I visited several friends during an l 8-day visit to Russia in July/August 2010. One of these friends, retired Captain First Rank Victor Ponikarovsky, invited me to join the annual reunion of the wardroom of the Soviet submarine LENINETS. I accepted without hesitation and found myself two days later embarking upon a five-hour canal cruise of St Petersburg with 22 former officers of the crews of the first Soviet YANKEE Class submarine, K-137, LENINETS. Two of these officers were former skippers, including retired Contra Admiral Dronov. Most of the officers were accompanied by their better half, so there were about 40 of us in total.
A central table was set up in the enclosed portion of the canal cruise boat, and the ladies set out a delicious spread of cold cuts, fresh and pickled vegetables, cheeses and a variety of breads. A seemingly limitless supply of champagne, vodka and bottled water accompanied the food, the chatter, and eventually, the singing.
My friend Victor was the Torpedo Officer when he was as- signed to this ship. Later he commanded a DELTA-III SSBN for six years. He was and still is a close friend of the Shturman (Navigator) who was accompanied by his lovely bride, Irina (Fig. 3). A photo of Victor and his DELTA-III has hung in my den for several years, and GA TO and my photo hangs in his.
As is always the case it was easy to identify the doers, those who put in all the leg work to organize and execute the reunion. In this case it was two energetic and friendly fellows, Oleg and Yuri. They presented me with a Russian Submarine Force wall calendar, and since I had my Sharpie Fine Point pen handy, I have the calendar with the signatures of the day 1 s attending officers. What a great keepsake.
During the meal, one nice lady kept adding a variety of meats and vegetables to my dinner plate, ensuring it never came close to getting empty. I appreciated her help, and during my toast I asked her to also sign my calendar. This met with great approval!
I never lacked for conversation during the cruise. Those who knew some English did their best to use it, but most of the dialog was necessarily in Russian. I did have one non-LENINETS friend along on the cruise, another retired submarine skipper (Captain Sergei Aprelev), whose English is impeccable. If ever there were stumbling blocks, he came to the rescue and facilitated our talks .
Captain Aprelev served as technical consultant on the U.S. movie made by Director Katherine Bigelow, K-19: The Widow- maker, starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. I visited him on the set in Toronto during the filming and had a most pleasant set of conversations with both Katherine and Liam Neeson. Mr. Ford was not on set the day I was there. I also put Captain Aprelev in touch by phone with our Captain Jim Patton who served as technical consultant on Hunt for Red October.
Several of the LENINETS senior officers asked me the same question at different times, “do you think the U.S. was involved in the sinking of the KURSK? 11 I was surprised to get this question four or five times, and easily repeated my confidence that the official Russian and international press reports correctly identified the on board explosion of one of its exercise torpedo’s as the reason for the tragic loss of KURSK.
Our reunion cruise occurred on July 31. The day before, I had visited the main KURSK Memorial at St Serafimovich Cemetery in suburban St Petersburg. It’s a very impressive memorial, and I left one of my submarine business cards with appropriate note among the flowers lying on the memorial base.
Twelve days later, the Navy and the nation celebrated the 10th anniversary of the loss of KURSK; by this time I had left St Petersburg and was in Moscow.
Every hourly newscast, both Russian and BBC, contained about 10-minutes of footage of the memorial events in St Petersburg, in Munnansk, in Sevastopol and other sites. The story of KURSK sinking and eventual recovery was also told and retold. It was mentioned that several hard liners still insisted there was some American involvement in this event, but it was also clearly mentioned that own-ship torpedo accident was the officially accepted cause and even talked a bit about the exercise torpedo Quality Control problems that were uncovered.
Captain Igor Kurdin, Director of the St Petesburg Submariners Club, whom I had recently met with for two hours, was shown and quoted on some of the video newscasts. I know Admiral De Mars and Captain Dave Cooper have spent some time with Captain Kurdin, who has his own close ties to submarine disaster. He was for several years the Executive Officer on YANKEE K-219 that suffered an own-ship missile accident and sunk in the Central Atlantic in 1986. He was relieved as XO just a month before the ship sailed on its last patrol. He co-wrote the narrative book on this accident, Hostile Waters, with our Captain Peter Huchthausen.
Captain Kurdin presented me with an inscribed copy of the Russian language edition of his and Huchthausen’s book, saying this version had the facts right and I should read it. He certainly overestimated my Russian language abilities, but I was honored to have received the book.
As our reunion canal cruise wound down, a couple of the impressive river hydrofoil passenger boats sped by. They are common in inter-city river traffic, and in St Petersburg they support the tourist traffic from the downtown Hermitage embankment to the beautiful Peterhof palace; this trip includes a fun 40-50 knot transit across a portion of the Bay of Finland.
Also, one of the officers broke out his guitar and the cruise finished with the usual energetic, after dinner singing by the men present. Several submarine songs, then a couple of Navy songs, and then some folk songs were sung. I know the first verse to three popular folk songs in Russian, so I sang the first verse and the assembled chorus finished with the remaining five or six verses in each case. As on other occasions, it seems that everyone knows every verse to every song. I got a lot of credit for knowing just 3 song parts.
I had a great day with two old friends, I made some new friends and am corresponding with them already, and I must have had my picture taken about 500 times. I’m glad I was wearing my USS GA TO (SSN 615) shirt; it fit well with a most memorable day.