What the heck is a Snipe?

In November of 1940, after completing boot camp, my uncle, Joe Flynn, was assigned to the boiler room aboard USS Wichita. And so he became a fireman—a snipe.


Up until the early 1800s, ships were powered by sails—or oars. Then along came paddle wheel steamers. The US Navy obtained its first steamship, USS Fulton in 1812. Suddenly engineers with the know-how to keep steam engines running, stokers with the muscle power and stamina to shovel coal almost continuously, firemen and water tenders who could keep the boilers producing a full head of steam without building up so much pressure that the entire power plant was blown sky high.

When these landsmen came aboard, sailors wanted nothing to do with them and treated them with contempt. So a system of two separate crews evolved: The engineers and all those who worked with them below decks reported to the Engineer Master. Meanwhile the Deck sailors reported to the Deck Master. The two masters were considered to be on equal footing. However, the Deck Master controlled the quarters and the rations, and so in terms of food and sleeping accommodations the engineers were at the mercy of the deck gang.

By the time of the Civil War, more and more Navy ships were powered by steam; sails were disappearing. The Navy’s Admirals realized that only one man could have overall command of the ship. At first they thought the Master with the most seniority should fulfill this role. But if the Engineering Master outranked the Deck Master, that would mean that the ship would be put in charge of a man who was not, in fact, a man of the sea. Not wanting this to happen, the Admirals developed two separate Officer branches—staff and line. Only line officers could advance to the command position. Staff officers included the Ship’s Surgeon, Supply Officers, and, yes, the Engineer Officer. Engineers were made Navy men, But they were Navy men who would always to junior to Deck sailors. This means that an Engineering officer was still junior to the lowest ranking seaman.

This new organization made life of the engineers more miserable than before. They could be flogged and harassed at will by the Deck crew.

Nobody seems to know exactly when John Snipes came along. Snipes, an Engineer Officer, decided he would have none of this inferior position and mistreatment of the crew who worked below decks. Snipes demanded that he and his men be given equivalent sleeping accommodations and the same food as the deck gang. And no more harassment. The ship’s Captain laughed at Snipes’ demands. Until Snipes ordered his men to put out the fires in the boiler.

The Captain quickly realized that he had no choice but to accede to Snipes demands. As word spread the changes Snipe demanded extended to the entire fleet. Out of respect, gratitude and pride, the Engineers became known as Snipe’s.

And to this day, although steam engines have gone the way of the dodo, men are of course still needed to keep each ship’s power plant working reliably around the clock. In today’s US Navy they are the machinist mates, enginemen, gas turbine system technicians, electrician’s mates, damage controlmen, hull maintenance technicians and machinery repairmen. And in honor of their storied history, they take great pride as being known as snipes.


P.S. If you should Google the word “snipe” you will find much information about (and many photos of) the three genera of wading birds characterized by very long, slender bills who inhabit bogs, swamps, wet meadows, rivers, ponds, and coast lines. Fliers rather than sailors!