Now each of us from time to time has gazed upon the sea
And watched the warships pulling out to keep the country free.
And most of us have read a book, or heard a lusty tale,
About the men who sail these ships through lightning, wind and hail.
But there's a place within each ship that legends fail to teach,
Within the shell, deep down in Hell, where legend cannot reach.
It's down below the water-line, and takes a living toll—
That red-hot metal living hell, which sailors call the "Hole."
It houses engines run by steam that makes the shafts go 'round.
A place of fire, noise, and heat that beats your body down.
Where boilers, like a hellish heart, with blood of angry steam,
Are molded gods without remorse, like nightmares in a dream,
Whose threatning hiss and fiery roar maintain the watch-long doubt,
That any moment they can break their chains and snuff you out.
Where turbines scream like tortured souls, alone and lost in Hell—
(When ordered from above somewhere, they answer every bell.)
The men who keep the fires lit and make the engines run
Are strangers to the world of light, and rarely see the sun.
They have no time for play or fun, no tolerance for fear,
But if a shipmate passes on, each one will shed a tear.
For there's not much that men can do that these men haven't done,
Beneath the decks, down in their Hole, to make the engines run.
And every hour of every day they keep their watch in Hell,
For if their fires ever fail their ship's a useless shell.
When ships converge to have a war upon an angry sea,
The men below just grimly smile at what their fate will be.
They're locked below like men foredoomed, who hear no battle cry—
It's well assumed that if they're hit the men below will die.
But every day's a war down there: when gages all read red,
Twelve hundred pounds of heated steam can kill you mighty dead.
So if you ever write their song or try to tell their tale,
The very words will make you hear a fired furnace wail.
And people, as a general rule, don't care for fire and steel,
So little's heard about that place, just inches from the keel.
But I can sing about the Hole, and try to make you see
The hardened life of men down there, for one of them is me.
I've seen these sweat-soaked heroes fight in superheated air,
To keep their ship alive and right, though no one knows they're there.
And thus they'll fight for ages on till warships sail no more,
Amid the boiler's mighty heat and turbine's hellish roar.
So when you see a ship pull out to meet a war-like foe,
remember faintly if you can, The Men Who Sail Below.
This poem will be meaningful to anyone who spent time below decks on a steam-turbine-powered ship from the WWII era or thereabouts. Seafarers from a later time might not have a clue.
"The Snipe's Lament" appears in various forms in many nautical places, including on plaques presented to departing shipmates. Often words have been obviously botched or left out, and sometimes extra lines are added. Sometimes it appears as "Ode to a Snipe" or "The Men Who Sail Below." This version has been assembled from several slightly different ones, and polished by Louis F. Sander.
If you know the poem's history, or if you can provide some evidence of its source, we'd love to hear from you. Send email to email@example.com or call us at (412) 367-1376.