Sea story: The trouble with toilet paper

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When a ballistic missile submarine goes to sea to remain underwater & undetected for 90 days, they mean it. You can’t just pop up offshore from the Ocean City 7-11, send in a Zodiac, and buy a few rolls of toilet paper to tide you over. Some truly paranoid submariners (with sea stories of their own) would even devote a few precious cubic inches of personal storage space under their bunk pans to an “emergency use only” roll. Of course there’s always an entrepreneur or two stockpiling a small supply of their own, hoping for the right time that their stash could be parceled out to shipmates a few sheets at a time…for a “fair” price.

However, a boomer typically has a crew of at least 130 who, for the next 90 days, will see food as one of their primary sources of entertainment. When standing underway watches, submarines serve food every six hours 24/7 and the bathrooms (and toilet paper) are in constant use. The math piles up (so to speak) awfully fast.

It usually means that a few days before underway, the squadron supply department delivers 4-5 pallets of toilet paper onto the pier for an all-hands working party to store below. You’d be amazed at how few of that 130 crew are actually available to form a daisy chain down the hatch to hand-load the bundles.

Another issue is storage space. By learning from experiences I’d rather not discuss, you can’t store toilet paper anywhere that it might get wet, soak up irritating/noxious substances, catch fire, or even smolder. On a submarine you run out of those sorts of storage spaces pretty quickly, and everyone else has some whiny little reason why their nuclear gear or their medical supplies have to go there instead. Nobody wants to store toilet paper.

On a submarine, junior sailors clean the heads*. Junior sailors usually belong to Deck Division, and Deck Div belongs to the Weapons Officer. So instead of being able to use the Supply Officer’s dry/locked storage spaces, the Weps has to devote the department’s valuable volume reserved for explosives, pyrotechnics, & ammo to… potty paper.

(*Landlubbers call this a “bathroom”…)

On my first submarine, I came topside late one morning to find LT “Mad Dog” Cole fuming on the pier. This wasn’t unusual because he smoked like a chimney. On this occasion, though, he was fuming at five pallets of toilet paper that squadron had just dropped off. I started to empathize with him, because he was a valuable source of signatures for my Officer of the Deck qualification card.

“Toilet paper again, huh, Weps?”

“No, this time it’s much worse than that.”

“Whaddya mean?”

“Well, I ordered six pallets but squadron says that this is the last toilet paper they’re going to be able to give us. This has to last for the rest of our time inport and for our entire patrol, too. The whole base is out of toilet paper and they can’t restock until a week after we’re gone. I can’t even get enough today for the patrol, let alone top us off before we leave. I’ve told Deck Div to hurry up here and get this stuff stowed before it disappears!!”

With a ferocious scowl, he yelled over at the sentry to tell Deck Div to muster topside ASAP for a stores load while he went off to try to find more toilet paper. The sentry had been paying very close attention to our conversation, and he got busy on the topside phone circuit.

15 minutes later I dropped by the pierside officer’s club for lunch and noticed Mad Dog relaxed in the corner with a big smile on his face. He asked me if the sentry had been working on getting Deck Div topside, and I reassured him that they’d be on it soon. He laughed, and I commented that he sure didn’t seem very worried about the situation.

He recalibrated me: “Oh, there’s lots of toilet paper on the base, but nobody wants to help me load it and I can never find enough places to store it. We have plenty onboard already and I only needed a few more pallets to top off, but I thought I’d try a little reverse psychology this time. I sent all of Deck Div over to squadron supply earlier so that they wouldn’t be around to load it, and it’s just sitting there on the pier unguarded. I bet it’s all gone by the time we finish lunch!”

Sure enough, an hour later there were only five empty pallets on the pier. Deck Div was mystified, and nobody could tell them what had happened to their stores load.

The Weps managed to keep his mouth shut, and Deck Div wasn’t going to look a working party gift horse in the mouth. I had a hard time keeping the smirk off my lips when I heard the rumors about the TP shortage, and after a while I realized that the commanding officer & executive officer were also struggling to maintain their poker faces. It took about half the patrol for the crew to compare notes and realize that somehow nearly everyone had ended up carrying at least six “emergency” rolls in their rack storage pans. For the next six weeks, rolls of toilet paper kept appearing in the head like magic– all of them crushed beyond recognition, but still usable. Deck Div not only got out of a stores load, but they never even had to restock the stalls.

Next year I finished my sea duty and started a couple years’ enjoyable shore duty. A few years later I went back to sea on my second submarine, and this time I was the Weps. (I don’t smoke, but I did plenty of my own fuming.) Lo & behold, the toilet paper storage problem had not been solved during my shore duty– at least not by the crew. When the supply truck dumped their load (so to speak) on the pier for our deployment, our new Deck Div petty officer immediately began fretting over his storage problem. “No worries”, I assured him, and I sent him and his Deck Div over to squadron supply for a lunch break followed by more painting supplies. A few minutes after they’d left, I started channeling ol’ Mad Dog’s traditional Oscar-winning performance for a new (eavesdropping) topside audience. Then I sent myself to lunch too.

An hour later it had all vanished. I mentioned it to the commanding officer that afternoon. The next morning the executive officer, a former Weps, did us proud. At quarters on the pier, he ignored the empty pallets while he encouraged the crew to conserve toilet paper due to the base-wide shortage. A couple days later we deployed without ever “solving” the mysterious disappearance.

It worked so well that several weeks later two junior officers, with OOD qualification challenges of their own, even offered to share a few rolls with me in exchange for enlightening them on various aspects of the weapons systems for their qual cards. They’d already learned how to convert Navy standard-issue toilet paper into valuable currency.

We were just a few days from pulling into our liberty port before the troops caught on and began restocking the head with their personal stashes…

Related articles:
Sea story: “Hand me a dustpan!”
Sea story: Coffee, anyone?
Sea story: “If I was in the Air Force”…
Sea story: Looking for an Engineer in all the wrong places
Sea story: “Hang on!!”
Sea story: “Secure blowing sanitaries!!!”
Sea story: “Battle Stations Missile”

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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

  1. LCDR COLE…ROFL…. Mad Dog.. Hadnt thought about him in years… Of course.. A Gang prolly had most of it stored behind fan panels with the hooch bottle. in AMR 1 M/L… Oh, Sorry Nords.. you didnt know? Plastic bottle… Fruit… sugar…potable water.. rubber glove… heat…

    • Let’s just say that if it didn’t present a visible problem then we didn’t have to see it. It’s a good thing you guys didn’t decide to go into mass production or sales. (As far as we could tell!) “All Ahead Frank”, “Woody”, and “XO Nemo” were aware of the situation, but we appreciate you all behaving responsibly. With hooch, anyway.

      That reminds me, though, that I’m going to have to write up the sea story of the GOLD crew’s fermentation system that was chugging away in the outboard of Missile Control Center. Or the unfortunate submarine crew whose hapless nuclear reactor technicians were storing their Jack Daniels bottle in an empty (but not shatterproof) drawer in the Reactor Protection & Indication equipment cabinet…

  2. Ah, the light goes on … this sounds like the “S Baker” approach to getting something done (or funding a venture). I wonder if Baker has underwater experience somewhere in his past?

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