published Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Deep memories

Former submariners group keeping memories alive


The Silent Service -- The name of the submarine community, a reference to their mission of remaining quiet and unseen, lurking underwater

Qualification -- The date when a submariner finishes "qualifying" on his submarine, an extensive checklist during which both enlisted and officer sailors learn the ship from front to back.

"Got my dolphins" -- The common phrase meaning to have earned your qualification. Submariners wear a special badge noting they are qualified submariners.

The Holland Club -- An honor earned by a submarine veteran on his 50th anniversary of qualification

Blowing sanitary -- When a submarine or ship flushes out its waste into the ocean

Source: Members of Chattanooga USS Carbonero Base, a submarine veterans group

For a small group of landlocked men, memories make all the difference.

At each monthly meeting of the USS Carbonero Base, the group stands at attention as the base commander tolls a small brass bell while the man next to him reads the fate of sunken submarines lost to the depths in that month of history.

The 23 men range in age from early 30s to mid-80s and share one common link -- they've spent months, sometimes years, on one of the U.S. Navy's military submarines.

"I never served with anybody in here, but they're like brothers to me," said Alan Syler, one of the base founders and current commander of the Chattanooga-based group.

The way Mr. Syler explains it, only other submariners know what the service was like -- the quarters, the missions, the food and the ports are shared memories.

When he and others decided to form the group -- or base, as these organizations are called in the Navy -- Mr. Syler knew there probably were a few hundred former submariners in the area.

Many who served on nuclear submarines found jobs at nuclear plants such as Watts Bar, Sequoyah and Browns Ferry after their time in the Navy, he said.

To form an official base and be recognized by the United States Submarine Veterans Inc., Mr. Sylar had to have eight members and finish a tall stack of paperwork. After about six months, the base held its first meeting on May 11. The USS Carbonero name came from the submarine one member served on during World War II.

Al Smith is the group's unofficial storyteller, an accomplishment among a room full of tellers of sea tales. He served aboard two submarines during World War II, the USS Carbonero and the USS Cochino.

At meetings, most of the base's members wear blue vests adorned with pins, patches and badges, a kind of road map for fellow veterans that tells a detailed history in a flash to the seasoned eye.

Small pins with the Vietnamese flag show that a submariner served during the Vietnam War. Other markings show the job a submariner held or ports visited.

But Mr. Smith's vest is a faded orange with older patches made of a thinner cut of cloth. During a recent base meeting, he pulled out another orange vest, also faded, also full of pins and honors. This was his wife's vest, he tells the group. She died years ago.

  • photo
    Staff Photo by Matt Fields-Johnson Al Smith, a retired second-class gunners mate from the U.S. Navy during WWII, speaks to other submarine veterans at the recently formed "base group" at the VFW on Riverside Drive.

But the vest is his way to remind members that the wives support their husbands at sea and after their travels have ended. His display is a shorthand way of reminding the group that they are family.

Larry Paige, vice commander of the base, recounted the thousands of lives lost during America's wars when submarines were sunk. But he also noted the swift victories of those submarines against the Japanese Navy after the Pearl Harbor attacks that crippled most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Mr. Paige served aboard submarines during the Cold War, when the United States patrolled worldwide waters in a deadly game of cat and mouse with the Soviet Union.

"We looked at life in that submarine. It was never the steel that we respected, it was the people we respected," he said.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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bbeforec said...

is there a web site for this group? what is contract information?

September 22, 2009 at 1:04 p.m.
Bensontbjj said...

The USS Carbonero base website is We welcome all submariners past and present as well as their wives.

Tim B.

USSVI Creed: "To perpetuate the memory of our shipmates who gave their lives in the pursuit of their duties while serving their country. That their dedication, deeds and supreme sacrifice be a constant source of motivation toward greater accomplishments. Pledge loyalty and patriotism to the United States of America and its Constitution."

September 22, 2009 at 9:18 p.m.
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