The ‘Sub’: How an Old Rolex Submariner Became a Storyteller

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The author’s Rolex Submariner. Photo by Trevor Thompson for Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Trevor Thompson for Coffee or Die Magazine.

Have you ever bought or been given a piece of equipment that became a token, a talisman, a piece of your personal history?

In 2009, I walked into a small Rolex service and resale shop and bought a Rolex Submariner. The things we carry can tell part of our story, and my watch — the nicks along the bezel, the single small chip on the sapphire face, a ding along the housing, and the worn stainless-steel finish — sure tells mine. Each mark of “damage” contains part of my story, turning a tool watch into a memento.

Special operations warfighters have had a close tie with the watches they wear for nearly a century — from Rangers climbing the cliffs at Normandy to SEALs thigh deep in the Mekong Delta to Special Missions Unit operators in the mountains of Afghanistan — and I wanted to be a part of this living history and carry it forward.

My model 14060 Rolex Submariner has no date on its black dial; it’s utterly simple, slim, and tough as hell. It has been with me on 30,000-foot HALO and HAHO jumps and on nuclear submarines performing SDV manned submersible opera-tions. It has been with me in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan, and it has broken the sound barrier in an F-18. It has been covered in the blood of mountain goats and coastal brown bears. This is its story, which is part of my story.

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The author while deployed to Forward Operating Base Shank in Afghanistan, Rolex on his left wrist. Photo courtesy of Trevor Thompson.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Before my “Sub” took its beatings from me during my time in the teams, it sat on a table in a watch shop in Honolulu, Hawaii, next to a watch built in the 1980s. The two watches were similar, but the older one was “vintage” and “cool” — I almost made the mistake of purchasing it but was talked into buying the slightly less expensive watch from 2001.

The owner of the shop listened to me, a newly minted Navy SEAL now stationed at SDVT-1, as I told him of the history of the SEAL teams and the underwater demolition teams. They wore Tudor watches and Rolexes in the Vietnam War, and I wanted to wear one to pay homage to their history — and now mine — and use the watch for its intended purpose. The owner of the shop explained the realities of using this tool, that mechanical watches need servicing and vintage watches require careful attention. Then he graciously told me if I was really going to wear it, use it, and put it through its paces, he would sell it at a discount. He gave me an opportunity that 13 years later I am grateful for and touched by.

My Sub has a ding on the housing at the 9 o’clock position. It’s a slightly flat spot earned at SDVT-1. Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean on the back of an SSGN “Boomer” submarine, I managed to dent a Rolex, which I’ve been told is no small feat. I was in rough seas, underwater on scuba, and it was after dark on the edge of a squall. Driving an SDV — a SEAL Delivery Vehicle — onto the back of a Boomer can be like a slow-motion in-flight refueling or, like that evening, it can be stressful and wild, smashing gear against the boat, possibly causing injuries, and keeping you on your fins. While I was sitting on the edge of the SDV helping a diver rig the boat to come down safely, we were washed harshly into each other and I abruptly hammered my wrist into the bolts of the door of our SDV, watch first. Now, years later, I have a ding in the edge of my watch that reminds me of the wild tumult of the ocean it once lived in, doing a job I will never forget, with other frogmen and divers I’ll always respect and care about.

Every other night we were performing the work most people associate with Navy SEALs ... and ever present on my wrist was my Rolex.

In 2011, I was in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, deployed as an augment to Naval Special Warfare Development Group. For four months, the members of the squadron I was attached to — specifically Kyle Milliken — took me under their tutelage and showed me the way. Every other night we were performing the work most people associate with Navy SEALs: raids and direct-action assaults on targets. We were in and out of Toyota Hiluxes, trucks, and Chinooks, and ever present on my wrist was my Rolex. During 12-kilometer inserts on foot, the time was kept by the sweeping second hand of a Swiss-engineered tool watch, practically the same as the ones that had adorned the wrists of SEALs for decades in combat. Sand and dust slowly eroded the finish from the edges of the toothed bezel and face. When I finally boarded a C‑17 for home in 2012, that Rolex was still on my wrist.

I’ve spent the last four years learning to guide with Cole Kramer in Alaska for blacktail deer, coastal brown bears, and mountain goats. Cole had me cut my teeth while guiding for goats in the mountains of Kodiak, Alaska, a place I hadn’t visited since the winter of 2009 during SEAL Qualification Training at the NSW Winter Warfare school. Through the rain and fog of the crags of Kodiak until Cole taught me how to properly skin out and process a goat, my Rolex was on my wrist.

In the years since I pulled that watch from its jade green box, I’ve washed the salt of three oceans from it, dusted off from it the grit of four continents, and wiped it clean of the blood of animals I never imagined being within arm’s reach. The Rolex Submariner model 14060 is not just a watch; it is a part of my history.


This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 print edition of The Forward Observer, a special publication from Coffee or Die Magazine, as “The ‘Sub.’”

Read Next: What It Means To Be a Navy SEAL, According to 5 SEALs

Trevor Thompson is a former US Navy SEAL who now pursues his passions in skydiving, B.A.S.E. jumping, photography, and food.
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