The news of the USS SAN FRANCISCO grounding accident came to me as a breaking news story on television. As a retired submariner, I was riveted to the TV aching for more details. Sadly, those details soon included notice of the death of MM2(SS) Joseph Allen Ashley on January 8, 2005. He is a man whom I have never met, yet the tragedy of his death shocked me as if one of my own siblings had passed away.
I can remember only two previous occasions in my nearly fifty years on this planet that I have experienced such anguish on receiving news of the death of someone I never met.
The first time was the assassination of John F. Kennedy (when I was seven years old), and the other time was the news of the twenty-two hundred or so people who died in New York that fateful September 11.
My remembrance of those two occasions is understandable.
JFK was, after all, the President of the United States, famous as the leader of the free world. On reflection, it is more likely that my grieving memory was etched in my brain by the effect President Kennedy’s death had on all the adults around me, rather than the actual event itself. I remember coming home that day, after school was let out early, to find my mother crying in grief, something I never recalled seeing before. It shook my young world to the core.
And the second time was such a horrifically massive number of innocent non-combatant people murdered, with all the implications of challenge to the entire way of life of every citizen in our nation. Though I can recall but few of those victims’ names, the death of each and every one of them was personal, and I still grieve for the loss of each.
But why should the death of an individual, MM2(SS) Ashley, neither a President nor one of a massive group of victims, but rather a single twenty-four year old man nearly half a world away, shake me so deeply?
The answer, as all who have served on submarines either in this country or on those of any other nation knows, is that Joseph was and is our brother, in the truest sense of the word. OK, not genetically, but in every other way that is important to the soul.
While I know this is so, I’m not smart enough to explain why it is so. Those who have never served in the undersea service will have difficulty understanding such a bond amongst men. My dear wife has always been near my side as I searched for understanding of this tragedy, but since my active Navy career ended twelve years ago and we have been married but five years, she had no basis for understanding why I should feel so emotional about this one sailor’s passing. The closest explanation I have found as to the why was written by Dr. Joyce Brothers in 1963, in an article entitled “Profile of a Submariner”, following the Joss of USS THRESHER and her entire crew of 129 brothers. She said:
“In an undersea craft. each man is totally dependent upon the skill of every other man in the crew, not only for top performance but for actual survival. Each knows that his very life depends on the others and because this is so, there is a bond among them that both challenges and comforts them. ”
In 1963 when THRESHER was lost, I was in third grade. And in 1968 when USS SCORPION and her 99 shipmates went down, I was in eighth grade. I have no recollection of news stories of either of these tragedies at the time of their occurrence. (It would be another five years before I was ‘inducted’ into the Brotherhood.) The point is that the world in general, those who took notice for a few days while CNN was covering it, has for the most part already forgotten about the tragedy that claimed our brother, and, perhaps even more significantly, the heroics of the survivors in saving USS SAN FRANCISCO, thus snatching the remainder of the crew from the jaws of the sea.
ut Joey’s parents Dan and Vicki Ashley, and “Cooter’ s” genetic brother Dan Jr., will never forget. And neither will I, nor any of the thousands of brothers who mourn the loss of one of our own.
Evidence of the heartache of the Submarine Brotherhood can be found alongside that of genetic family members and friends in an on-line guestbook established for the family of Joseph. As of this writing, there are over two thousand expressions to Dan and Vicki of the shared grief. If you take time to page through the guestbook, you will see notes of condolence from American submariners young and old, active duty and retired, and those of many other nations including Russia, Turkey, and Canada, and from the families and friends of submariners.
To quote again from Dr. Brother’s article profiling submariners, “We all have tremendous capabilities but are rarely straining at the upper level of what we can do; these men are. This country can be proud and grateful that so many of its sound, young, eager men care enough about their own stature in life and the welfare of their country to pool their skills and match them collectively against the power of the sea.”
To our brother MM2(SS) Joseph Allen Ashley, we bid farewell and following seas. Sailor, rest your oars -your shipmates now have the watch.