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Fish Or Cut Bait

Familygrams: Reality in 28 Words or Less
by Bob Ciminel


November 15, 2004

One thing that has made life in the military a little better in the 21st Century is the improvement in communication between our members of the armed forces and their families. Almost every unit has access to email and cell phones when they're not deployed in combat, and we all saw the satellite videophones the reporters let our soldiers use during the invasion of Iraq. Things weren't always so good.

During the Civil War, sons and brothers went away to war and their fate often remained unknown until they either came home or never returned. World War I and II saw some improvements, but the communication was usually one-way, with the dreaded telegraph from the War Department. Our soldiers in Vietnam weren't much better off.

jpg submarine

USS Lafayette (my ship) at sea...
Photo courtesy U.S. Navy

When I served in the submarine service during the Cold War, we were able to receive messages from our families by radio, but we could not reply. If we transmitted any signals, the Russians would immediately know our location. When you operate on the enemy's doorstep, stealth equals survival.

Submarine Squadron 16 operated out of the U.S. Naval Station at Rota, Spain, up the coast from Gibraltar at the end of the Bay of Cadiz. It was from here that we would embark on our patrols into the Mediterranean Sea. Sixty days later, we would return to Rota. We submerged and surfaced at the same spot in the ocean, and there would always be a Russian "fishing trawler" in the area to greet us. Russian submarines operated in the Mediterranean too, and we would spend days on end quietly following them around the ocean. If the balloon had gone up, and World War III started, our first action would have been to torpedo the Russian submarine we were tailing and then launch our 16 Polaris A2 missiles toward targets in southern Russia.

On patrol, we trailed a long black antenna called a floating wire that enabled us to receive radio messages while underway. The crew could also receive "familygrams" from their wives and loved ones. A familygram was a 28-word telegram containing a personal message to an individual crewmember. Each crewmember could receive six familygrams during the patrol. I received one familygram in seven patrols, but I wasn't married then, so it was no big deal. The one I did receive was from my future wife. I could kick myself for not saving it.

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The Lafayette in dry dock...
Photo courtesy U.S. Navy

With the familygram limited to just 28 words, many wives tried to convey as much information as possible. Senior Chief Petty Officer Don Ennis, a former crewmember of the U.S.S. Stonewall Jackson, recalled receiving the following message from his wife: "Sprayed for mosquitoes with roach spray - Bird, fish, and turtle all dead - Trip to pet store in order - Bad day - Wish you were here."

Because familygrams could also contain very bad news, they were always read by the folks in the radio room as they were transcribed. It was up to the Captain to decide if a crewmember should be given a familygram that might affect his performance during the patrol. In case of a dire emergency, some submarines surfaced and the crewmember was taken off by helicopter.

I know how much our married crewmembers looked forward to receiving their familygrams. When you were completely out of contact for two months, that 28-word message from home was your toehold on reality. It was a personal, poignant reminder that you did not live in a vacuum. I encourage you to get in touch with any family members who are serving in our armed forces, even if they are distant relatives. Help them keep their toehold on reality.


Bob Ciminel ©2004
All Rights Reserved

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