Reprinted with permission of The Community Press.
Originally printed May 28-29, 2003
By Patricia Mahaffey
Headline: PRIDE RUNS DEEP: Submarine Veterans Form Group in Cincinnati
Submariners: They’ve traveled around the world under water. They’ve been thrown against the bulkhead as enemy depth charges exploded around them. They’ve given up their lives to save each other and to protect our country. They’ve secretly patrolled dangerous, mine-infested waters. They’ve crushed through ice many feet thick to surface at the North Pole. They’ve navigated beneath the inverted, constantly changing mountains of Arctic ice to come out on the other side of the globe. They’ve stayed under water without the light of day for months, living and working in a windowless tube about 30 feet wide and 300 feet long.
And no, to answer the first question people usually ask, they don’t get claustrophobic down there.
Submariners are indeed an elite, exceptionally accomplished, and rightly proud force of the United States Navy. Their countless achievements, heroic acts, and sacrifices in service to their country are extraordinary. And here in Cincinnati, veteran submariners are forming a local base of United States Submarine Veterans, Inc.
The “Cincinnati SubVets” gather regularly to honor fallen shipmates and to share the deep bond among the elite group of sailors who have earned their “Dolphins” – the highly-coveted pin awarded to those who survive the rigorous, exacting training required to become “submarine qualified.”
“These friends are like no other friends I have in the world.” said Terry Diehl of Owensville, who served aboard the USS Triton shortly after she made the historic first submerged circumnavigation of the earth in 1960 -- 36,000 miles without surfacing.
“You become a family, “ said Doug Hughes, of Western Hills, who served on the USS Flying Fish during the Cold War, patrolling northern seas and facing life-threatening situations on missions he is not at liberty to discuss. “You become very knowledgeable of who you’re with, and even if you don’t like them all, you still must do an excellent job of working together, by necessity. The hostile environment demands almost flawless teamwork.”
Limited space requires no extras on board, and that includes crew. Said Hughes: “Every man has a task, each task is a critical cog. There’s no ‘excess fat’ so to speak. If something goes wrong, it can go way wrong quickly. To survive demands that you take the right action individually, and as a team. The margin for error is a lot less than on other vessels. You can’t just radio to get picked up. Even if you could surface, you might be going up in a place you don’t want to be.”
“It’s a different culture, a different language, it’s the camaraderie of knowing somebody else who went through what you did.” said Tim Rich of Delhi, who traveled under Arctic ice while serving aboard the USS Jacksonville during the eighties. “There’s a special bond. You have to go through so much just to get your Dolphins, it’s ingrained down deep inside you.”
“It takes a great specimen of a human being to get into submarine service.” said Bill Finley of Sharonville, who served aboard the USS Cobbler in 1949.
Subhead: Earning Your Dolphins
Qualifying for submarine duty typically begins with rigorous physical and psychological screening, top security clearance, a year of “sub school”, and extensive, exceedingly technical onboard education. Often called “a rare breed”, submariners are some of the most highly trained, skilled people in the Navy.
“Every man has to know every system on the ship from memory,” explained Dick Young, of Colerain Township. Young, who served on submarines in the seventies alongside his brother, founded the rapidly growing veterans group last December. “You have to be able to operate, maintain, and repair every piece of equipment on board --hydraulics, weapons, everything. You have to be able to draw all the pipes, the electrical system, by memory. You have to know exactly what you would do in every scenario.”
Father Gregory Lockwood, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul in Riverside, said, “I’ve never worked with a smarter, more able group of people than I did in the Submarine Force. They have great savvy, great ability to think innovatively, just extremely bright.”
Today’s submarines are billion-dollar plus technological marvels powered by onboard nuclear reactors and equipped with massive firepower and highly sophisticated systems for submerged endurance, habitability, speed, depth, maneuverability, hiding, and detecting. When a man is awarded his Dolphins, it entrusts him not only with the ship, but with his shipmates’ lives. The Dolphins say this man can be counted on in any peril or crisis to know the submarine’s intricate systems, and to do the right thing. This is the essence of the bond that unites submariners for life. Fr. Lockwood, who has been close friends with Hughes since they served together on the Flying Fish thirty years ago, said of his Dolphins, “Besides my collar, it’s the proudest thing I have.”
Subhead: The Supreme Sacrifice
The trust and respect among submariners makes the loss of their comrades all the more heart-wrenching.
Dave Vedor of Western Hills served aboard submarines for 17 years, including 4 South Pacific runs during WWII on the USS Wahoo. He is a man who called his time in the dive tank “nothing.” The “dive tank”, part of the physical screening for submariners, is a 100-foot tower (high as a 10 story building) of water. Prospective submariners must enter it at the bottom and surface. But even a man with Vedor’s sort of guts found being attacked underwater horrifying: “The noise from destroyers dropping depth charges on us…three, four hundred pounds of dynamite going off, it was horrible. To this day, I despise the sound of fireworks. It broke cork (the bulkhead coating). It shook the heck out of us. It shook the whole ship. It was that bad.”
Submarines, comprising only 1.6 percent of U.S. Naval forces during WWII, sank 30 percent of Japan’s Navy, and 60 percent of its merchant fleet. These victories, indispensable to the war’s outcome, were achieved with great sacrifice: submariners had the highest loss rate of all U.S. armed forces. Of 16,000 men, 3,506 gave their lives. Fifty-two of 288 subs were lost.
Just months after Vedor’s time on the Wahoo, she was destroyed by Japanese depth charges. The entire crew was lost, over half of whom Vedor had served with and knew.
Recalling the day in 1943 when he heard the news while at Midway Island, Vedor said, simply, quietly, “It was real hard.”
The creed for United States submarine veterans’ groups reads, in part: “To perpetuate the memory of our shipmates who gave their lives…that their dedication and supreme sacrifice be a constant source of motivation toward greater accomplishments.” Indeed, it bears witness to the Navy’s integrity and honor for its fallen that every casualty since the Submarine Force’s beginnings in 1900 has resulted in significantly improved safety and ship design.
Cincinnati SubVets gathered at the Peace Bell in Newport over the Memorial Day weekend for a “Tolling of the Bells” ceremony in honor of lost submariners.
For more information about the group, call 353-4992, or visit www.cincysubvets.com.
Sidebar: Today in the Gulf: The Silent Force is There
The submarine’s greatest advantage has always been its stealth: the ability to move about undetected. For this reason, much of what the “Silent Force” does is unknown publicly. Only now are details being released about the decisive role submarines played during the Cold War. Among other things, submarines provided a deterrent that was of utmost, though largely unknown, importance against nuclear attack.
Today, despite extensive news coverage of events in Iraq, little is heard about submarines there.
“Oh, they’re there,” said Patric Leedom of Scioto County, who earned the highest rank for enlisted men while serving on both nuclear-powered and the earlier diesel-powered subs. “They’re definitely there.”
Submarines in the Gulf have almost certainly launched Tomahawks from beneath the surface at land targets up to 500 miles away with a pinpoint accuracy that minimizes unwanted damage and civilian loss. Said Dick Young, Cincinnati SubVets Base Commander: “Submarines can also be used for intelligence gathering and covert deployment of troops - Navy Seals, Delta Force and probably some we don't know about. The submarine has the multifunctional ability to monitor communications, launch covert forces, protect the fleet and fire missiles all in a 24-hour period without the enemy knowing of them being there…Cincinnati SubVets are fully behind our submarine sailors in the Gulf. They’re a little different in that they don’t have as much family contact… because the missions they are on don’t allow them… they must remain in a stealth mode while out to sea. We wish them, and all the military there, the best and congratulate them on a job well done.”