What does a person say when laying to rest one of his best friends, his idolized wartime skipper, the man who, more than anyone else, epitomized the kind of naval officer we would all have liked to have been? How can one characterize that man’s life, portray his virtues, delineate his achievements, measure them among a band of high class men to whom superlative accomplishment was commonplace?
My own father, also a naval officer, used to tell me that the quality of the men who made up the naval officer cadre in which he had served, and into which I was planning to enter, was the highest in the world. It could not go any higher. And now, as we look upon the life of George Street, I see even more deeply what my father meant, what he wanted me to understand. For I see George as I first knew him, a young man, a somewhat older midshipman that I, who was a petty officer in my platoon at the United States Naval Academy. Only a few years later this same somewhat older midshipman became my commanding officer in the submarine TIRANTE during World War II, and I was with him at Quelpart Island, shown on our Japanese chart as Saisho To, as he earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor in combat.
I see also the friend who stood godfather to my first child, the blessed little girl who today lies forever in the cemetery in Key West, not far from where many of the sailors who died when our battleship MAINE blew up in Havana Harbor, half a century earlier, also lie.
Our association goes very deep. He asked me to be godfather to his own first born, George Levick Street IV, who grew to serve as a Colonel in the United States Army, and was for a time commander of the Old Guard, the ceremonial troops who stand watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He and his sister, Kristopher, are with us today to render this last obeisance to their father. And we must not forget Mary Martha, his wife, their mother, who could not be with us because of illness, but who also shares this moment with us in his everlasting memory. These three persons will always carry symbolically, and bear with them in fact, the Congressional Medal of Honor that was awarded their husband and father by the President of a grateful nation for service above and beyond the call of duty.
Everyone here knows what that decoration stands for. It is the absolutely highest honor our country can bestow on one of its heroes, and it is invested with the highest possible ceremony. It was bestowed on Commander George Street by the President of the United States in the Rose Garden of the White House. As was noted at the time, as he did this, when President Harry Truman placed the starred blue ribbon, from which hung the Medal of Honor, around our Captain’s neck, he told our skipper that he would rather wear that medal than be President of the United States.
But our Captain said always that the Presidential Unit Citation, awarded to TIRANTE for the same action that brought him the Medal of Honor, was more important, and meant more to him than the decoration he personally received, for it was awarded to the whole crew, who were authorized to wear it in perpetuity, and the special flag for it was flown in place of our ship’s commissioning pennant from that day forward. As our Captain said, “Every man of that ship’s company was there, all the way, and all of them have the right to share in the rewards too.”
Knowing what both awards stand for, one can well understand that feeling. Very few people, however, will even attain the right to say it quite that way. The Presidential Unit Citation and the Congressional Medal of Honor are very special indeed. This is why our Submarine Base, on the Thames River at Groton, Connecticut, has a building bearing the name Street Hall, and why at the Portsmouth Navy Yard where she was launched, there is now a building known as The TIRANTE Tavern, honoring the most successful submarine every built at that Yard, and the entire crew that made her so.
Yet, in spite of these honors, everyone who knew George Street remembers him as one of the most unassuming, most modest man who could ever have existed anywhere. Even from the beginning, when, as Captain of the submarine, he felt it necessary to put the noses of his crew to the grindstone and keep them there until they learned the business the way he wanted them to; he never acted as if superior to them. We were all together. doing what had to be done. That’s all there was to it.
The training he put us through, and himself too, demonstrated his determination to do the job right, to make them into the most efficient submarine crew that ever existed. This was leadership of the highest order. History also shows that his crew repaid him in all the ways sailors can: We worshiped him as we did his bidding, and his crew made their submarine into the most effective war machine it was possible to be. They called TIRANTE the Cadillac of our wartime submarines, and with her they enthusiastically followed their Captain into the most immediate danger, veritably into the jaws of death and out again. He led them-he led us all-through pure example and leadership ability. and yet he made it clear that he was only one among the many who made up the crew of that boat.
Only once, in my recollection as Executive Officer (and I should be the one to know about this), did he ever have occasion to hold mast on one of his crew. One of our men, a signalman who was important to our fire control crew, had been put on report by the Commanding Officer of Portsmouth Navy Yard for failing to salute, when they met by chance on one of the Navy Yard’s streets. Instead, he had made a strangely disrespectful gesture to his mouth and spat on the ground at the Captain’s feet. I brought the accused sailor to mast, as was my duty, thinking the whole episode seemed to lack reality. Surely our signalman must have known better than, without reason and totally without cause, wilfully to insult the Captain of the Yard!
Gravely, George asked our man what in the world had gotten into him. When our uncomfortable sailor explained, Captain George saw his own duty clearly and announced he would make an appointment that very day to see the Captain of the Yard, a fearsome character known unofficially as Stoneface. He would make our apologies, tell Stoneface that he did not feel punishment was appropriate in this instance, and guarantee that nothing like this would ever happen again. I was there, beside the phone when he called for an appointment with Stoneface, and clearly recall the grin on his face when he came back to our fitting-out office.
Stoney had burst out laughing when told our sailor’s side of the story, and agreed to forget about the disrespect. George explained that our signalman had just walked out of the Navy Yard Medical Dispensary, where only minutes before the dentist had extracted an abscessed tooth. He had not even seen the Captain. Feeling understandingly miserable, however, with blood and saliva welling up in his mouth, at that moment he had indeed spit into the gutter, maybe a little close to the Captain’s nicely shined shoes, and then again pressed the medical gauze the dentist had given him back to his lips.
The upshot of this little yam was that then Lieutenant Commander George Street gained reputation in the eyes of the entire Navy Yard population. Stoneface himself became a little more popular as the story came out, and a certain signalman in our crew would have given his right arm for his skipper from that day onward. As an aside, after his wartime service this same sailor became Chief of Police of his hometown, attended a number of TIRANTE reunions, and never tired of telling how, during the war, he had a great Captain who once “saved me from a few days in the brig on bread and water.”
And now we are here to commit the mortal remains of that man, that Captain, our friend, and our mentor, into the ground. As we do so, there can be only one feeling. He was a great naval officer. He was a very human naval officer. He was a very modest naval officer, and he was a great friend to all of us. On top of this, he attained the highest award for valor that our nation can bestow. We are proud to have served with him, through him to have so well served our country, and to share (because he always insisted upon it) in the very highest and most notable meaning of that decoration.
Goodbye, old man. We all loved you, and I know I can speak for every man who ever served with you and under you when I say this. Your were a born leader, the kind our Navy has always found when one was needed. We followed you through love, and pride, and loyalty, and all of that went both up and down. Because you inspired us, we also had the same inspiration. Under you, we learned to be bigger men, our Navy became a little better, and by consequence, our country is a little stronger.
That is what you did for us, Captain George, and, above all, that will never change.