Submarine Memorial Service: Tolling of the Bells

Posted by Rebekah
May 19 2010

This is not technically about the Flier’s Memorial Service this August, but a submarine memorial service that will take place at the Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum on Sunday May 30, at 11 a.m.

A few posts ago, I talked about how a submarine would leave her bell onshore, both as a safety precaution (in case it rang underwater or under attack, thus leading the Sonar-equipped surface ships to easily locate them) but also as a memorial in case the worst should happen.

For many, the bell of a ship, represents that ship’s soul, and the act of recovering a ship’s bell, especially from a wreck, is a very emotional act. Flier’s bell was left onshore, however, likely on the Eastern Coast and is currently lost, though on land somewhere.

But the act of ringing any ship’s or boat’s bell in memory of a lost vessel is still a traditional and touching ceremony.

The Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum will hold the Lost Boat Ceremony on the above mentioned date.  The name of every lost boat, together with the date of her loss and the number of men lost with her, will be read out loud, the bell run, and a flower thrown from the deck of the Silversides into the water in memory of these boat’s crews.

At the close of the ceremony, USS Silversides runs her old diesel engines, the only time of year this happens.  Once the Silversides is surrounded by a small crowd of flowers, she belches this thick black smoke and no one can hear anything for a few moments.  (or a few moments afterwards).  The smell of diesel will hang thick in the air for another hour or so.  Silversides has no propellers anymore, so she can’t go anywhere, but for a while, the illusion that she’s getting ready to head out to sea on patrol is very acute.

Actually, according to a treaty with Canada, no active warships can be stationed on the Great Lakes.  This is why there are no warships permanetly stationed there, though several do tours on occasion.  The museum ships stationed on the Great Lakes are, due to this treaty and safety regulations by the Navy itself, disabled to some extent to keep them all from being used or even hijacked.

In Silversides’s case, her propellors were removed, and her engines left to rust and break down naturally.  When she became a museum ship in Chicago in the 1970’s the Navy inspected all four of her engines and said, “These engines will never run again.  Components have rusted to each other, it’s just physically impossible.”

It’s amazing what a group of dedicated volunteers can do with several hundred hours, a lot of passion and a defiance of the impossible.

From what I’m told, (since a lot of this took place long before I’d even heard of the Silversides) each part was removed, cleaned, sanded and those that couldn’t be salvaged, were replaced (it helped that while Silversides was a reserve boat in Chicago, she was joined by a near-sister the Runner II. Both were scheduled to be scrapped, but the Great Lakes Association formed to save them.  The Navy eventually allowed them to select one, and since Silversides was older and had the more illustrious history, they chose her.  They, also, with Naval permission, scavaged the Runner II for spare parts in case Silver ever needed them).

One engine was up and running shortly before the traditional Memorial Day celebration, and this fact was kept a secret.  At the conclusion of the ceremony, on a pre-arranged signal, Silversides’s volunteers started her engines, startling everyone in the audience.  A moment later, however, the deck was swarmed by the veterans (this was over 20 years ago, when they were in their 50’s and 60’s) stripping off their shirts and waving them in the diesel smoke to catch that scent that sent them back to their youth during WWII.

All four engines work now, and they are run periodically throughout the afternoon on the day of the Lost Boat ceremony.

The speaker at this year’s ceremony is Donald Morell, a WWII Submarine veteran of USS Chub. I’ve interviewed him several times, and he has wonderful stories to tell about his times during WWII.  There are not many submarine veterans left, so if you have an opportunity, attend the Lost Boat Ceremony on May 30 at 11 a.m.  It’s well worth it.

Incidentally, the engines are physically disabled again at the end of the day.  Crucial parts are removed off the engines, off the boat, and off the premises.  We sleep over 8,000 Boy and Cub Scouts aboard the Silversides every year.  I think that adequately explains the safety precautions that we take.

We do, however, have a recording of the engines set at the correct decibel level on the submarine.  We (or at least I did when I used to run the overnights) tell the parents about this.  Not necessarily the scouts or campers.  I hear it’s an effective alarm clock.

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