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100 fathoms down: Columbus area submariners recount experiences, give thoughts on Titan tragedy and talk about club

U.S.S. Chivo (U.S.S. Chivo/Released)

In 1960, a 311-foot long metal tube named the U.S.S. Chivo, loaded with 90 U.S. Sailors made its rounds of Cuba, Key West and Jamaica. At the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis, all that stood between the men aboard and the depths of the Atlantic Ocean was just under an inch of high-tensile steel.

The crew, however, were always in good spirits, according to John Moore, Engineman Second Class. Moore, Richard Kropatsch and Mike Schwartzer, three submariners from the Columbus area, all agreed that the morale onboard a submarine was always high.

“Submariners were a little more relaxed,” Moore said. “There wasn’t any politics on board.”

Moore and Kropatsch were in the service together but not on the same vessel. The pair have known each other since they were young men who signed on for submarine duty for a little extra money — and adventure.

Schwartzer enlisted in the Navy at age 17 as well, but approximately a decade after the other two. He worked onboard nuclear submarines or “nukies” for 21 years on multiple vessels, visiting places from the bottom of the world near Australia to the Arcitc Circle and Iceland in that time. The subs, he added, carried missiles and were used for cargo and surveillance. It was a surreal experience for him being that far under the ocean in that situation.

“I wasn’t in Nebraska no more, was I?” Schwartzer said. “You even ask yourself ‘what the heck am I doing down here, 600 feet down? I’m just a kid from Nebraska,’ and there’s 120 guys on the crew who are all thinking that.”

Given the recent coverage of the Titan submersible which vanished near the Titanic shipwreck last week and was subsequently discovered to be destroyed, the three thought the topic warranted the telling of some of their experiences in submarines.

Schwartzer said that, from the start, the planning and design on the Titan were ill-advised. Once communications were lost, Moore and Kropatsch said, the situation was bleak to hopeless as submarines always communicate with the surface somehow.

“That one that sunk was made out of carbon fiber material which is a new material that hasn’t been tested extensively, whereas the Navy submarines, you use high-tensile steel called hy80 steel,” Schwartzer said. “It’s an inch and a half thick all the way around and that steel is built to take the pressurization.”

Pressurization, Kropatsch and Moore added, causes the vessels to make all kinds of unusual noises. Moore added that they used to show the new sailors on board just how much it squeezed the vessel by tying a clothesline across the sub inside and watching it droop as they descended. By the time they reached their 400 foot dive depth, it would almost be on the floor, he said.

In 1960 when both Moore and Kropatsch enlisted, the diesel submarines were very different from nuclear and more modern submarines, as they were entirely mechanical. Pipes, wires, valves and mechanical devices lined nearly every wall in the sub, Moore said. Enginemen, like them, had to know what every single valve or line did. One valve being mishandled could result in a sudden unplanned dive.

“You have to know every valve on the ship,” Moore said. “Electrical, you had to know all that, had to know where all your emergency stuff was. When you were off watch, you studied to qualify.”

When an engineman qualified on his ship, Moore said, the crew would celebrate with a pint of whiskey for the newly-qualified crew member. While that was a tradition on some vessels, Kropatsch said, on his it was more of a professional achievement with no celebration. Both agreed that the highly technical aspect was required because enginemen were always doing something, whether the sub was moving or moored. It was a serious and high-maintenance job to be on engine watch.

“When you were in port, you were on upkeep, when you were at sea, you basically kept everything running,” Kropatsch said.

Conditions inside were admittedly kind of cramped, Kropatsch said, but while on board, one didn’t think about it much as there wasn’t much time to sit around and think about the living conditions. The sound of the engine, Moore added, became quiet after a while and you could hear whispering over it in some cases. While things were cramped, they got used to it and it was just like being in any other room or closed space.

“We’d sleep in bunks, they were four high, just enough room between them for your shoulders, we had two trips where you shared a bunk,” Moore said. “Underneath the mattress is where your clothes went. They were always pressed.”

Moore recounted an experience near Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the U.S.S. Chivo detected a Russian submarine tracking them. The crew had to hunker down, silently, and await further orders. In October of 1960, the vessel sat for two weeks holding that blockade. Kropatsch recalled that in 1962 while he was home on leave, things were very tense and the subs were on a moment’s notice to leave, dive or go dark. Moore said they were “two minutes away from nuclear war” during that time.

“They called me back and when they called me back the boat was gone. There was another kid on the boat who was there too, just got out of the hospital and they told us to be ready because they’re going to come in, pick us up in the dark of night and we’ll be gone in five minutes,” Kropatsch said.

Kropatsch said living on a sub and going to so many places was a life-changing experience. From looking out at the ocean at night to meeting people from some of the poorest places in the world at the time, he said, he doesn’t have a single regret about joining.

In 1970, Schwartzer, 17 and fresh out of boot camp, was asked if he would like to come onboard a sub and get paid a little extra for his trouble. Looking for some extra pay and something to do, he agreed. That decision sealed him into a 20-some year career in the military.

“If you’re only 17 at the time, that $80 is a lot. I said ‘yeah, I’ll try that’ and didn’t give it any thought. Next thing you know I’m in school for a year and a half, went to four different schools, then in 1971 I went to my very first one (submarine) and stayed in for 21 years on four submarines,” Schwartzer said.

Being on a sub was hard, Schwartzer said. Being separated from family was not easy, but he did get to see and experience things others may never get to. Vessels he was on have glanced off the back of a whale and had to reverse out of the Bermuda triangle. The crew on one also got to listen to the Super Bowl in 1978 off the coast of Scotland.

“I missed birthdays and anniversaries, soccer games, plays at school and holidays of course, but that comes with it,” Schwartzer said. “We did get to listen to the Super Bowl in January of ’78 because we were near Scotland, came up shallow enough where our floating wire antenna could pick up the Super Bowl — Denver versus Dallas, that was quite a treat.”

The best part of submarine assignments, the trio agreed, was the people. Moore and Kropatsch recalled all kinds of shenanigans onboard their respective vessels, such as traditions involving barrels of whiskey, buying cars in Cuba, climbing inside of an engine cylinder and being in incredibly tight living spaces. Even if you had a problem with someone on board, Schwartzer said, everyone was literally and figuratively in the same boat as each other.

“(They are) outstanding, motivated, intelligent guys who put the mission first, whatever the mission, they don’t care about time off, work holidays, the mission comes first,” Schwartzer said. “You’re really proud to be a part of a group of people that take a lot of pride in what they’re working on.”

The three are part of a Nebraska submariners group that has quarterly meetings to eat dinner and talk about being part of the just under 2% of sailors who work or have worked on submarines. Their next meeting is at the Columbus VFW post on July 15 starting at 11 a.m. with lunch at noon. The group has met in cities across Nebraska over the years and has members from as far as Omaha and Kearney.


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