Submariners Share Memories in N.Ky.
BY SARA GADZALA • ENQUIRER CONTRIBUTOR • SEPTEMBER 3, 2010
FORT MITCHELL - At the age of 93, Ret. Navy Chief Warrant Officer George H. Smith remembers the events of Dec. 7, 1941, as if they were yesterday. But he can barely talk about it without breaking down.
"Well, it was really terrible," said Smith, who was at Pearl Harbor on that fateful day.
"We heard a bomb go off and then we heard machine gun fire, then we saw a plane," Smith said trailing off, his story cut short by tears. "I really can't describe it."
Smith is among 900 qualified submariners in town for the 2010 United States Submarine Veterans Inc. and World War II Submarine Veterans National Convention at the Drawbridge Hotel this weekend.
The event is drawing naval personnel from all over the world and is so large they have rented out the entire Drawbridge Hotel, plus part of another hotel. The event began Aug. 30 and ends Sunday .
Smith, the Pennsylvania State Commander of the World War II SubVets, said he enjoys coming to the conventions to meet up with old buddies and trade stories from his military career, which lasted 27 years and seven months.
"It's quite a turnout," said Smith. "Our numbers from WWII are depleting. If you do the arithmetic and the youngest person who didn't lie about his age was 17, well, you can figure out what he'd be now."
The Cincinnati base of the USSVI is hosting the convention for qualified submariners from the post-WWII era to present day.
"It's nice to meet people with a similar background," said Roger Crombie, convention commander from the Cincinnati base.
"To sit around and swap lies, that sort of thing," Crombie joked. "But the most fundamental purpose of our organization is to remember and honor those who are on eternal patrol, those who never came back."
Crombie, who served in the Navy from 1965 to 1972, said convention organizers have planned tours of the Kentucky Horse Park, Newport on the Levee, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the Creation Museum, a B&B Riverboats cruise, and other activities, but the most important part of the convention is the tolling of the bell, which honors all the men and each boat that has been lost at sea by tolling a bell for each loss.
"Your potential of being killed is more than any of the other armed forces," according to Smith, who survived eight war patrols and earned a Bronze Star, the military's fourth-highest combat award for bravery, heroism or meritorious service.
He said the men who made it to the convention were lucky.
"We could have been captured, ended up in foreign countries, the United States could have lost," Smith said.
Every few feet of the convention hall is another member of the "silent service" with another story to tell, some humorous, some horrifying, some too emotional to finish.
Dick Young, a founding member and former base commander of the USSVI Cincinnati Base, said his time in the service is something he'll never forget. He said a typical mission would last 70 to 75 days, but once his crew had to last 86 straight days submerged.
"As a 20-year-old kid, I got the messages that would tell us to fire all our missiles, and at the time it was Moscow," said Young, who served from 1969 to 1973. "The submarine I was on had more firepower than all the bombs dropped by everybody in WWII.'
Young said submariners are bonded for life, which is why the convention turnout was so great. He said the USSVI currently has over 13,000 members and the Cincinnati Base has 82, but they are always looking for other submariners in the area.
Crombie said they would like to pass the word about their organization. Any submariners from the Cincinnati area are encouraged to contact the group via the Cincinnati Base web site at www.cincysubvets.com.
"It's the fraternity, the bonds that you have," Crombie said. "You maybe will never see them again, but you will remember them the rest of your life. These are the people who, literally, your life's in their hands."