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A snorkel mask, weighted belt, camera rig and long fins aren’t part of typical afternoon attire for most, but for Senior Chief Fire Control Technician Vien (Bob) Nguyen it’s his norm. His dark tan and relaxed, peaceful personality are not one to expect from meeting a senior chief in the submarine force. Though spending months below the water’s surface as a submariner is all in a day’s work, it’s his hobby that draws him back almost every day.
It was a talent for underwater photography that Nguyen gained notoriety for during the conclusion of a Rim of the Pacific exercise in August 2018 with a shot some have dubbed the greatest submarine photo of all time.
Nguyen joined the Navy in 2005 to make a better life for himself and his family. His opportunity to leave as early as possible for boot camp presented itself with a bonus for joining the submarine community and an ‘A’ school for fire control technician.
Composed of 14,000 Sailors, it is a very small community with a different mindset and experience than the rest of the fleet.
“A submarine [is] not for everyone,” said Nguyen. He believes it makes Sailors stronger as they have to deal with things that the average person does not have to consider. Aboard fast-paced war machines like submarines, Sailors are expected to perform well and make critical decisions, he emphasized. Having to keep their personal and work lives balanced along with deployments, Sailors sacrifice a lot of time and energy, he said. He does his best to take care of his junior Sailors by encouraging them to take advantage of each port call and duty station--to go out, have fun, and worry about work later. He reminds them that their friends and family back home don’t have the same opportunities available to go exploring, hiking or swimming in such unique locations- like Hawaii.
Nguyen’s love for photography began while stationed in San Diego when his wife asked for a camera for their vacation. They used photography as a way to save memories they created together, dating back to 2012. During his deployments, Nguyen used photography to document his adventures during port calls and as a way to connect with his Sailors. Although he didn’t have a waterproof camera at the time, he had an image in mind of swim call that was different from ones he had seen before.
“While we are on a submarine [swim call is] very rare,” said Nguyen. “Some people go their whole submarine career and never do a swim call. You always have pictures of being on top of the submarine or taking someone from the top [looking] down below.”
“In 2015 the ship pulled out, we were a week underway and the captain did a swim call,” Nguyen shared; upset he didn’t have his GoPro with him. Eventually, he made his own deployment GoPro camera kit he would take out to sea with him so he wouldn’t miss another opportunity for the photo. It would take another three years before the dream became a reality.
While stationed in Hawaii, snorkeling quickly became their newest hobby. Because of their love for photography and snorkeling, he bought an underwater camera for his wife’s birthday and quickly learned they needed a second one. Eventually their photography became a competition for who took the better shot.
During those first three years in Hawaii, he made the most of being home with his wife and friends between deployments, giving away photos to his friends who would visit. Sometimes after snorkeling and diving with local photographers, he would see their underwater photos on social media. Nguyen was surprised with the difference in the quality of their photos compared to his own. He eventually bought a professional camera. Shadowing one of his friends, he learned how close he needed to be to his subjects, directions to give the models, sun placement and tricks for editing. He learned techniques to create the artistic touch like his friends on social media. Then, the moment for his dream photo arrived.
During RIMPAC he was on the Los Angeles-class submarine USS Olympia (SSN 717), in charge of shooting Harpoon anti-ship cruise missiles during a sinking exercise, noting it was a very successful week during RIMPAC. “And then we had a swim call. I was sleeping [and] I heard over the [public address system] ‘we’re about to do a swim call, everyone get your trunks on, get ready!’ I’m like ‘Yes! It’s about to happen!’” He plugged in his GoPro for about 30 minutes, not wanting to waste too much time, as a change in sea conditions or weather could end the event at any given moment.
He jumped into the Pacific Ocean, took photos of the crew jumping in and asked a shipmate to take a photo of him. His GoPro soon died, so he quickly charged it for another 30 minutes, got back out in the water and shot more before the submarine went under. He reviewed the photos while underway; appreciating how neat they turned out.
One of his yeoman asked to have the photo, saying that it made him happy. “That alone made me super happy, so I gave it to him. He posted it to the Submarine Brotherhood Facebook page and everyone commented on it. I think [the photo] didn’t go viral but Navy-big, a bunch of people reposted it. All these old time veterans were super appreciative of it. We were in port for like a week then we went underway and we pop up in San Diego and then the next thing I know it’s on the All Hands Instagram page, the MCPON Instagram, the Navy Instagram of multiple photos of the submarine day. So, I think [the] event alone kind of like made me super happy; that the pictures I took made other people happy.” Nguyen said as his voice got thick with emotion.
The ability to share a little glimpse of what submariners do is rewarding to Nguyen, as the job is tough he said. He felt the crew connected with the photo, even if they weren’t a part of the swim call that day. Nguyen explained that he was out there taking photos for fun, creating mementos for once in a lifetime memories.
“Me being underwater all the time, I think there is nothing better to do out here [in Hawaii],” said Nguyen. “The feeling I get under water is you’re calm and you’re peaceful the whole time and it’s super relaxing. I can go hike anywhere in the world but I can’t swim anywhere in the world. Swimming out here, it’s pretty incredible and it’s different every time- no one day is the same.”
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