Sanity in the Subs
For World War Two's submarine fighters, undersea combat duty touched of peculiarly harrowing mental and emotional experiences. The heat, the tension from strictly enforced silence, and the helplessness against enemy depth-charge attack often strained the sanity of the soundest men. An average of one out of the 75-man crew would break, at least temporarily, during a battle.
Sometimes, half a crew could not eat or sleep for days after a heavy bombing or a close squeeze with enemy sub-chasers. Occasionally a sailor grew hysterical and had to be held down and muffled by his mates. Some men, lapsing into silence, would develop facial paralysis, breathe heavily, and stare with glazed eyes at nothing. One developed the habit during tense moments of gazing through binoculars at each of the crew members. Several tried to slash their own throats during depth-charge raids. At least one committed suicide.
To avoid just such cases, which obviously had a demoralizing effect on the rest of the crew, the submarine service worked out a tightly meshed screen to sift out the men most susceptible to mental collapse. Some years back, Captian C. W. Shilling, wartime head of the United States Naval Research Laboratory at the Naval Research Base, New London, Connecticut described the formula.
First, the Navy doctors agreed, the emotionally mature volunteer made the most level-headed sub man. After interviewing thousands of volunteers, they drew up a list of danger signals which invariably pointed to instability. Then they designed tricky tests to ferret them out. The symptoms were: abnormal shyness or sensitivity; difficulty in
school, truancy, and dislike of teachers; abnormal fear of lightning, the dark, elevators, and crowded spaces (the usual indications that an individual is suffering from claustrophobia); shunning of girls after puberty, abnormal attachment to mother, sulkiness under discipline, failure to play competitive games that involve risk of injury; stammering; obsessions and religious fanaticism.
Mothers often put heavy pressure on their son to withdraw from training. In some cases, mothers were interviewed by the Navy doctors, and if they found the son was being unduly influenced by her fears, he was usually dropped from training. Navy psychiatrists found that teen-agers often could not measure up to the maturity requirement of the
service. Finally the Navy refused to take a submarine candidate under 19.
Sub-service men were picked from the top half of the Navy's intelligence scale and from men in top physical condition. Despite this pre-screening, however, up to 30 per cent were turned away after careful psychiatric examination. Once in action, submarine crews were given liberal rest periods to recover from strain. With this business like program, the WWII submarine service ended with one of the lowest psychiatric rates in the armed forces. Out of 1,520 war patrols, only 62 serious psychoneurotic cases developed. Of these, five were psychotic.