A piece of the USS Francis Scott Key returned to its namesake Saturday, as about 100 shipmates, family and friends reunited at Mount Olivet Cemetery to dedicate a brass plaque that once lay in the submarine's dining area.
The ballistic missile submarine was the only Navy boat to be named for the national anthem's author. USS Francis Scott Key was No. 39 of the "41 for Freedom" nuclear submarines deployed to deter the Soviet Union from using its own such missiles during the Cold War.
The 425-foot vessel began duty in 1964, then was decommissioned in 1993 as the U.S. and Soviet Union sought to end tensions. It led 72 deterrent patrols in its nearly three decades of service.
Former crew members said commemorating the plaque, now mounted on a stone at Key's grave in Frederick, is a fitting way to reflect on their time aboard.
A website for Key veterans listed more than 1,400 shipmates as of April 17. Many celebrate the naval legacy even decades after leaving the submarine.
"You gave a piece of yourself to it, and it gave a piece of itself to you," said Lamarr Seader, 75, one of the first to serve on the ship from 1965 to 1967.
Men were on-call 24 hours a day in case an order came to attack — thankfully, Seader said, it never did.
"You do a lot of soul searching, but you know the purpose is a good one," Harry Baker, 63, said of their work.
Eighteen-hour shifts, enclosed spaces, lack of sunlight and other stresses called for pranks, Baker said. The more they came to know their shipmates, the greater the fun.
Some of the best memories came from "Halfway Night," or the midway point of a patrol. Men received gift boxes from home, held beauty contests and raffled off pies to "hit anyone you wanted," said Jeff Mason, 52.
"When we were in, it was high tempo," said Mason, who served on the ship from 1981 to 1986. "We worked hard, and we played hard."
Dean Cornwell, 53, who served with Mason, said living underwater for months at a time forges a closer bond than those in other branches of military service. At his first reunion this year, he appreciates the chance to reconnect with old friends and share sea stories.
Though they may not have realized the geopolitical significance of their work at the time, Cornwell said it became clear as the Cold War ended.
Members of the Francis Scott Key Memorial Foundation and Veterans of Foreign Wars organizations hope joining the submarine plaque with Key's resting place will further honor his memory and the veterans' service.
The plaque is "something we feel belongs in Frederick," said Ron Pearcey, cemetery superintendent.
"He's a part of Frederick history, and he'll stay here."
Follow Rachel S. Karas on Twitter: @rachelkaras.