WWII submarine vets get final salute
Frank Boarman knows time is running out for an annual reunion with shipmates from the USS Spot, a diesel submarine credited with sinking 17 Japanese vessels during World War II.
Boarman of Port Orange, Fla., is one of six surviving crew members from the boat. Four of them on Friday attended the last Submarine Veterans of World War II Memorial Service that will ever be held at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay.
"It's been very important," said Boarman, an electrician's mate on the boat. "It's about the last year for us."
Another sailor and electrician's mate who served on the Spot, Charles Crews, of Conyers, said he still plans to attend a similar ceremony next year, which will commemorate all submarine veterans instead of just WWII sailors.
"I'm glad to see it," Crews said of the change in the ceremony planned for next year as the number of World War II submarine veterans has dwindled.
Patrick Zilliacus, a torpedoman on the Spot, made the trip from Playa Del Rey, Calif., to be with Crews, Boarman and another shipmate, Samuel Whatley, of Ninety Six, S.C.
Before the ceremony, Zilliacus and his shipmates told stories of close calls when they weaved through a minefield in the Sea of Japan. They talked about other brushes with death, such as when they dodged depth charges by enemy surface ships and a mistaken depth charge attack by American vessels.
Zilliacus said Friday's ceremony was significant because a dwindling number of World War II submariners are showing up each year. This year, 31 sailors attended the ceremony. At its peak in the 1990s, more than 800 sailors from across the nation attended.
"This is the big one," he said. "I've maintained contact with shipmates since the war."
Capt. Harvey Guffey, commanding officer at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, was the keynote speaker for Friday's ceremony. He compared diesel subs with modern submarines containing electronics, computers, oxygen systems, sophisticated weapons and nuclear reactors.
But despite the improvements in technology, similarities remain, Guffey said.
Modern submarines still have piping, cables and electrical panels filling every nook and cranny. Hydraulic systems control everything from operating valves to moving torpedoes.
And everyone aboard is still required to learn how to use hand pumps, chains and block and tackle equipment in case of an emergency.
"The fundamentals of submarining are also the same as they were when your generation wrote the rules we still follow," Guffey said. "Stay undetected. Keep contacts on the left drawing left and on the right drawing right -- unless you plan to sink them. And although we haven't shot one in anger since World War II, our torpedoes still run hot, straight and normal."
Guffey also talked about the advances in weaponry on modern submarines and the missions performed by the boats at Kings Bay. Last year, the USS Florida, home ported at Kings Bay, deployed more than 90 Tomahawk cruise missiles to "devastate enemy shore facilities in Libya," he said.
Guffey said today's sailors look at the WWII submarine veterans with admiration and try to follow their examples of honor, courage and commitment.
"May our force of today and the future continue to live up to the standards you set," he said. "May we continue to carry your legacy forward into new and uncertain places and times. And may we never forget what you endured, what you accomplished and where we came from."
After the speech, the ceremony became somber as the audience stood for the Reading of the Boats. The names of each of the 52 submarines sunk in the war were read, along with the details, such as the number of patrols, whether the boat was sunk by mines, depth charges, aerial attack, or if the circumstances were unknown. All too often, all hands were lost.
In all, nearly 3,600 American submarine sailors died in the war, suffering the highest casualty rate of any unit in the military.
But the enemy also paid a price. American submariners are credited with sinking 55 percent of the Japanese Navy during the war.
The ceremony Friday also commemorated the 3,142 British sailors who died on 82 submarines sunk in the Atlantic.
After the boats' names were read, three volleys were fired, followed by a lone sailor playing "Taps" on a bugle.
After the ceremony, the 31 World War II sub vets gathered outside the pavilion where the ceremony was held for a group photo. Some acknowledged it may be the last time they attend the ceremony at Kings Bay.