The discussion over the recent news of the submariner who earned his dolphins in 30 days on USS Tucson got me thinking about my JO tour and the infamous "midshipman dolphins". In the 1990s and before, midshipmen from the Naval Academy and NROTC had been allowed to "earn" enlisted dolphins during their summer cruises; this resulted in an uproar from the retired submariner community, which caused this policy to be eliminated in the late 1990s.
Here's my experience with this program of "giving out" dolphins to the midshipmen. So there I was, on USS Topeka (SSN 754) in the summer of 1991. We had just gotten out to San Diego in the spring, and the CO obviously wanted to make a good impression with the submarine leadership in town. Each summer, each boat not in the shipyards got inundated with large numbers of midshipmen, which really was a pain in the butt. You had to keep them entertained and try to convince them that they should volunteer for submarines. This year, the squadron Commodore apparently decided that he would encourage the boats to try their best to get the midshipmen to "earn" their dolphins. Here's how VADM Mies, SubLant in the late 90's, says it was supposed to operate:
"Each year over 400 midshipmen from both the Naval Academy and NROTC units (Juniors and seniors) participate in summer training cruises aboard submarines. These cruises range in length from 25 to 70 days. The objective of this training program is to further the professional development of midshipmen, by introducing them to the operational Navy, reinforcing their academic year programs, instilling a sense of pride in their identification with the Navy, and inclining them toward careers in the naval service. Utilizing guidance from the Chief of Naval Education and Training, the United States Naval Academy, and the submarine type commanders, each submarine is responsible for developing a program that meets the above objectives.
"The issue of allowing midshipmen the opportunity to earn enlisted dolphins during their summer cruise is specifically addressed in the guidance provided by the submarine type commanders, and is not a new policy. In fact, midshipmen have been given this opportunity as far back as my staff and I can remember. This policy is reviewed annually prior to the start of midshipmen summer training. The current guidance states that:
"Awarding of silver dolphins is approved for all midshipmen who satisfactorily complete all current requirements for enlisted submarine qualification (less time on board). However, each midshipman must be aware of the importance that the Submarine Force places on submarine qualification. The decision to allow midshipmen to attempt enlisted submarine qualification, if they so desire, should be made by the Commanding Officer when the cruise affords a reasonable opportunity to achieve this goal. The usual high standards of qualification must be maintained for midshipmen who attempt to qualify..."
"The allegation that enlisted dolphins are "handed out to four-week students like sticks of candy to grade school children" is not true. As stated above, they must meet all requirements of other enlisted personnel with the exception of the minimum time on board requirement of six months. During the summers of 1996 and 1997, only 5% (20/394) and 6% (31/505) of the midshipmen who participated in a submarine cruise earned their enlisted dolphins, respectively. Regretfully, data on the number of midshipmen who earned enlisted dolphins in 1995 is no longer available, but I can assure you the percentage was small and similar to the above statistics.
"The midshipmen who earn their enlisted dolphins do so only with the support of the entire crew, both officer and enlisted. Many "checkouts" that the midshipmen must receive are obtained from enlisted crew members, and are only given after the midshipmen demonstrate the requisite level of knowledge. Additionally, a final oral examination board is required for each midshipman to earn enlisted dolphins. This board is made up of enlisted members of the crew, as well as an officer, and ensures the midshipman displays the required level of knowledge. This process ensures that enlisted crew members are heavily involved in the qualification of the midshipmen, and should lend credibility to other enlisted submariners who doubt the process is fair."
Sounds pretty good, right? Here's how it actually happened on my boat. Our CO (who was, and still is, a really good guy, btw) comes down from a meeting with the Commodore and tells us that we will "actively support" the Midshipman qualification program. So, we do, and give each midshipman a qual card when they get on board. A few of them decide to try to get the checkouts needed, but soon find that they actually have to do things like trace the systems out, and know how the systems work. As a result, no one actually completes the qual card, or even gets close. So, we're in the last week of midshipmen ops, and the CO wonders why no one has come up for a qual board. When we tell him why, he decides that instead of completing the qual card and having a qual board, we'll just give the midshipmen a DOOW qual exam, and whoever passes that will get their silver dolphins. About six of them did pass, so the CO scheduled a ceremony to give them their dolphins. As you can imagine, this doesn't go over very well with the crew. A number of the chiefs were talking to the Chief of the Boat (the senior enlisted man on board) and told him that if the midshipmen were going to get dolphins, they could go ahead and give the midshipmen their (the Chief's) dolphins. The CO got wind of this, and somehow got it in his head that this meant that the Chiefs were supporting the "Great Topeka Dolphin Give-away". So, we had the ceremony, and each of the six Chiefs went up to the Middies in order, took their own dolphins off their shirts, and pinned them on the midshipmen. The next day, the CO noticed the Chiefs hadn't replaced their dolphins, and asked the COB why. Well, the upshot was that the COB ordered the CPOs to go to the Exchange and buy new dolphins, and wear them, and no midshipman qualified on the Topeka ever again as long as those Chiefs were onboard.
As to the origin of the phrase "purple dolphins": In submarine slang, to "grape" something off is to earn a signature on a qual card for something you didn't really do. This originated, as near as I can tell, from the Sub School practice of giving officer students a weird purple stamp (it's three small purple circles that look like a small group of grapes) next to certain signatures in the officer qual cards that are covered during Sub School.
Update 2121 22 March: Lubber's Line adds his thoughts to the question of "the cheapening of dolphins".