WWII submarine veterans honored

A World War II submarine veteran is assisted by Culinary Specialist 1st Class Sylvia Morris during breakfast in the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay galley on Nov. 2, 2017.

By GORDON JACKSON | The Brunswick News, Ga. (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 4, 2017

ST. MARYS, Ga. — World War II veteran Ernest Zellmer was a communications officer aboard the USS Cavalla on the submarine’s maiden voyage in 1944 when the boat made contact with a large Japanese task force.

The lone Navy submarine tracked the enemy fleet for several hours before his crew launched six torpedoes at the Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku, with three of them hitting their target and sinking the vessel.

“The Japanese weren’t very happy,” he said.

The Cavalla dove to a dangerously deep depth, exceeding recommendations, as Japanese destroyers dropped 104 depth charges in retaliation. Luckily, the boat survived and completed another four war patrols before the war ended.

The Milwaukee native who now lives in Atlantic Beach, Fla., said he knew the dangers of submarine service when he graduated from the Naval Academy. Submariners suffered the highest casualty rates in the military, with more than 20 percent never surviving the war.

“I either wanted to come back whole or not at all,” he said.

It’s stories of courage like Zellmer’s that have compelled officials at Kings Bay to honor WWII submarine veterans at an annual ceremony for more than two decades.

Zellmer, wearing his old Navy captain’s uniform for the occasion, was among 16 WWII submarine veterans in a crowd of more than 500 attending the annual ceremony in their honor Friday at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay. He returned to Kings Bay for the first time since 1998 to renew old friendships and enjoy the camaraderie with other submariners.

Capt. Brian Lepine, commanding officer at Kings Bay, said he is “awed and amazed” whenever he meets WWII submarine veterans because they set the high standards today’s sailors emulate.

“All the things you accomplished, it still amazes me today,” he said.

Keynote speaker Rear Adm. Michael P. Holland, commanding officer of Submarine Group 10 at Kings Bay, said it was a privilege to be in the same room with the veterans.

“We are extremely honored,” he said. “We are still in awe of your sacrifice.”

More the 3,500 sailors died on the 52 American submarines lost during the war. The 3,142 men serving aboard the 83 British Royal Navy submarines lost during the war were also honored during the ceremony.

Holland said submarines have changed since the old diesel days when the boats had a very limited supply of air and none of the high-tech electronic equipment, air conditioning and miles of fiber optic cables.

“There’s an old saying about wooden ships and iron men,” he said. “Our equipment and technology have certainly improved. But as in days gone by, our strength today and in the future remain in our people — our sailors.”

Despite the differences, there are still similarities such as the tangle of pipes and cables overhead, the diesel generator and the basic fundamentals needed for a crew to survive in a close environment under sometimes hostile circumstances.

The WWII vets have left behind a legacy of exemplary honor, courage and commitment, he said.

“Our sailors do everything well thanks to veterans,” Holland said. “Never forget what they endured.”

After the speeches, the audience stood as the names of each Navy submarine lost was read, followed by the tolling of a bell in honor of each boat. In many instances, the fate of the sunken vessels were known — depth charges, surface craft, torpedoes and aerial bombs. In many other instances, the fate of the boats and their crews remain unknown.

After the ceremony, Holland met with the veterans, shaking their hands, presenting them a commemorative coin and thanking them for their service.

“May our present and future force continue to live up to the standards you set; may we continue to carry your legacy forward unto new and uncertain times; and may we never forget what you endured and accomplished and from where we came,” he said.

©2017 The Brunswick News (Brunswick, Ga.)
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