The goal of every young submariner is to earn a dolphin pin to show the recipient is familiar with every system on the boat.
It takes months of extra work to earn, but the achievement, marked by a short ceremony in which the sailor is pinned by a commanding officer, is one of the most gratifying and memorable moments in a submariner's career.
Justin Willoughby, a petty officer 3rd class at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, became one of the newest sailors in the Navy to earn his dolphin pin Thursday. But his pinning ceremony deviated from tradition, thanks to some good timing - that and the Navy's respect for the sacrifices made by World War II submarine veterans, who set a standard for today's submariners.
A group of World War II sub vets in town for an annual event Friday at Kings Bay were invited to Willoughby's ceremony Thursday.
Robert Wise, a World War II sub vet from Jacksonville, was asked to pin the dolphin insignia on Willoughby's uniform.
"It's a moment in my life that's pretty hard to top," Willoughby said. "It was unexpected and unbelievable. Now, I'm a member of that fraternity."
Wise, who joined the Navy in 1935, remembers when he was assigned to a submarine after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and earned his dolphin pin in 1942. Wise said it was an unexpected honor to present the pin to a new generation of sailors.
"It's a big deal for me," he said.
Age has taken its toll on what began as the World War II Submarine Veterans ceremony. Two decades ago, the event brought hundreds of veterans to Kings Bay.
St. Marys City Councilman and retired senior chief Keith Post said 25 World War II submarine veterans from as far as California showed up for Friday's ceremony. Last year, 32 attended the ceremony and 45 attended in 2011.
The veterans mingle with younger sailors and tell stories about the difficult and dangerous living conditions aboard the old diesel submarines.
The World War II submarine force had a 20 percent casualty rate, the highest of any branch of the military.
It was credited with sinking more than half the enemy ships during the war and holding the Japanese navy at bay while the United States rebuilt its fleet after Pearl Harbor.
"It's great for today's sailors to mingle with history," Post said. "They've been telling sea stories."
Capt. Steve Gillespie, chief of staff for Submarine Group Ten and the keynote speaker, said the gathering is more than an opportunity for sub vets to renew old friendships.
"It's about those who never returned," he said.
During the ceremony, the name of every American submarine lost was read aloud, along with the reason the boat sank.
Causes, when they could be determined, included depth charges, torpedoes, bombs, collisions, running aground and other accidents.
All too often, all hands were lost, illustrating the danger those serving aboard submarines face.
"I stand in awe," Gillespie said to the crowd of retired submariners. "It's a true privilege to stand with those who held the line after Pearl Harbor."