“Meet you at 10 at the lot,” Paul Kelley said before hanging up.
I knew the drill, having made my first visit to the Holland Club earlier this year. We would meet in the Park and Ride lot on Centerville Road and then drive to Groton in Paul’s van.
Time is a critical element to being a member of this exclusive club and, as I have come to learn, being on time is also a part of being a submariner.
With 10 minutes to spare, I pulled into the lot Tuesday; circled to make certain Paul and his wife Betty had not arrived earlier; pulled into a space and shut off the engine. It gave me a chance to look over the books Paul dropped off since my introduction to the club. They are all about submarines and the stories they tell are remarkable.
But, as engaging as these stories were, I knew they couldn’t compare to what I would hear and the camaraderie shared with the Holland Club. The club, built as a theater about 100 years ago, is perched on a steep street not far from the banks of the Thames River in Connecticut. It is a trove of submarine memorabilia; the walls are filled with pictures and paintings of the boats; there are scores of plaques with the rosters of the men and the boats they served on; there are flags and uniforms; and the submariners’ dolphin ensign.
Only a select group gets to be members of the club that’s named for America’s first submarine. A membership is based on when one qualified as a submariner, and a member must have qualified at least 50 years ago.
Paul qualified in 1959, aboard the USS Croaker in New London.
I looked up from my book and spotted Paul’s van pulling into the lot. It was precisely 10. Thirty seconds later, Nick Calderiso and his wife Dot drove up. Nick qualified in 1945 aboard the Trepang SS412 in Mare Island, off the California coast.
Submariners are on time. And they are a tight knit group.
Paul and Nick wear their blue vests festooned with patches, medals and pins and, embroidered across the back, the names of the submarines they had served on.
Talk centered on the Boston Marathon bombing and the intense hunt undertaken to track down the perpetrators. When conversation turned to submarines, it was about the 50th observance of the sinking of the Thresher in Portsmouth, N.H. Usually, said Paul, about 250 gather on the anniversary of the sinking that claimed the lives of 129. On Saturday, April 6, more than 2,000 gathered.
The Thresher loss was a turning point in the development of submarines.
“It was a big deal,” said Paul. “They went out and tried to find why they had problems and they redesigned the technology.”
Submarines today are safer because of the Thresher, although, as I was to learn from the Holland’s Club luncheon speaker, resources are in demand and risks are being taken with submarines that could end in tragedy.
“The Thresher reminds us that we are at risk of our own technology,” Captain Richard Verbeke said, after a barbecue chicken lunch, followed by hot bread pudding. Verbeke said that boats were knowingly sent to sea with deficient systems. He compared the situation to the Space Shuttle Columbia.
Citing ignored reports, and saying systems are not fail-safe, Verbeke warned, “We are about to have our own Columbia.” Verbeke’s message and his call for veteran submariners to spread the word were sobering.
Paul, who knows firsthand how important it is to have backup equipment on a submarine, was incredulous that two boats had been sent out in the last month with known problems with their diving planes.
He told of changing a valve while submerged and under way on the Will Rogers, a nuclear sub armed with Polaris missiles. The procedure is usually only performed at dock. To do it meant the sub could not alter depth for about two hours, leaving Paul to work with only one other valve between the capsulated environment of the sub and the ocean beyond the welded skin. As Paul said, “You did what you had to with what you had.”
It’s pressures like that that made me wonder how these men did what they did.
“Jonesy” offered a few insights.
I had read about George Jones in “The Men” by Stephen Leal Jackson. The book was one Paul loaned me.
An Arkansas boy of 17, Jonesy had to get his father to sign off on enlisting in the Navy. The year was 1937 and the young recruit was on the threshold of an adventure he recalls as vividly as if it had happened yesterday. His first tour was aboard a refrigeration supply ship that had been commissioned in 1916 and was called to supply ships in Chinese waters just as Japan intensified its efforts to invade China. From the decks of the supply ship, Jonesy watched the Japanese aerial attack of Shanghai in November 1937.
“They weren’t showing off their good stuff,” he said, describing lumbering Japanese bi-plane bombers that would climb several thousand feet, then shut off their engine and dive-bomb targets. His ship stayed in Shanghai until March of 1938, when she headed back to San Diego. They were tied up next to a sub and Jonesy went through the boat. He decided he wanted to be a submariner. He went to submarine diesel school and was assigned to the Mallard in 1940.
“They’re like family,” Jonesy said, looking around the crowded room of the Holland Club when he was asked what he enjoys about the monthly meetings. I soon discovered that, regardless of when they qualified or served, the members were more like fraternity brothers than simply veterans of the same branch of service.
I asked about what action he saw. He talked about a fleet of Japanese supply ships off the Solomon Islands. The captain thought they were in for easy pickings and surfaced. That wasn’t the case.
“They discovered us out there. It was horrible. Nothing you want to go through,” he said.
Jonesy’s boat fired three torpedoes and all failed to hit marks. Then there was a rain of fire from a destroyer and aircraft. The sub dove and depth charges followed. Light bulbs imploded from the percussion. The bubble tube used to tell the elevation of the stern diving planes burst. Jonesy thought it was salt water and the hull was being ripped apart. At one point, a depth charge exploded beneath them, pushing the sub upward by 100 feet, within 50 feet of the surface. But there was a bright side to the savage attack. With so many explosions and boats, the noise masked the engines of the sub. Although severely crippled, she was able to slip away. The rest was the ordeal to get to Australia. They were so late, the boat was assumed lost.
Jonesy’s story seemed to capture the irony of submarines as “the silent service.”
Paul offered another perspective. He said that only now, as documents are declassified, is he understanding how precarious a situation the Cuban missile crisis was. He was aboard the diesel-electric Sailfish and heading for the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal when they received orders to change course. The boat, capable of carrying 16 torpedoes, had only six aboard.
At the time, Paul says, “We didn’t know where we were going.” Now that the information is being released, he’s piecing things together.
There’s more to the story, I’m sure. Paul didn’t elaborate.
Verbeke didn’t elaborate either, when I asked him for details about boats with known deficiencies. There is an unspoken code of honor among submariners. And that, perhaps, explains why a submariner is eligible for Holland Club membership only 50 years after being qualified.