Submarine qualifications have taken on the appearance of a technical knowledge-acquisition program. Midshipmen are noncommissioned student officers—not enlisted men. But they have been awarded the cherished silver dolphins simply because they spent a few weeks on board a submarine and "worked their butts off." All hands on submarines work their butts off. All hands have worked very hard at some point in their naval careers. Did they get awarded warfare devices in return? Could a midshipman be awarded aviator's wings, a surface warfare device, or even gold dolphins during a summer cruise? Of course not.
The meaning of silver dolphins has been lost. They never were intended to be a reward for hard work. They were meant to recognize the hard work, superior performance, and broad technical knowledge of enlisted professionals, not simply to decorate their uniforms. Silver dolphins once said that the sailors who wore them had worked hard enough and had learned enough to carry out their duties as watchstanders—and also that they had demonstrated the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary to bring the boat back to the surface, especially after experiencing severe damage. Silver dolphins were the mark of the sonarman who could fire a flare from the engine room signal ejector, or the nuclear-trained reactor operator who could surface the boat if need be. But the real significance of silver dolphins is as a symbol of respect among shipmates—acceptance as one of the crew, as an important and vital part.
Midshipmen can—and often do—demonstrate superior ability to acquire and assimilate technical knowledge during a cruise of six weeks or less. But it is wrong to give student officers who have not incurred any service obligation the enlisted man's silver dolphins. It cheapens the spirit and intent of the dolphins-gold or silver. It a slap in the face to me and my fellow submariners, active and veteran. Also, it seems odd to give officer candidates an award as an enlisted warfare specialist—not the officer's device that they hope to attain eventually.
This is not meant to criticize midshipmen. I hold them in the highest regard. But I am saddened by the abandonment of a Navy tradition. The Navy can—and should—end the practice of awarding enlisted warfare devices to midshipmen. This might disappoint a few midshipmen, but overall it would have a positive influence on the morale in the fleet. Perhaps the Navy can acknowledge the effort of deserving midshipmen with letters of commendation or maybe even the creation of a ribbon recognizing personal achievement in training. But let's save the silver dolphins for their intended recipients—the enlisted submariners.
Mr. Rankin was a nuclear-trained submariner who served on active duty for eight years, attaining the rank of First Class Machinist’s Mate. He served on board the Trumpetfish (SS-425) and the James Monroe (SSBN-662). He is a materials engineering technical coordinator for the Northern States Power Company near Red Wing, Minnesota.