With the genesis of women crewmembers aboard submarines, I am reminded of an incident that happened many years ago when “Girl Overboard” occurred while I had command of USS COBBLER (SS 344).
It was February 1970. We had completed a period of submarine services to units of the SIXTHFLT in the Ionian Sea and entered the port of Patras, Greece. Patras, then a city of 100,000, is located on the northwest corner of the Greek Peloponnesus peninsula. High, jagged, snow-capped mountains back the city with the Bay of Patras providing a deep blue contrast to the beautiful mountain scenery. COBBLER was the first American warship to visit Patras in over a year and the first submarine in several years.
Prior to our visit, our scheduled arrival was reported in each of the five local newspapers including an announcement that there would be open visiting the day after our arrival. As a result of the publicity, we attracted a crowd of over 1,500 waiting to tour the American submarine. Lieutenant Dave Krieger, with assistance from the harbor police, had managed to organize the crowd into the semblance of a waiting line on the pier. However, when he returned aboard to start the visiting, the crowd surged toward the brow attempting to get in a more favorable position. From that point on, the harbor police were unsuccessful at controlling the situation on the pier. For awhile, despite the pushing and shoving, we were able to get the visitors on and off the boat.
Then, it happened- a young local girl had just crossed the brow to the pier after completing her walk through the boat when the crowd surged causing her to fall off the pier and into the water between the concrete pier wall and the steel hull of COBBLER. Almost instantly, Chief Petty Officer George Clarke reacted to the life-threatening situation and jumped in the water beside her. Within moments, she had been assisted from the water and was back on deck. Fortunately, she was not injured. She was taken below, wrapped in a blanket and provided with coffee. After a short time for her to recover, I had CWO Warren Speh and Ensign Jerry Nifontoff escort her home in a taxi.
With all the warnings we had received prior to our deployment about the importance of maintaining good relationships during our port visits, I was concerned about the potential for whatever might evolve out of this accident. The young woman could have been seriously injured in the position she was in between the boat and pier. Chief Clarke’s quick response and our attention to her welfare apparently forestalled any problem and no one in Patras seemed concerned. In accordance with SIXTH FLT Instructions, I submitted a minor incident report commenting that I did not anticipate unfavorable reaction or publicity. And, none occurred. (Later, I nominated Chief Clarke for the Navy-Marine Corps Lifesaving Medal.)
What did occur- was considerable interest in the young officers on COBBLER from the mother and sisters of the 17-year old who had fallen overboard. In fact- as Warren Speh recalled after escorting the young lady to her home: “I can assure you that we were very welcome in their home”. The next day, we invited the family back to COBBLER for coffee and cake during which the mother conducted an around-the-table survey to see which of our young officers were single. Later that week, Warren and Jerry Nifontoff were invited to a neighborhood gathering of about one hundred people. “After about an hour and a half of meeting all the people, enjoying the music, food and drink, we made overtures to take leave. We were informed that was not possible as we were the primary guests and the party was called in respect of the way the COBBLER crew treated the family.”
After a few more days in port, we departed for scheduled ops with the carrier and destroyers of TG 60.2- relieved that we had escaped any entangling arrangements with the female friends and siblings of our “girl overboard”.