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MailTribune.com
  • The Cold War's silent heroes share memories

    Former submariners are seeking new members for a local association chapter
  • Submariners are a different sort of breed — and when they get together, they seem to recognize each other immediately and within five minutes are swapping sea stories over drinks, like lifelong pals.
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  • Submariners are a different sort of breed — and when they get together, they seem to recognize each other immediately and within five minutes are swapping sea stories over drinks, like lifelong pals.
    They also have a lot of respect for the 3,500 submariners who gave their lives on 52 boats (they never call them "ships") in World War II — and they want to keep those memories alive.
    That's why 15 local submariners are forming a chapter of the United States Submarine Veterans and seeking out new members for a gathering at Seven Feathers in late July, according to the group's leader, Ken Earls of Eagle Point.
    "Submariners are an even-natured bunch," said Earls as he sipped coffee with two retired underwater types from Medford. "They don't rattle easy. In a sub, you have split seconds to make decisions that could save you or kill everyone on board."
    The vast majority of living submariners are Cold War sailors who did not see direct combat. The youngest veterans of World War II, who saw plenty of war, are now in their late 80s.
    Their war lives on in their memories.
    A decade ago, Earls heard one World War II sub veteran talk of sinking a Japanese destroyer, then having to sit the sub on the sea floor for two days, with everything turned off, hoping to dodge 120 depth charges dropped by another enemy destroyer.
    "Talk about heroes," said Earls, shaking his head.
    Though they haven't fired any shots in anger, the Cold Warriors of the Silent Service say they played a major role in preventing another world war, simply by being armed with 16 long-range Polaris missiles, each loaded with thermonuclear weapons that could literally end the world.
    "I believe our submarine force not only prevented World War III, but is responsible for the demise of the Soviet Union," says Earls, 72. "The subs had so much firepower, both Soviet and American, that both sides knew if they fired one, there wouldn't be anywhere to report back to." Fifty years later, as a member of the International Submariners Association, Earls attended a meeting of the group in Moscow. Standing in Red Square, he recalled that the targeting map on his USS Woodrow Wilson had a big, red X on that spot.
    "The motto was: 'You can exercise bluster all you want, but don't do anything foolish.'"
    Clyde Waite of Medford, 76, a veteran of the diesel-electric USS Tench, observed, "One nuclear sub carried more firepower than all the weapons fired by all sides in World War II."
    David Colby, 75, of Medford, served mostly on the USS Abraham Lincoln. He said he, Earls and Waite spent years in the period from 1957 to 1978 tracking and evading Soviet subs and engaging in "lots of espionage." Most of that is still classified, though much of the cover was blown by the 1998 book, "Blind Man's Bluff."
    Technology has become so advanced that today's subs can make their own air and water and stay submerged for years — as long as there's food, said Earls.
    You might think sub service claustrophobic, but Colby said it was just like being on any other ship, minus the windows. Despite being submerged for up to 60 days at a time, they said, it didn't bother them psychologically.
    The air, however, was super-filtered so when they surfaced and opened the hatch, said Waite, "the air outside, no matter where you were, stank enough to gag a maggot.
    "I thought sub service was great," said Colby. "The duty was good if you liked what you did. I worked in the engine room and loved it, except for the occasional moments of terror."
    Cold War sub foes often tracked each other so closely that they would actually bump, said Earls, but it didn't lead to any hostile exchanges.
    While there were no hostile exchanges, the subs did make news.
    A member of the local club or "base" as it's called, was on the USS Nautilus when it sailed to the North Pole in 1958, a history-making first.
    The men had friends on the ill-fated USS Thresher, which sank in 1963. They served during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world stood on the brink of nuclear war, and Colby was in the Caribbean theater.
    Of the many tense movies about submarines, "Das Boot," a 1981 German production about a German crew in World War II, comes the closest to capturing the experience, said Waite.
    Submariners are unique, adds Earls, starting with the fact that every one of them was a volunteer. Each also had to go through rigorous physical and psychological screening, followed by what he said seemed like endless training and schooling.
    Former submariners may join the group by contacting Earls at 928-308-4488 (number corrected from previous version).
    John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.
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