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Honor, tradition and torpedo tubes: The unique way the Navy performs burials under the sea

U.S. Sailors perform a burial at sea aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68), on Dec. 6, 2017, in the Pacific Ocean.

EMILY JOHNSTON/U.S. NAVY

By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: December 30, 2017

NORFOLK (Tribune News Service) — The Navy is a tradition-bound military service, and few traditions are as important as burials at sea.

Perhaps the most unique services in the fleet occur aboard submarines that spend the majority of their time under water. Submarine Force Atlantic says it is preparing for burials at sea on several Norfolk-based subs in the next few months.

One of those burials will be for World War II submarine veteran Marcus White, who served on seven war patrols in the Pacific theater during World War II and the Korean War, and was awarded the Bronze Star medal with the "V" device for valor, signifying it was earned in combat.

White died in June at 95. The USS Newport News will commit him and his wife Mary Miles White, who died seven years earlier, to the sea sometime next year. White's son, Marcus White Jr., lives in Chesapeake and said his father loved being a submariner, and that he's fulfilling his father's wishes. The Navy allows active-duty sailors, veterans and their family members to be buried at sea.

The chaplain for the Navy's Norfolk-based submarine squadron, Lt. Cmdr. Richard Smothers, spoke with The Virginian-Pilot about what makes burial ceremonies aboard subs unique and special for those who choose them.

Releasing of cremains

Unlike larger ships such as aircraft carriers that can accommodate caskets, all submarine burials at sea involve cremains. They also must occur at least  3 miles from shore.

Smothers said burials at sea aboard a sub primarily occur in two ways. If the weather is nice, a sub will surface, stop moving and conduct a ceremony topside that involves raising a flag the family can keep, reading any scriptures the family requests and firing a 21-gun salute with seven rifles. A member of the crew will then pour the ashes overboard. Chaplains don't serve aboard subs, and the service is usually led by a lay leader on the boat.

Smothers said the sub's commanding officer will usually address the crew from an onboard communications system so everyone can learn about the person who was committed to the deep. If the weather isn't good enough to allow for a full topside ceremony, the cremains can be poured overboard in a smaller ceremony from a ship's sail, the tall structure found on the topside of the sub.

The other option involves releasing ashes underwater through a torpedo tube while the sub is still moving. Smothers said this is a popular option among those who served as torpedomen.

"I know it sounds amazing or strange, but it does happen, and it can be done very honorably, very respectfully," he said.

Smothers said the crew will clean the torpedo tube's surface and place the cremains inside. After the burial, the family will usually receive a letter of condolence and appreciation from the sub's commanding officer and a chart showing the GPS coordinates where the cremains were released.

Custody of the fallen

The Navy accommodates requests for burials at sea when it can, but it's not always a speedy process. A ship's operational schedule takes priority, and it can be months between the time a request is made and the time the burial occurs. In White's case, that also allowed for a traditional memorial service long before his cremains were set to sail from Norfolk.

For a burial at sea aboard a Norfolk-based sub, Smothers said a family will first provide their loved one's cremains to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. A religious program specialist in the submarine force will then take custody of the cremains and examine sub schedules to find the best fit.

If former submariners spent most of their time in a certain home port such as Groton, Conn., or Kings Bay, Ga., they'll try to find a sub based there. Otherwise, they'll find the best available schedule. Sometimes family members will be allowed onto Naval Station Norfolk or another base to watch the sub carrying their loved one's remains depart, which is a rare occurrence for an outsider to know when a sub is departing.

Smothers said a religious program specialist will go aboard the sub with the cremains and transfer it to either the executive officer or chief of the boat, where they will be safely locked away in a state room until the burial. Smothers said the Norfolk squadron typically performs about a dozen burials at sea a year.

Crew connection

The submarine force is a small, tight-knit, all-volunteer community that places a premium on valuing tradition and respecting their forerunners. In some cases, subs will perform a burial at sea where a sub sank so a former submariner can be committed to the deep with some of his former crew members or the sub where he served.

Smothers also said it's not uncommon for family members to request that someone who holds the same job their loved one did participate in the ceremony.

"I think burials at sea, that's one of the ways we not only just honor those families and their service, but we reactivate our commitment and our appreciation for serving," Smothers said. "It's a real privilege to be a part of. ... Every sub that's ever been part of a burial at sea has thanked us and said, 'Hey, we appreciate being able to do this.' It's an honor."

About Marcus White

White served on the USS Scamp in World War II and transferred to another submarine shortly before it was sunk by Japanese enemy bombs in 1944 on its eighth combat patrol. Before that, the Scamp sank six ships and damaged eight. White was one of the last living crew members who served aboard the Scamp.

His son, Marcus White Jr., said he learned from his sister at his father's funeral that he had long suffered from survivor's guilt. He said his father had always been a proud submariner and was active in the submariner veterans community even after becoming a science teacher, but he didn't often talk about his time during the war.

White said he wasn't sure why his father was awarded the Bronze Star but said it may relate to one of the few stories his father told him after he asked about a flimsy rain coat he found. He said his father told him that after the Scamp sank a Japanese ship, the commanding officer needed someone to swim out to the wreckage and look for survivors in a lifeboat. His father volunteered. He didn't find any survivors, but he found a package wrapped in a raincoat on the lifeboat. He said it contained Japanese code books, which were taken back to Pearl Harbor; his father kept the raincoat.

"My dad absolutely loved the Navy and he loved the submarine force and would have been a career submariner had it not been for meeting my mom and deciding that he felt raising a family that he needed to be there most of the time," White said. "His ashes are with my mom's ashes getting ready to go out to sea for the last time. It'll be the first ride on a sub for my mom."

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