Billy Grieves enlisted in the Navy April l 3. l 939 at the age of 18. After Submarine School and duty in USS-R-10 he was assigned to USS THRESHER (SS-200) which went to Pearl Harbor in April of 1941.
April 11th marks the birth of the submarine into our United States Navy. This historic event took place 105 years ago. We call it National Submarine Day and it is recognized and honored all across this country. But why should submarines be accorded such special recognition? True, and to use the language of our time, it is a weapon of mass destruction but so are many of the other weapons in our arsenal. Where would our country have been in World War II without the B-17 and the B-25 bombers that leveled the factories of Berlin, softened the defenses of Normandy Beach and Omaha Beach, Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa? And then leveled the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring an end to World War II? And what about our mighty battleships and carrier force that hop-scotched all across the Pacific as we retook island after island and then completely decimated the Japanese fleet in the battle of the Philippines. And now as we watch history unfold, I could go on and on about our modern weapons such as our Trident and Tomahawk missiles, our Saberjets and Apache helicopters and many others, each one vital to the victories we have attained. Isn’t the submarine just one of a team of key players in the game of war?
But let’s take a closer look at the role our submarines have played back through history. It’s well known what our boats did in World War II. Long before the atomic bomb was dropped, every major supply line essential to Japan’s very survival had been severed. If it wasn’t for the outstanding accomplishments of our Submarine Force, World War II would have been much longer, bloodier and more costly.
And then came the Cold War: Forty years of intensive, unabated undersea warfare with the Soviet Union that ranged from beneath the Arctic ice cap, to the shallow waters of the Mediterranean, to the depths of the Pacific with encounters so close there were twenty underwater collisions with Russian submarines. And all the while our country slept, unaware of the crucial conflict that was going on all about them.
When USS ALABAMA, a fleet ballistic submarine, commonly known as a boomer, went into commission back in 1987, I was one of a team of civilian plank owners who contributed to her commissioning. We raised seventy five thousand dollars which provided a lavish commissioning party at the officers club at the Sub Base plus athletic equipment and jackets for the crew. In gratitude, we were afforded one day, the day before commissioning, to tour the boat, ask questions, and have lunch in the mess hall. And when we arrived at the huge missile compartment with its twenty-four giant Trident missile silos, each one more than seven feet in diameter and more than four stories tall, the old shellbacks among us were amazed that a compartment almost as big as a basketball court could be contained in a submarine. And later in an interview with the skipper, I asked him, “Skipper, how accurate are these Trident missiles?” And he said this, “We can leave the west coast and head for Pearl. Half way to Pearl we can launch a Trident missile. It will travel back across the Pacific, across the entire United States and it will drop in the middle of Shea Stadium in New York.”
Now, at this time the Russians were bragging about their giant V-2 intercontinental ballistic missile which they said could be fired from Russia and it would travel across the Atlantic and strike any city on the American east coast. But what they didn’t say was this: If that missile came within ten miles of its intended target the Russians considered it a hit. And what they didn’t know was this: If they had fired just one of those missiles toward our shores, it would never have reached land before every major city in Russia would have come under direct missile attack from not one, but two of our submarines from two different directions.
A few years ago when the movie, The Hunt for Red October, came out, a Phoenix theater put on a special showing one morning for those of us of the submarine community. When the picture was over, a captain who was Division Commander of the submarine division in San Diego, took the stage and gave an interesting talk about the capabilities and the need for our submarines. And when the talk was over he had a question and answer period and he took questions from the audience. The first question he received was this: Captain, what impact did the Walker spy testimony have on the security of this country? And the audience was stunned by his answer. The Captain said, “The Walkers probably did the biggest favor they could ever do for this country.”* But then he explained.
*Editor’s Note: It should be noted that this quote does not express any wide felt opinion among knowledgeable observ-ers. The Walker treachery cost the U.S. very dearly and could have been disastrous if war had broken out during that time.
When the Russians learned what our submarines could do and had been doing right under their noses for forty years, that was the start of glasnost.
It wasn’t political diplomacy or the Russian’s depleted economy that caused the collapse of the Soviet Union as a military power and brought an end to the Cold War and the threat of World War II. It was our submarines. To a submariner there is no such thing as enemy controlled waters.
Our submarines also contributed significantly to the battle for Iraqi freedom. Twelve submarines engaged in that war. And of the 800 Tomahawk missiles which were fired, the very first ones were submarine launched as were one third of the total missiles fired.
But the publicity today is focused more on the technology of our submarines. They are masters of stealth and deception and surprise; they can launch Tomahawk and Trident missiles; they can deliver Navy Seals and unmanned vehicles and mines to shallow waters; and they can deploy world wide for months at a time. And to potential adversaries such as China and North Korea, our submarines are the restraining force that keeps the peace in those areas.
But there is one part of the story we seldom hear about. And that is the men whose dedication and courage and ability and sacrifice have made all this possible. More than 3600 men gave their lives to our service in World War II. Two more boats were lost with all hands in the Cold War. And so today as we pause to celebrate the many achievements of one of our navy’s most distinguished and elite groups, Jet us remember the heroism and the sacrifice of those shipmates who have gone before us. May their sacrifice be an inspiration to all submariners to remember our shipmates and preserve our honored submarine tradition.