This was prompted by a question from The Book of Myself by Carl and David Marshall. It was to write about my experience with the military as an adult. Wow, for me that would being a Navy wife. That experience take a few books. However the first thing that popped into my mind was familygrams. They take some explaining because they were only for the submarine force and aren’t used now. So read on for an explanation and tales of grams both mine an others.
Mike was on the USS Daniel Boone SSBN 629. This is called a boomer submarine. They are different from the fast attack fleet. Fast attacks chase, hunt, and go seek intelligence. Boomers are to hide, they are a mobile missile launch platforms that are hidden, a deterrent supposedly. I’ll not go into debating all there just explaining the concept we lived with. There are two crews on a Boomer – a blue crew and a gold crew. Each crew takes the boat for six months a year in three month turns. Mike was on the blue crew. He served in the 80s.
Now since their job is to hide they don’t send any signals when out. If you send a signal you can be found. However you can receive without disclosing your location, so that’s what Boomers do they listen for what’s going on in the world. During their listening periods if there is any time left after official business is done, morale messages from families to their sailors were sent in what was called familygrams (see photo above curiosity of Nicole Tow). They were composed of 50 words. However that included his name, your name, and his boat. So in our case that’s 4 words down (Damn my double name). As you can read above there were rule and if you didn’t follow them the gram was trashed.
So it was a guessing game as to how to send the 12 you got over the three month period. I mean it was sent time available. They were mailed to a fleet post office box so you had to try to pace yourself. Then there was the trying to make the uneducated guess as to how often they were sent. I numbered mine in hopes that some nice radio operator somewhere when he saw the Lt. Eklund pile would send two before three if there was a back log.
I went through Hurricane Hugo. I sent a message that I had survived as did the house. I didn’t mention the damage because that might be considered upsetting and get mine tossed. However when Mike got back I learned they didn’t get familygrams for a few weeks. Command wouldn’t send them until they could verify the fate of all the next of kin. So the message he got was class 4 hurricane hitting Charleston. Charleston devastated and then the crew waited for news of their loved ones. Silence. Finally about a week after the devastated message they got a Red Cross message stating all spouses, children, and next of kin listed for crew member were alive then the familygrams flowed.
The best one was from a friend who moved to the Bangor Washington area. They looked for home as you do. The one they liked had a long driveway and she fretted about clearing the snow when he was gone. He assured her it rained here not snowed and gave all the meteorological reasons for that. Well they got the house with the over a mile long driveway and he shipped out. Then came the snowstorm, a HUGE one. She was snowed in for a week. Her next family gram was “Snowed in for a week. OVER 12 inches. YOU LIED, YOU LIED, YOU LIED, (and so on to the end and her name).” Actually he got it and laughed.
Years ago we were in Washington DC. They had an exhibit on Cold War US submarines force. Yes the Daniel Boone long retired was in it. What got me the most was the familygrams posted there. They hit home. I remember them so well. I wish I had some but used all I had. Now the boats get e-mail so no need to fill out paper and send it to a radioman to send.
One other thing, I always cried when ships came in and got all the glory on the news. Those families got phone calls, got to send mail, got TO GET ANSWERS! We didn’t. Our boat’s coming and goings were secret. No one thanked us or welcomed us home. We were truly the Silent Service. The sub force still goes about its missions without parades, big welcome home coverage, and still families can only send messages into the void with no hope of reply. They are still the Silent Service. If you know a submariner or their family (there are women on subs now too) tell them thanks, give them a hug. Don’t let the silence of their job make them feel forgotten.