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Submarines Were His First Love

Updated on February 23, 2013
1947 - Great Lakes, Illinois
1947 - Great Lakes, Illinois

He had been lonely most of his life, this boy with only a few friends and little money for the usual activities of boyhood. His high school years were spent working part time delivering groceries on his bicycle. Sometimes he helped his father deliver the rich folks dry cleaning. As the oldest child, he was the last to get attention. Sure, he knew they loved him but with three younger siblings (one that was pretty sickly) keeping his mother busy, well, sometimes he just felt - alone.

The year was 1947 and he was a young man who had no job skills. The US Navy seemed like a good choice. Jobs weren't very plentiful in this sleepy little town and there was no money for college. Those thoughts led him to the recruiter's office. I wonder sometimes if he really knew what he had done, when he signed those papers.

The US Navy sent him up to Great Lakes, Illinois for training. He said it was the coldest place in the world. He underwent testing for physical weakness and mental stamina and learned that he had qualified for submarine service. I've often wondered if he understood what that meant, back then.

With his basic training complete, he received his orders to report to San Diego, California. He traveled alone by train, from the east coast to the west. It was his first trip outside the state. I wonder if he was afraid. The Navy put him to work in the engine room. He was responsible for keeping the boiler operational. In his spare time, he trained as a fireman and practiced deep sea diving and rescue skills. He loved the water and the thrill of diving.

He worked on the Gato and Balao class subs but the two he loved best were the USS Bashaw (SS-241) and USS Bumper (SS-333). Both were military class subs with intricate ventilation and water systems. Every sailor had to know that complex system inside and out and be able to find any component in complete darkness before they could earn the coveted 'dolphins medal to wear on their uniform. He earned his dolphins quickly and was more than proud of them.

USS Bashaw patch
USS Bashaw patch
USS Bumper patch
USS Bumper patch | Source
The Beloved Dolphins
The Beloved Dolphins

Sixty-five years have passed and his Alzheimer's disease is slowly erasing his memory. To sit with him and talk is to listen to his stories of the real loves of his life. He will always tell you his greatest love is his family but if you read between the lines, you'll find that he's a man who loved submarines best. If that pretty little girl hadn't turned his head, he would have spent his life on those boats. I've never doubted it. When he talks of those years in the Navy, chasing Japanese subs around the Pacific, you can hear it in his voice. It's haunting sometimes when he speaks of Mare Island, Hong Kong, Japan, Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, or Hawaii. He doesn't speak of the night life or the pretty girls. No, he talks about being on those boats, turning valves this way and that to flush a toilet, the noise in the engine room or decompressing in the chamber after diving. He doesn't speak of being lonely or wondering if anyone cared. When he was on those boats, he was part of a team; a team of sailors who depended on each other to do their job so that they could all come home safe.

He never won fancy medals or climbed through the ranks of officers. No, he was happy in that engine room. His felt that his job was just as important as anyone else's and he took his responsibility seriously. When he speaks of those years in the US Navy, he speaks with pride and love. He still wears those dolphins proudly, on a baseball cap or a jacket. Most conversations with him eventually return him to those days under water. Yes, those submarines, they had him from hello. They will always have him, I hope. The Alzheimer's has wiped away the memory of his brother and he no longer knows the names of his neighbors. He can't remember which mailbox is his, and he rarely knows what day it is. But he remembers those submarines. He can tell you about the heat in the engine room and how he used the steam to get wrinkles out of his uniform. He can still recall the sequence of valves he had to turn to flush the toilet. He can tell you about the officer who let him bring his young bride on board for a weekend dive. Alzheimer's hasn't touched his memories of those boats - his real love, and when he remembers, it brings him joy.

© 2012 Linda Crist, All rights reserved.

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  • lrc7815 profile image

    Linda Crist 5 years ago from Central Virginia

    Oh MizB - I adore you. Your heart is so tender and we always seem to connect on the most special things. This man I wrote about is my Dad. He is 84 years old and sliding quickly down the slippery slope of Alzheimers. He speaks of submarines as though they were a deity. He loved them so. He was not very social as a young man and my grandfather (his father) asked a young lady he worked with to write to my Dad. She became my mother and the other real love of my Dad's life. They have been together for 62 years. Theirs is a real love story. She is the sole reason he left the service but I have always thought he left a piece of his heart there.

    Aren't we blessed? We have these stories of honor and love to cherish. I would like to have known your uncle. Piss and vinegar is right up my alley.

    Thank you for sharing your connection to this story with me. It gives it a new depth.

  • MizBejabbers profile image

    Doris James-MizBejabbers 5 years ago

    You actually made me tear up. You don’t say who this man is to you, but it is obvious that you respect and enjoy him. This almost could have been about my uncle, especially the part about the “pretty little girl.” My aunt’s husband, George, spend 16 years as a Navy submariner, starting in WWII. His top rank was chief radioman, but he probably would have gone farther than that if he hadn’t gotten busted a couple of times (He really was full of piss and vinegar). He loved subs dearly. Then he met my aunt in California; his first and only marriage and he settled down. After taking on a new wife and stepdaughter, whom he soon adopted as his own, he returned to land. But oh, those tales he could tell us. I loved him, and I feel so honored to have known him and anyone else who spent so much time under the sea. He was very active in the Submarine Veterans, and never missed a national convention until his health failed and he entered a nursing home. He passed away a few years ago.

    Here’s to the submariners who have given so much to this country.

  • lrc7815 profile image

    Linda Crist 5 years ago from Central Virginia

    Hi Mhatter99! I bet your friend loved subs too. I guess you couldn't live in quarters that tight without loving them. lol

    Thanks for reading!

  • Mhatter99 profile image

    Martin Kloess 5 years ago from San Francisco

    Thank you for sharing this. One of my good friends was a submariner. He was a lieutenant. Arlene and I got to take many interesting naval tours.