More than most military forces members submariners share a distinct bond that spans the decades long after their service together has finished. So, besides reunions being pleasurable and exciting events they’re also poignant experiences and allow us the opportunity to meet up again to share old times, catch up on the present, and to remember and honor our shipmates that have been called to embark on “Eternal Patrol.”
Our reunion is held in celebration of our service on the Cold War era nuclear powered Sturgeon Class, Attack submarine USS Bluefish SSN-675 and to honor our brethren who went before us on our namesake diesel-electric USS Bluefish SS-222 that established an enviable combat record during WWII; we all share the same proud tradition of being among the finest mariners to ever sail upon or under the seas.
This year’s reunion in Myrtle Beach (MB) drew the largest turnout ever of over 100 crewmen spanning the decades of the 1940’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s; encouraging because the chief impediment to expanding attendance is locating shipmates who are unaware of the reunions. And, although we publicize them through veteran related publications and websites, and on social media, word-of-mouth is our main recruitment source.
This year again, I was awestruck that after forty-five years our relationships seemed to be just as close and friendly as they were back then. I recall how prior to my first reunion as the date grew near I had become apprehensive that we may not have much in common anymore and the event might be anti-climactic with just a bunch of old guys sitting around drinking beer and telling time worn “sea stories.” However, on that first arrival, four of my shipmates were seated at a nearby table and I heard one of them whisper “there he is.” Then, they all stood up, rushed me and hugged me as all the years dissolved into space and time and we were just as we had been back then; is remains one of the most surreal experiences of my lifetime.
Also, this time I had my first opportunity to reunite with other friends I hadn’t seen prior. One was Robert who was also a Torpedoman as I was and his wife. We all shared a story concerning the northern run that Bluefish had made over the entirety of the holiday season one year. As well, we were anticipating the arrival of Steve, also a Torpedoman, who had recently lost his wife of forty years. Me and my other friend Rich had been in touch with him on FB and he was dejected and didn’t plan on attending this reunion. Ultimately, we convinced him to meet Rich who lives in Wisconsin, so they could drive in together. Well, as it became later and later in the day some of us became concerned and so had a call placed to Rich to see what their location was, and, we were dumbfounded to learn that they were in Georgia. When asked how the heck he ended up in Georgia on his way to South Carolina from Wisconsin Rich responded that he and Steve became so distracted with their conversation that he didn’t pay proper attention to his GPS and must have made a wrong turn. Consequently, he received his share of good natured criticism and ribbing from all of us when he finally did show up a few hours later.
When Steve and I met we hugged and there were some tears because it was so good to see each other again. We had been close friends back in the day and he had come home with me a few times to New Jersey on weekends and for the holidays. So, he knew my family as well. Rich, Me, and Steve were tight and so we spent ample time together in MB enjoying the restaurants and the beach, and late-night talks.
There are three surviving members of the crews of SS-222 and two of them are physically unable to make the trip to attend our semi-annual reunions. However, the other is Bob who was the Chief of the Boat (COB) whose tour of duty was in 1944, is ninety-four years old and has attended the last two reunions that were held in Myrtle Beach along with his wife Ruth. They can do so because they live nearby.
The USS Bluefish SS-222 was a Gato-class submarine and was the first ship of the United States Navy to bear the name bluefish a marine pelagic fish found in temperate and subtropical waters, are strong, aggressive and are fast swimmers. The Gato-class submarines were built in 1941-1943 and they were the first mass-production submarine class of World War II that formed the backbone of the USN submarine fleet; the lead ship of the class was USS Gato SS-212.
The Gato’s are named for a species of small catshark, were “Fleet Submarines” that operated as adjuncts to the main battle group. They were utilized to scout ahead of the “fleet” and report on the enemy taskforce’s coordinates then they attacked to weaken and pare down the enemy in preparation for the main fleet action between battleships and cruisers. The Gato subs were named for marine sea life and coincidently so were the Cold War era SSN’S which opened the way for there being two USS Bluefish submarines in different eras.
USS Bluefish SS-222 was laid down 5 June 1942 by Electric Boat Co., Groton, CT, was launched 21 February 1943, and commissioned 24 May 1943 under the command of USN Commander George E. Porter. Then on 21 July, she sailed from New London to join Task Force 72 (TF 72) at Brisbane, Australia and she cruised from Brisbane on 9 September 1943 on her first war patrol to the South China Sea. Her area of operation extended from the Netherlands East Indies to the waters south of Honshū the largest and most populous island of Japan south of Hokkaido. Later, on 25 September Bluefish torpedoed the Japanese merchantman Akashi Maru (3228 GRT) south-east of Celebes, Netherlands East Indies in the Flores Sea. Afterwards, while shadowing the damaged Akashi Maru for an opportunity to make the kill, Bluefish torpedoed and sank the Japanese torpedo boat Kasasagi (595 tons) on 27 September. Subsequently, on 29 September Bluefish relocated and sank the damaged Akashi Maru north of Wetar. She went on to complete nine war patrols and is officially credited with sinking twelve Japanese ships totaling 50,839 tons. Bluefish received ten battle stars for her World War II service.
The finally of the reunion was a banquet held on the closing night where Bob honored all the Bluefish crew members with a discussion of his recollections during WWII. He related to us how SS-222 sank two of the bigger of the Japanese’s ships when they contacted an eight-ship convoy one night that was sailing down the Leyte Gulf in the Philippine Islands. He continued that they had inexplicably split off from the convoy and headed towards Bluefish; “So, all we had to do was wait for them to catch up. They weren’t the smartest people in the world” he said. His comment drew a chorus of laughter from the crowd. He then said that being out at sea on the submarine and waiting for those suckers to come up and shoot them was really neat; “And, every time we sank a ship we dove down to 300 feet and had one hell of a party” which again drew abundant laughter and cheers. He said that he and his wife had visited Tokyo twice since the war and; “You don’t see any old Japanese. I think we killed all those suckers! And, it took me one hell of a long time to buy a Japanese computer or TV.” Of course, although said in jest his comments would be considered offensive and non-PC now-a-days. But, they are true recollections form a then young submarine sailor at war in a different era.
After finishing his war-time comedy routine Bob became sentimental. And, welling up with tears said that; “I really appreciate, how you guys react to the last COB to the Bluefish.” Which was responded to with applause and a shout of “you’re a hero.” He concluded by saying “I thought about being too damned sappy about the whole damned thing but being with you guys is one of my life’s greatest gifts” he said while choking back tears; “And, I thank you.” Then, he was rewarded by his shipmates with applauds, cheers and shouts of you’re our hero, and we love you, Bob.
It was a joy and a privilege for to have Bob there with us and share his wartime experiences because he represents the tradition of USS Bluefish and the grit and fighting spirit of the United States Navy submarine service that we all have within us. And, we look forward to seeing him in two more years at our next meeting.
Then a presentation was given by a crewman who oversaw the decommissioning crew of SSN-675, and one that I kind of dreaded hearing. He said that they had participated in the stripping of salvageable equipment and parts from Bluefish; “so we could send them off to another 637 somewhere in the fleet that needed parts. So, a lot of guys you see here in this room worked tirelessly in the shipyard and giving what we could leave from the Bluefish to the fleet so that we could continue to fight the good fight out there.” So, it was satisfying for us all to learn that our beloved Bluefish lived on as an “organ donor” submarine style after her decommissioning and scrapping back in 1996.
Although most of Bluefish’s operational history is still highly classified her accomplishments include circumnavigating the globe submerged and surfacing through the Arctic ice pack at the North Pole in 1975. As well, she and her crews were awarded many medals and citations over her twenty-seven-year service to America including multiple Battle Efficiency “E” awards, and Navy Expeditionary Medals for her participation in clandestine Cold War patrols around the world from the Arctic Circle and the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The reunion was a great success however the lone detraction for me was that one of my closest friends Chief John couldn’t make it because both he and his wife were ill. Steve and I spent many watches together on the diving planes with John as the Chief of the Watch and he was also the ship’s Navigator. He posted this message on the USS Bluefish FB page; “I really regret missing this last reunion, … I missed everyone, but with luck and health we’ll be at the next one.” I surely hope to see him there…. Be well, Chief John.
When Steve and I said our goodbyes, he was glad to have come and said it was a great pickup for him to be surrounded by his friends and share old times, and we vowed to stay in touch. As well, I was offered invitations to visit friends around the country in Florida, Tennessee, West Virginia, Massachusetts and elsewhere.
I think maybe I will.