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Submarine museum celebrates 25th anniversary

By GORDON JACKSON | The Brunswick News | Published: March 31, 2021

ST. MARYS, Ga. (Tribune News Service) — The St. Marys Submarine Museum opened 25 years ago, but the idea for a repository of artifacts from the Navy's silent service began years earlier.

During the quarter-century anniversary celebrated Tuesday in a private ceremony that was recorded to post on social media sites, the history of the museum was explained.

One of the speakers, retired Rear Adm. Al Konetzni Jr., was squadron commander at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in 1988 when he sent letters asking sailors for old memorabilia they may have collected over the years.

He started getting battle flags, pieces of decommissioned submarines and even some old Navy-issue underwear. The donations continued to come in until there wasn't the room to display everything.

"We started getting literally tons of stuff," he said.

After Konetzni was reassigned to another duty station in 1989, the donations continued and a group of organizers convinced St. Marys city officials to donate an old movie theater building with the intention of converting it into a museum for public display of artifacts they had collected.

The work included building a second floor to display the growing number of donated artifacts, including perhaps the nation's largest collection of World War II war patrol reports — many of them classified at the time. In fact, the museum's library has an estimated 99 percent of all the war patrols during WWII.

It took 129 volunteers who donated 6,344 hours of their time to complete the renovations.

"I think it's the camaraderie; it's the friendship," Konetzni said. "The bonds just keep going and going. We're still celebrating those bonds."

The museum opened March 30, 1996, with a ceremony featuring a Konetzni's close friend and mentor retired Rear Adm. Eugene Fluckey as the keynote speaker.

"I realized this was a man who accentuates everything you'd want in a sailor," Konetzni said.

Fluckey is one of only eight submariners to receive the Medal of Honor. One of the submarines he commanded, the Barb, is among the most decorated boats of WWII.

State Sen. Sheila McNeill, R- Brunswick, was president of the museum's board of directors at the time it opened. McNeill, still a board member, was unable to attend Tuesday's ceremony but she sent a message that was read at the event.

"It speaks well of our museum to have had only two people at its time in the day-to-day operations in our manager John Crouse and now executive director Keith Post over the last 25 years," she said.

Crouse, who wore Hawaiian shirts, shorts and sandals most of the time after he retired from the Navy, died unexpectedly from a heart attack 10 years ago at the age of 58.

McNeill also found an unexpected supporter in Jack Schiff, founder of the Cincinnati Insurance Companies. McNeill asked him to join the museum as a member, telling him it would only cost him $20 a year. He made a donation of company stock in 1995 that enabled organizers to complete the renovations needed to open the museum a year later.

Since Schiff's death in 1998, the John J. and Mary R. Schiff Foundation has continued to support the museum.

"Well over a half million dollars over the past 25 years has been given to us by this foundation, and we are most grateful to the Schiff family for helping us keep the doors open and to honor Jack and especially his fellow WWII veterans," she said.

The second floor of the museum has been named in honor of Schiff.

Museum manager Keith Post said he was "honored, privileged and excited" to commemorate the milestone.

He explained how the museum continued to get support after it opened and become an attraction for more than 300,000 visitors during the past quarter century.

Another key moment for the museum happened in 2003 when Ben Bastura died in Connecticut. He had one of the largest private collections of submarine history in the nation, which he willed to the museum.

Other donations made by the Russian and British navies, and other displays such as one dedicated to the crew of the USS Thresher. After the Thresher sank in 1963, the Navy created a program to dramatically improve boat safety.

The museum has been closed to the public for more than a year, but Post said he plans to open the museum sometime in early May.

During his speech, Post showed one of the newest donations to the museum, a shell casing from the USS Redfin — a WWII boat. The shell casing is engraved with the names of every crew member on board during a battle where a sailor was wounded in the head. A crew member managed to get the wounded sailor into the boat, where he was treated for his gunshot wound and survived.

"That's an example of who we set donations to the museum," he said.

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