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The Men Who Sail Below

The legend behind the Snipes

Sweat runs down a soot-covered face, carving a path through the thick field of grime. It gathers and pools before falling in a bead to the metal below. It sizzles as it hits and is gone.


The cramped metal room is hot. It is a place where fires burn, water boils and steam lives. The man with the soot-covered face looks up as orders are relayed from above. He shakes off his daze and nudges his partner, then picks up a coal shovel. Time to answer the bell.

These are the original Snipes, and their story dates back more than two centuries.

The first steam-powered warship in the world was the Demologos - later named the Fulton in honor of the man who designed it. According to Frank M. Bennett in "The Steam Navy of the United States," the New York-built vessel was constructed in 1814 to combat the British during the War of 1812.

The Demologos, however, was not completed in time for use against the British fleet. Nonetheless, it changed the seas forever. No longer would navies be reliant on the whims of the wind.

"Back in the days of sail, they used to have Sailors that would run the sails to make the ships move," explained Senior Chief Gas Turbine System Technician Nakia Riley of USS Preble (DDG 88). "The first engines they put on ships were steam engines, and the people they had to actually man the plants were steam engine operators from land."

Riley is a tall man who looks at home at his watch station, a raised chair overlooking Preble's central control station. His title aboard Preble is "Top Snipe," and the words stand out in bold on his name tag. He explained that in the early days, there was a divide between the deckhands and the engineers from land. Ship crews needed them to operate the engines, but refused to view the gritty, coal-covered men as Sailors.

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The division between below-deck and topside Sailors was immediate and stark. The machinists were newcomers to an organization with its own heralded history. They learned to rely on one another as technology advanced, but the topsiders always saw themselves as above the engine room operators. They were even known to belittle the engineers, calling them dirty, their job unimportant.

"The machinists from land operated the engines and the Sailors operated everything above," said Riley. "So, they coexisted for a while - the machinists weren't called Sailors, but they coexisted. Over time, the topsiders would give the machinists a hard time."

In fact, they didn't even hold naval ranks until 1859. Bennett describes an order signed by Congress that year that assigned titles and pay for chief engineers, first assistant engineers, second assistant engineers and third assistant engineers. Aboard ships, the chief engineer would be in charge of the machinists, whereas the captain would head the entire boat.

This declaration was undercut, however, by a single sentence that read: "This order confers no authority to exercise military command and no additional right to quarters." A hierarchy was put in place to determine the order of precedence at sea. This lead to a list with the machinists, in almost every aspect, at the bottom.

"They sailed on the same ships, but the Snipes were considered below everybody else - the Snipes came after everybody," said Riley. "When it came to getting off the ship, Snipes got off last. When it came to food rations, if they ran out of food, Snipes got the scraps that were left over. When it just came to respect walking down the deck, the Snipes had to get out of the way of topsiders. Even a brand-new seaman first class had rank over a Snipe that had been on the ship for years."

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Over time, the duties of engineers were broken up into separate jobs and ratings to match the evolving technology, but the order of precedence remained. This mandated discrimination wouldn't be tolerated forever, however.

"So this new engineer - nobody really knows where he's from or what his first ship was - named John Snipes was a ship's chief engineer, and when he saw this happening to his crew, he spoke out and said, 'We want equal rations, equal rights,'" said Riley. "The topsiders just laughed at him and told him to go back to the hole; it wasn't going to happen. So Snipes told his crew, his guys, to turn the lights out. They shut off the engines while they were in the middle of the water."

The power these engineers held quickly became obvious. In the past, ships were unable to move without Sailors working the lines, but the Navy had changed. Now the engine was king. Word of Snipes' actions spread quickly.

"Without the engines, a steam ship doesn't move," explained Riley. "Snipes again demanded equal portions and rights or the engines would stay off. Other ships heard about it and they started doing the same, and it sparked a wave until they did get fair treatment. They became known as 'Snipes' Men.' So all engineers are known as Snipes' Men, and, over the years, it's turned into 'Snipes.'"

According to Riley, John Snipes has become a legend in the engineering community as the man who fought for equality. The process did not happen overnight, however. According to a study by the Office of Naval Research, it was not until the mid-1900s that the Navy abandoned rating precedence, making rank the primary source of authority.

In today's Navy, the name Snipes lives on in machinist mates, enginemen, gas turbine system technicians, electrician's mates, damage controlmen, hull maintenance technicians and machinery repairmen. They carry the legacy, keeping the engines running around the clock so that our ships have life.

Without them, the ship is just a floating box.