphibious Operations Department.

While at Kenitra, I learned how to fly. I took my initial lessons in a PA-18 Super Cub; then switched to the Beechcraft T-34B Mentor...and soloed in that fine airplane - compliments of the Port Lyautey Flying Club.

At the end of 1963, the King of Morocco kicked the U.S. Forces out of Morocco, so, we moved FICEUR to the Naval Air Station at Jacksonville, Florida...and moved into housing aboard that station.

I continued my flying with the Jacksonville Navy Flying Club. By the time we left JAX, I had earned my Private, Commercial, and Flight Instructor Ratings...and...was president of the flying club.

In July 1965, I reported to Guided Missile School at Dam Neck, Virginia, for duty under instruction in the SSBN Navigator's Course.

In October 1965, I reported to USS Francis Scott Key (SSBN 657), then building at Electric Boat in Groton, for duty as Gold Crew Navigator. KEY launched in April 1966 and commissioned on 3 DEC 1966. I served aboard the KEY for 4 years...doing the shakedown and making the first 4 Gold Patrols. We lived in Groton. The boat operated out of Charleston and Rota, Spain...and visited Groton on occasion.

While at Groton, I flew charter and gave flight instruction at Coastal Airways at Trumbull Airport at Groton in my "spare" time. We also bought a plane...a Stinson 108-1 Voyager. Had fun with her.

In June 1969, we transferred to Key West...where I became Executive Officer of USS Threadfin (SS 410).

In June 1971, we moved to Naples, Italy, and I assumed the duties of running Task Force 64 (the SSBNs assigned to Commander Submarine Flotilla 8 - later, ComSubGru 8). We were there for 5 years.

In June 1976, we moved to Norfolk and I reported to ComSubLant HQTRS for duty...in the CinCLantFlt compound. While there, I was a CinCLantFlt OPCON center watch officer, the Submarine Force Navigator, and the Trident Submarine Project Manager.

In December 1977, we moved to Saint Marys, Georgia. I went out to the Army Base at Kings Bay and commenced the actions - on scene - to take custody of the base for the Navy. On 1 July 1978, I became Commanding Officer of Naval Submarine Base, Kings Bay, Georgia.

One year to the day later, I retired...with almost 31 years of Naval Service. The week I retired, the base was ready to receive USS Simon Lake (AS 33) and the SubRon 16 SSBNs. During the first week of July 1979, Simon Lake and the first SSBN arrived at Kings Bay.

Our thanks, to an outstanding Researcher and Historian, Commander Robert Loys Sminkey, for his generous contributions of materials for use on this web site.

Paul Wittmer, Committee Chairman.