JAPAN -- Last September, Lt. Melanie Martins, a supply officer serving aboard USS Ohio (SSGN 726), became the first Filipina to earn her submarine warfare insignia.
The submarine warfare insignia is worn by all qualified submariners worldwide. It is a universally recognizable symbol of a submariner’s experience, competency and in the case of officers, ability to assume command in an emergency. Over the course of many decades, earning one’s “dolphins” has evolved into a rite of passage in submarine culture.
Martins, who hails from Angeles City, Pampanga, Philippines, made the challenging transition from the enlisted aviation community to the wardroom of a guided missile submarine in 2013, becoming the first female Filipina officer to earn the Submarine Warfare Specialist pin September 2019.
The U.S. Navy submarine warfare pin features the starboard angle of an O-class submarine emerging from the center of the insignia, slicing through the waves of an oceanic horizon. Two dolphins, the attendants of the Greek god of the sea Poseidon and patron deity to sailors, bring shape to the submariners’ badge and are seen surfacing from the sea facing the submarine.
The insignia is an unspoken indication that the wearer has challenged the depths of the seas and has been deemed worthy of donning it by their peers. Those who wear “dolphins” are widely acknowledged as part of an elite community, and as Martins relates, accepted as part of a close-knit team.
“I felt like I knew my wardroom for a very long time when I first got there! There was no awkward moment with anyone, even in the enlisted ranks,” said Martins. “My first experience was scary, especially when I found out how to get in and out of the boat. I was so scared to climb up and down the escape trunk. The passageways are so tight, and the compartments are confusing, but everyone is willing to show and teach you where everything is, so I got familiar with the boat quickly.”
Martins said the challenges of being a submariner exceeded her expectations.
“I thought it was hard. I was wrong. It is really, really hard,” said Martins. “There are times when I am too busy, and I ask myself ‘why did I do this at all.’ But then I realize that not all people are offered this opportunity. I have to grab it and be the best that I can be.”
Martins recounted some of the challenges of submarine life and the path to earning her “dolphins.” No one gets cut any slack, she learned. Qualifications take time, perseverance and at times, a thick skin.
“I was qualifying for Diving Officer of the Watch. I was going to take the boat to Periscope Depth, and I was so nervous and stressed because for me, it is probably the most difficult evolution of the watch,” said Martins. “You have to be able to do it in minutes. It took me forever to take it up. The commanding officer was really frustrated. But I practiced more and got better at doing it.”
She also acknowledges that the path to earning one’s “dolphins” as difficult as it is, will never be a solo endeavor. Everyone, from the most junior submariner to senior officers, is deeply invested in a new crewmember’s success.
“In the submarine fleet, we are closer to each other not only physically, but it is a brotherhood. No matter the rank, if you are doing something wrong that can potentially kill everyone on the ship, you will be corrected,” said Martins. “We rely heavily on each other, especially under the sea because the possibility of losing all hands in one mistake is highly likely. Trust is huge and very important.”
Martins returns the favor, of course, by bringing a bit of her own culture below the depths of the sea aboard the guided-missile submarine and to her fellow submariners.
“I cook Filipino dishes underway sometimes,” said Martins. “I am the only Pinoy aboard my submarine, so I show everyone our dishes. We never run out of rice of course! But I miss [the Filipono soup] Sinigang. It is my all-time favorite!”
At the end of the day however, she reminds herself of the things, or the people, that motivate her to do her best and push forward.
“My family motivates me to be the best I can be, especially my daughter. I want her to be proud of me one day and say to everyone that her mommy is a submariner!”