When Submarines Were New

Ever wonder what it must have been like to serve on a submarine in World War I? You can’t visit or tour one, since there are no U.S. subs from that war on display. You may have seen and walked through a WW II sub in a museum, or seen one in a movie, but the earlier WW I subs are a mystery to most of us.

Recently, one of my wife’s relatives loaned me the journal of her grandfather, a submariner in WW I. I eagerly read it, and now offer you the following description.

Submarine L-10 (SS-50)

Chief Machinist’s Mate Frank Laugel served aboard the submarine USS L-10 (SS-50). (Back then, they didn’t give submarines names, only alphanumeric designations.) His journal covers the period from Monday, December 3, 1917 to Saturday, February 1, 1919.

The book itself is a U.S. Navy ledger book with lined pages; the cover is brown with purple trim. The binding is covered and protected with gray duct tape. Laugel began writing on page 1 and ended on 106 of 200. His cursive writing is quite legible, and I rarely had to pause to decipher a word. There are oil or grease stains on some pages.

The journal begins by chronicling the sub’s departure from Newport, Rhode Island on December 4, 1917 in the company of other submarines and the submarine tender USS Bushnell (AS-2), the crossing of the Atlantic and arrival at Port Delgado on Sao Miguel Island in the Azores on December 19.

They left Sao Miguel on December 30 to continue the crossing. The crew lost a man overboard, a gunner’s mate, on January 24, 1918. They arrived in Bantry Bay, Ireland on January 26, 1918.

The L-10 and its crew spent the war operating in and around Bantry Bay, going out for short excursions and returning to tie up alongside USS Bushnell. They saw little war action. They rarely sighted an enemy and never sunk anything.

The submarine left Ireland on Friday, January 3, 1919 and arrived at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on Saturday, February 1, the date of the final journal entry.

When the sub is at sea, Laugel’s entries carefully record the weather, the time of day the ship dives and surfaces, the depths they reach, and the number of engines running at any time. He identifies the other ships they sighted.

Laugel’s in-port journal entries state when other ships, both U.S. and allied, arrive and leave. He details the equipment that breaks aboard the sub and it seems he spends most of his days in port fixing things or cleaning the boat.

L-10 moored with her sister boats in British waters in 1918. The “A” (for “American”) was added to avoid confusion with British L-class submarines.

Journals are personal logs, begun for various personal reasons. A journal writer never intends for others to read his words, and therefore excludes things with which he’s intimately aware and feels no need to describe.

That’s true with Laugel’s journal. His entries are extremely impersonal. Except for a few brief mentions of the captain, he never mentions the names of any fellow crewmen, including the one lost overboard. Absent is any description of the submarine itself, or what life aboard was like.

Perhaps some of that is due to security restrictions, but then why did he feel free to note the submarine’s depth and the sightings of other vessels? Moreover, there would be nothing classified about his liberty time ashore, yet these entries contain equally sparse descriptions of this time, with brief mentions that he “went out to dinner…went to a dance…went to a movie…”

The closest Laugel gets to anything personal is in noting the receipt of every letter from Frieda, his girlfriend. He also mentions the occasional chances he gets to talk to Walter, presumably a relative or friend assigned to a different ship.

If Laugel feared death due to enemy action or submarine malfunction, he didn’t feel a need to write about it. There is one brief mention about the risks of war, and his attitude about that is philosophical.

L-10 moored with sister boats at the Philadelphia Navy Yard soon after her 1 February 1919 return to the U.S.

A journal-writer is often so close to events that he cannot know what will be important to others. Laugel describes the initial crossing of the Atlantic as mostly routine, free of drama. Yet, according to the Wikipedia entry on USS L-10, the submarine’s captain, Lieutenant Commander James C. Van de Carr, received the Navy Cross for his distinguished service.

In part, that citation reads, “While en route from Newport to the Azores, the submarine which he commanded was separated from the escort and the other submarines of the squadron, leaving him without a rendezvous. He thereupon proceeded to destination successfully, assuming the great responsibility of starting a 1,700-mile Atlantic Ocean run in winter weather and in a submarine of a class that had never been considered reliable under such conditions.”

From the journal, I can infer some things about Laugel, but these are just suppositions. Assuming he took the same care with the sub’s engines that he did in penning his journal, he was in large part responsible for the sub’s successful ocean crossing. A strong sense of humility must have prevented him from taking credit for any significant repairs; he only mentions team efforts, that “we” did this or that. I also sense he was a practical and methodical man, reserving his strong emotions for Frieda alone.

I’m grateful for the chance to read Frank Laugel’s journal, and I shouldn’t criticize him for writing in such a dry style. He was a machinist’s mate scribbling in a journal for his own reasons. He wasn’t writing a novel or a movie script.

Frank Laugel, along with all U.S. submariners, has earned the unending admiration of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Fiction Writing: Not Your Normal Day Job

If you work at a typical desk job and want to write fiction at night, be prepared. The two occupations are not at all alike. But what if your day job suddenly got altered to be more like fiction writing? Let’s find out what that would be like.

You wake up at whatever time you like; you’re now setting your own hours. There’s no commute. You telework every day. No one sees you working, or checks on your progress. There are no meetings, no boring chats by the coffee machine, and no lunches with clients. Knock off early every day if you want; nobody cares how long you work.

Sounds like a dream job, right? There’s a down side.

Sitting at your computer, you produce your first work product of the day. (What’s the product? I don’t know; we’re talking about your current day job.) You e-mail it to your boss and wait. A few hours later, your boss e-mails you back to say the product didn’t suit her needs. She says she can’t accept it.

You’re stunned. She’s rejected your work. How can she do that? You know this job well and have worked at it for years. You e-mail her back asking what sort of product she needs, and asking what’s specifically wrong with the one you sent. She answers that she’s looking for really compelling products the customer will like. Moreover, she receives too many product submissions to list the deficiencies with each one; she only has time to accept or reject.

Her e-mail concludes on a positive and unexpected note, wishing you well with the product, adding that you can submit to any other department head in the company. That’s weird, you think. It’s as if, all of a sudden, you have more than one boss.

With some trepidation, you submit the work product to another department head. An hour later, he responds, thanking you but also saying it doesn’t suit his needs. You’re disappointed, but not shocked. By now, you’re catching on to the new company procedure and you simply submit your product to a different department head.

During the next two weeks, you submit it to every department head and all of them reject your product. Some take less than an hour to respond, but others take days. While waiting on them, you’ve been able to do other stuff around the house, watch some movies, and hit the bar scene on a few nights. The rejections distress you, though; things never used to be that way.

Ah, well, at least it’s payday, finally. Checking your bank account, you’re stunned to discover there’s been no money deposited to your account. You call the Pay Department, and the representative explains you had no products accepted during the pay period, so there’s no pay. The company is no longer on a salary system; they pay you only for accepted products, and calculate the amount based on customer purchases.

Hanging up the phone, you have a “We’re not in Kansas anymore” moment. In this new system, you realize you’ll have to churn out products fast, keep circulating them, and hope a few get accepted and that customers like them.

E-mailing a few friendly co-workers, you discover most are in the same boat, with zero pay. Word has it that one employee tripled her monthly income, but was told that was no guarantee of future earnings.

Welcome, fellow worker, to the fiction writing biz, where success is rare, and determined in part by how well you learn your craft and whether a fickle public likes your stories. You can complain the system’s unfair or rigged, but whining probably won’t make you feel better, and sure won’t change anything.

Fortunately, day jobs aren’t set up like the writing business. Still, writing makes a highly enjoyable hobby for most authors. Among them is—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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