Saturday, July 10, 2010

Night One: Sleeping On A Sub!

USS Silversides. Decommissioned sub, museum, and place to lay your head,
in Muskegon, Michigan. Image from

USS Silversides at the Great Lakes Naval Memorial & Museum

Well it's the first night of my Midwest Training Tour and I'm spending it bunking down in a submarine, a real submarine! The USS Silversides, commissioned December 15, 1941, just 8 days after Pearl Harbor was attacked. To get the lay of the land (so to speak), I took what was without question the coolest tour I’ve ever been on!

Electric Room.

But wait -- first let me make something clear: I’m really not into war. I’m freaked out by the Bomb, internment camps, all that stuff -- but seeing the movie in the museum here, and experiencing the hour-long tour of the sub itself, I certainly got some insight into the culture of that time and a sense of how life was on a U.S. sub.

Some of my sub buddies from Boy Scout Troop 264.

The tour I took was lead by Gary Reynolds and joined by Retired Officer Dan, with Boy Scout Troop 264 from Griffith, Indiana. It began with a solemn ceremony in which the Boy Scouts (guided by Gary) lowered five flags, appropriately folded them and handed them off to him with a salute. I don’t need to have served in the military to have been touched by the honor of it.

An underwater Underwood.

The tour itself was amazing! It included information about how submarines work, the military practices on the ship, the history of the patrols made by the USS Silversides, and the stories of some of the men that served on this ship. It was honestly fascinating. Here some of the interesting tidbits I learned:
Burial at sea aboard the USS Cobia, 1945. Image from
  • How was a person “buried at sea”? The body was wrapped in a tarp and weights were added to prevent the enemy from finding it, giving away the location of the ship. A special ceremony would be performed with all officers on deck, in uniform. The body, with a flag draped over it, would then be placed on a board. The board would be tilted so the body would slide out from under the flag and into the sea, leaving the flag behind.

  • Mike Harbin, Torpedo Man Third Class, was the only serviceman killed on the Silversides. He was hit by enemy machine gun fire on her first war patrol in May of ‘42. Rumor has it that his ghost still haunts the sub. (Boy Scout Collin explained to me that the ghost usually appears early in the morning or late at night, when you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up or a rush of cold air; he thought that with all of us on board there was probably too much activity for the ghost to appear tonight.)
  • The propellers are called “screws.”

Ward Room that once served as a makeshift
Operating Room. Image from
  • A ship’s pharmacist, Thomas Moore, with only improvised instruments (he used bent spoons as retractors) and an anatomy book, once performed a successful appendectomy on the table in the Ward Room. This scene was reenacted in the 1943 movie Destination Tokyo, starring Cary Grant.

Lobby Card for Warner Bros.' Destination Tokyo depicting
the appendectomy scene. Image from

  • The nickname “Pigboats” came from the odor that resulted from the fact that purified water was used first for the engines, then cooking and hand-washing, and then bathing. Officers were allowed a shower once a week, but the enlisted men could only shower once every 13 days. (Scouts Daniel and Anthony helped me with fact checking on this one.)
  • This sub had its “screws” removed because the U.S. has a treaty with Canada saying there will be no active warships in the Great Lakes.

  • The USS Silversides is 80% active. The engines are run on Memorial Day to honor the 3,600 men who died on U.S. submarines in World War II.
  • On a side note, I just read that starting in 2012 women will begin serving as official crew members on U.S. submarines for the first time.

Something else I got from this visit: I guess I'd never heard much of Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, beyond that opening declaration, until seeing the museum’s movie. It becomes clear why so many young Americans were motivated to enlist, and risk the ultimate sacrifice.

In FDR’s own words:
“I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again...we will gain the inevitable triumph - so help us God.”

The crew sleeping quarters; bunking down with torpedoes.

Throughout the tour Gary repeated the average age, 18-20, of the young enlisted men who served on the USS Silversides. Their bunks lie in rows alongside the torpedoes. I could not help but think about our young men and women now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the intensity of what they are called to do, the risks and challenges that they bear, and the ways that it changes them forever.

We only just started this journey and already I'm finding inspiration all around me. I can't wait to see what the road will bring next.


  1. Fascinating! I can't wait to see what your journey brings as well.

  2. My son was one of the scouts from that night. He mentioned you and your journey. Thanks for the posting, it's nice to have a visual of what he was telling me of his time there. In his words, it was "awesome!"

  3. It was AWESOME! Being at the USS Silversides with the Boy Scouts actually made the evening more meaningful and more fun. It was a honor to see them lower and raise the flags and a privilege to be at a memorial with such a respectful group of young men. It was heartwarming and I was so impressed by their decorum. It made me all proud and quite frankly gushy inside.