Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Opinion: Hats off to all submariners sailing on the Thames

John Steward, New London Day, Apr 7

Here in the Submarine Capitol of the World, submarines are who we are. Whether we build them, serve on them or just catch a glimpse of one now and then gliding on the Thames River, subs have always been a part of our lives.
Active and retired Navy personnel and the extended families of Electric Boat shipbuilders fill communities throughout Connecticut and Rhode Island. Newspapers cover submarines returning to the Sub Base in Groton after long deployments.
That is why, when I first laid eyes on an eerie x-ray of the confederate submarine H.L. Hunley on, I felt a connection to those skeletons trapped inside because every submariner is one of our own.
The Hunley sank in 1864 after fatally torpedoing the USS Housatonic off the coast of South Carolina. The Hunley was recovered in 2000 and underwent archaeological processing in a lab.
Powered by hand, the heavy sub’s seven crank handle positions were painstakingly excavated from the sediment. One by one, each skeleton was exposed at his station. They had never moved.
Time and the ocean stole skin, muscle and tissue but left the skeletons remarkably preserved. Some still wore shoes.
Mainstream media avoided the crew’s remains but these men had names. The website for Friends of the Hunley ( tells their story.
Inside the sub, personal effects, small symbols of humanity, had settled in place as their owners slowly disintegrated – shoes, wood and brass buttons, a tin canteen, a wallet, a wooden pipe for smoking and bits of clothing.
In the front of the boat still on station beneath the forward conning tower sat the skeleton of Lt. George E. Dixon, the Hunley’s commander. He fired the torpedo that sunk the Housatonic, introducing submarines to naval warfare.
Jewelry and an ornate gold watch mingled with his bones. A healed gunshot wound was found in Dixon’s left upper thigh. He had become legend for the $20 gold good luck piece that once deflected the bullet, saving his leg. Dixon carried it that night.
At the first crank were the bones of 20-year old Arnold Becker. His teeth showed signs of childhood illness or occasional malnutrition. His skeleton still held signs of strain from turning the crank shaft.
Still manning the second crank were the remains of a man named Lumpkin, first name undetermined. In his early 40s, he showed past evidence of a broken nose, cheek and foot. He had notches in his teeth where he held his smoking pipe. His sewing kit and pocketknife lay with his bones.
Frank Collins was the tallest skeleton, collapsed at the third crank handle. Collins had “tailor notches” in his teeth from working with metal needles. He apprenticed in his grandfather’s cobbler shop.
The bones of J. F. Carlsen, in his early 20s, rested at the fourth crank handle. Carlsen had survived a mutiny, testifying in an 1861 treason trial in Charleston.
Details are sketchy about a man named Miller, manning the fifth position. He was one of the oldest, in his mid-40s. His skeleton spoke of a hard physical life, showing old fractures on his rib, leg and skull. He was a heavy smoker with a touch of arthritis.
At the sixth crank sat James A. Wicks, father of four girls. A heavy tobacco user with light brown hair and blue eyes, seven U.S. Navy buttons mingled with his bones.
Nestled at the seventh crank position was Joseph Ridgaway, just over 30. Scattered among his bones was a slouch hat and pencil. Mysteriously, around his neck hung the dog tag of Connecticut soldier Ezra Chamberlin, who died at the Battle of Morris Island where Ridgaway had also fought.
In 2004 the Hunley crew was buried amid great fanfare in Charleston, S.C., laid to rest as they had died – side by side.
Ted Dubay of East Lyme, submariner and author of “Three Knots to Nowhere” wrote: “All submarines operate on the edge of survivability.”
The courage it took to man the hand-cranked Hunley is no different than the courage it takes to man today’s sophisticated nuclear submarines. The deep, unforgiving sea hasn’t changed.
Hats off to all submariners.

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