What to expect at a submarine birthday ball


By Carolann Chambers

When you’re a military family, it can be hard to hold onto traditions because you live in so many different places. One year can be so drastically different from the next. But we also get to have traditions that we never would have been a part of without the military.

The submarine birthday ball is a tradition that I look forward to each year. No matter where my husband and I are stationed, I find comfort in knowing that there will be a submarine birthday ball. I feel so honored to attend, and I always have  fun getting dressed up and spending the evening celebrating the submarine force.

It’s a wonderful evening out, but it is also a formal event steeped in years of tradition. If you’re anything like me, the idea of attending any military ball can be equal parts exciting and nerve-wracking. What are you supposed to wear? What actually happens at these things? Are you supposed to act a certain way?

Here’s everything you need to know to feel comfortable, look your best, have a great night.

What is the submarine birthday ball?

115th annual Navy Officers Submarine Birthday Ball
(Photo: DVIDS)

The submarine birthday ball celebrates the anniversary of the US submarine force. On April 11, 1900, the Navy purchased its first submarine from John Philip Holland. It was named the USS Holland (SS-1) and was America’s first commissioned submarine.

When is it?

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(Photo: DVIDS)

The submarine birthday ball takes place in the spring and can be any time between March and May.

When the submarine birthday ball is announced, there will usually be a Facebook page or website detailing all of the information about with information about tickets, hotel room blocks, the keynote speaker, and program.

Some bases have fundraisers in the months leading up to the ball to help offset the costs. Some bases have separate balls for enlisted submariners and officers, while others combine them.

What should I wear?

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(Photo: DVIDS)

This is a great article about what to wear to a military ball and what etiquette to follow. The same advice goes for a submarine birthday ball. There will be specific instructions from the organizers of the ball telling the submariners which dress uniform to to wear.

The submarine birthday ball calls for formal attire for civilians. Since your date will be wearing their dress uniform, you want to match them and represent them well. Most women wear long gowns. Men can wear a tuxedo or a suit depending on the uniform his date is wearing.

This isn’t the time to break out your sexiest dress. This isn’t the time to push the envelope. That doesn’t mean you can’t show any skin, but use your judgment. Be comfortable in what you wear, but also remember that this is a formal military event and there will be high-ranking submariners there from your date’s command as well as retirees.

As much as I love the submarine birthday ball, and as much as I love getting dressed up, I always keep in mind that the night is not about me — it’s about my husband’s service and the submarine force. So I try to dress and act accordingly.

One perk to moving around all the time is that if you have a fabulous gown that you love, you can wear it over and over. I wore the same gown to three different submarine birthday balls–one in Washington and two in Hawaii. It fit perfectly, and I didn’t have to stress about finding a new gown or spending extra money. Win-win-win!

Another option is renting a gown. One year I rented a gown and while it worked out, I ended up spending the same amount of money that I spent this year to buy one on sale.

Some women will get their hair done and some won’t. I never feel out of place when I do my hair myself. I like to save time and money by doing it myself.

What’s cocktail hour like?

Pearl Harbor’s 116th Submarine Birthday Ball
(Photo: DVIDS)

The evening begins with a cocktail hour, which is perfect for mingling, taking pictures, and, of course, having a drink. It’s a long night, though, and there will still be a formal program ahead of you, so make sure to pace yourself. You don’t want to embarrass yourself and your date before the most important part of the evening even begins.

Should I spring for pictures?

Seattle Submarine Ball
(Photo: DVIDS)

At every submarine birthday ball I’ve ever attended, there has been a professional photographer taking formal pictures in front of a backdrop. You have to pay for the pictures, but they are completely optional. The line during cocktail hour can get long, but you usually can go back later–just make sure the photographer is sticking around.

Sure, the photographers take the same cheesy poses every year but to me, these pictures are so worth it. How often do you get dressed up, get to see your submariner in their dress uniform, and have a professional photographer around? Someday my husband will be retired and I know that I’ll be glad I have these pictures as a memory of his service.

What’s the formal program like?

Yokosuka Submarine Birthday Ball
(Photo: DVIDS)

Once you go inside, you will have an assigned table and an assigned seat at that table.  Each submarine birthday ball is slightly different, but all of the ones I have been to have featured a few key events in the formal program.

Each base likes to do things a little different, but there is usually the Color Guard and National Anthem, the Tolling of the Boats ceremony, toasts, and a keynote speaker. There is also a multi-course dinner followed by a cake cutting ceremony. The formal program ends with the dance floor opening up. Sometimes there is a centerpiece competition  in which the submariners from each boat makes their own centerpiece.

The Tolling of the Boats is perhaps the most important part of the submarine birthday ball. The Tolling of the Boats honors those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, who still serve silently under the sea. You will be asked to stand as the names of each of the submarines lost, along with the fate of its crew, are read aloud as a ship’s bell is tolled for each in turn.

Anything else I should know?

2013 Washington, DC Area Submarine Birthday Ball
(Photo: DVIDS)

It is an honor to attend the ball, so don’t get so drunk that you have to be carried out. Have a plan for how you’re going to get home. Many times, there will be a block of hotel rooms set up so you can get a room at a discounted rate, and/or there will be shuttle buses going back to base so that you don’t have to worry about driving.

Most importantly, enjoy this special night with your date and the years of submarine tradition that run through the entire evening. It’s an event that not many people get to experience. Have fun and be yourself!

9 Comments

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  2. I am the spouse of a retired submarine officer. We actually met on a blind date at the Submarine Christmas ball in 1987. We been married 30 years now and we know that the submarine balls are wonderful. My daughter just graduated from college and she would love to be able to go to the submarine birthday ball with a handsome young officer and gentleman. How would I go about finding a date for her for the submarine birthday ball? Thank you.

  3. Greetings Andrea. I’m chuckling … Hardly believe I’m actually writing this. It’s simply not my style to get involved with my son’s love life. But, what the heck.
    Just read the above, the day AFTER the Submarine Birthday and celebratory Balls. No mention of where your daughter lives. My 27 yo son just arrived at Sub Base Bangor, WA a few weeks ago. He is a newly minted Nuclear Sub Officer and a very fine gentleman also; about to become a LTJG next month. His nursing student girlfriend of Maine, whom he met while at SOBIC, just broke up with him. Impossible geography was the issue. Steven attended last night’s Ball solo. It was his first.
    As a former Navy Commander / Dental Officer myself, and having served “here and there”, I’ve attended many Dental Corps, Navy, and USMC Balls. Superb events indeed with outstanding team camaraderie. You certainly know the busy-ness of studying for and earning his “Dolphins”. Living on Bainbridge Island, he is completely single and ready to date.
    I dare say: Steven is handsome, young, athletic, academically-ambitious, and honest and sincere with good sense of humor. Very capable with a bright future; a “keeper” for sure. And all he needs is the right lady by his side.

    1. Sorry for the delay Bruce! I had pretty much given up receiving a comment, but I’m so glad you responded. But the sad news is that we live in Virginia Beach, VA so a bit of travel would be required for a date with my daughter. Since your son just got to WA, I don’t suppose he’ll be heading to Norfolk anytime soon and that’s really too bad. Again geography is the issue.
      I know it feels odd to try to match make for our kids, but I think it’s harder now than ever to meet people with such busy work schedules. Especially for your son who has to deal w going to sea (is he on an SSN or SSBN?). Your son sounds like a true officer and gentleman. Marisa is 23 and would have loved to have met him. My husband graduated from the Naval Academy and has always treated me, Marisa and all people as an officer and gentleman and very respectful to all, so that is what she expects in a man she would date.
      Also, congrats to Steven on making LTJG!! I know you and your family r so very proud of him as you should be. If u know if any great guys in this area, please let me know. Btw, where do you live now?
      Thanks for your response and thank you to you and your son for your service and sacrifices.
      Andrea Harris

  4. Hello Andrea,
    About to turn in, but decided to check on this thread. We live in San Diego, but also have a home in Gig Harbor, WA; about 40 mins from Sub Base Bangor, WA. I believe it’s now called Joint Base Kitsap that also includes the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton. We fly up and back often. Steven, who’ll spend many weekends with/without us in Gig when able, is new aboard an SSBN, the Alabama. He’s about to depart in June and experience his first patrol. That’s all I have for you, but when I see him next week, I’ll inquire about a suitable “substitute” in Norfolk if he knows one. Good night, Bruce

    1. Thanks for the info. I have family in San Diego too that retired from the Navy and stayed there. I hope Steven has a great experience on his first patrol! If he knows of a great guy in this area, please pass it on! Thank you.
      Andrea

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