A year ago this Memorial Day weekend in 2018, over a hundred old hands and their family members converged on Bremerton, Washington to say goodbye to the U.S.S. Bremerton (SSN 698) as she was preparing to take an expedited trip into the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard – a seemingly impromptu change of heart by the U.S. Navy despite years of nuclear fuel remaining in her General Electric S6G nuclear powerplant.
Coming in hot straight and normal from Pearl Harbor, under the command of Bremerton’s last sea-going CO, CDR Travis Zettel, with the first sea-going CO, Thomas Anderson as a special rider and guest, the BadFish arrived on April 27, 2018, in Bremerton pulling up to the semi-public aircraft carrier piers. With fan’s of the American Classicwaiting pierside and a Navy band to add to the festivities a month of transition lay ahead for the Lucky 698 and everyone around her, including alumni wanting to get a last chance to step on the decks of the Ol’ Gal.
698 and her crew had just completed their final West-Pac and with their stand-down eliminated had orders to make haste to take our thoroughbred, the fastest U.S. Navy submarine on record, to her final destination to become part of the beau-coup-multi-million dollar pipeline of American nuclear powered submarines to be decommissioned.
Her last ocean voyage was complete with a torpedo room full of household goods in lieu of her standard armament of ship-killing MK48 ADCAPs, the crew suffering from a form of bureaucratic whiplash and the need for some stand down. So it was a trying time, a time of urgency, confusion and another day in the Navy for the Bremerton before getting hard at work preparing the boat for entry into the Deep Shipyard.
In a mad rush to organize a Farewell, or some may say, for the Bremerton,a “Coming Home” party, organizers of the reunion on the front lines had to run the gauntlet of “why do you want to see a nearly 40 year old submarine for, when there are a host of shiny new submarines for tour?”
Things were not looking good in early May 2018 as organizers had to deal with an understandably indifferent environment with the work involved trying to secure tours of the boat with the real pre-shipyard work schedule in front of them. Moreover, the boat was preparing for a command change of the COB and XO, in other words, even more instability for alumni to make it an uphill effort.
Planners of a 2018, USS Bremerton Reunion arrived to the battle scene beat up and worn down as two attempts to organize a reunion in Las Vegas got derailed, once in early 2018 when hotel management decided to demand early payment for the reservation block and then the night before a full scale promotion to re-attack Vegas (the Reunion that never was, that almost became, but could yet happen in the future) was aborted. The Vegas death knell was preceded by a message around early April by someone in the know, advising that it would be a not a good idea to have a Vegas reunion in light of the sudden change to the boat’s schedule. The necessity to act on purposely ambiguous information became the modus operandi.
So here we were, a mass of 698 alumni waiting for the word on what to do, suddenly wondering if we needed to flip our lives upside down to gather to see the ol’ gal one more time.
Enter the bizarre carnival ride
The mad house on the run with the ad-hoc 698 intergenerational Reunion Committees on one hand, the Officers and crew wanting to get off the boat and/or jump through the hoops necessary to meet an aggressive shipyard entry date, finding suitable meeting dinner facilities (we almost ended up at a private golf course on one hand, a cowboy BBQ honky-tonk dance hall on the other, and almost would have had the boutique Conference Center banquet hall if our numbers didn’t soar majestically over 80), getting commitments from hotels, the surrealistic composing of a dinner event and all its host details (not including those we missed ;)).and then… COMSUBGRU9 (CSG9).
I’ve been told by lawyers, pastors, and CSG9 that I am a loose cannonball… or something synonymous to someone who needs to stop causing trouble. If it wasn’t for Captain Alan Beam (CO #3), our man in Havana, so to speak, there would be no one they could interface with. Captain Beam knows how to ride that storm.
The end of nearly a week of frantic effort, those few days felt like a couple of weeks, when we almost gave it up. As organizers, I knew we needed as much time as possible to get a big reunion organized, pushing the establishment, it seemed virtually impossible to get a reunion with tours of the boat to happen. With several late night talks with a trusted friend who had insights to the pulse of the boats preparing for shipyard, it did not seem we were going to get quarter. A bunch of old-timers, pushing our own agenda just didn’t seem like we were high on anyone’s priority. It looked grim – that’s what things look like when you’re about to throw in the towel. Grim.
Then something life changing happened on May 2, 2018.
What not many people in my circles knew, is I was very close to whole process of my sister being sick with cancer and then in the hospital, early in the morning, surrounded by family, she took her last breath early on the morning of May 2.
After spending some time with family afterwards, and then reflecting on life, I realized that I had to go where it seemed obvious with the reunion. As you get older and you’ve seen various opportunities slip by, you begin to live your life (when you’re cognizant enough) to live life like it was your second chance. Maybe not before and maybe not after, but the bearings are matching … now.
In this new era, the Captain of a U.S. Navy warship still has a status to be reckoned with. Although the quarters are cramped inside a submarine, there’s still a deference required between a Captain and everyone else.
I knew I had to communicate directly with the Commanding Officer, CDR Travis Zettel in order to resolve whether to proceed or not. So with respect and humility, I wrote an email letter directly to the CO of the Bremerton and requested help, knowing that his crew comes first as well as the needs of the Navy.
At that time we only had 12 confirmed Alumni, do or die, ready to travel to attend a reunion.
That was the first time I heard an affirmative answer to our request. A response from the Captain that begins with “We would be honored…” gives you a sweet kernel of joy that won’t go out no matter what the obstacles and that was enough to set the GREEN LIGHT on the process in my mind and in our wall pushing efforts through CSG9 that would ensue over the next few weeks. Although we would still encounter obstacles galore, especially as the head count began to take off like a Subroc, the validated hope offered by Captain Zettel we will always be grateful for.
This was not the last time Captain Zettel got involved when we got into a jam to accommodate our reunion attendee needs. It would suffice to say, that the Captain really helped us old-timers and guests to feel welcome by the boat. As Captain of the Bremerton, he did us a great favor by being as gracious as a host could be opening his command for what would become over 100 attendees wanting to make our last passage through our beloved Bremerton.
It’s a Volunteer Outfit
In order to take on the mass effort to qualify in a few weeks to setup this reunion operation, we received some incredible help from shipmates, checking potential venues for our dinner event, from organizing the dinner and the details, getting the pulse of different generations of alumni, and to the relationship between former Bremerton Captains and CSG9. Each of you who took part in the process really deserve some open praise for your efforts in this volunteer fire drill, everyone from Pearl Harbor to Washington, D.C. I hesitate to begin to list not wanting to leave anyone out. The effort starts with my shipmates, the planners and volunteer help, but also their spouses and the participation of their families to help the spirit of the Bremerton live on into the next generations.
We also want to give special thanks the former Mayor of Bremerton, WA, Patty Lent and her husband who we had the distinct honor of their attending our special banquet dinner at the Kitsap Conference Center. They are friends of Captain Beam and very strong supporters of everything related to the USS Bremerton, including the effort to establish a memorial to the boat. She gave a noteworthy and inspiring speech expressing her avid support of the 698.
Scanning the Horizon
Now that the reunion of May 2018 is a year behind us, we are now looking forward to the next USS Bremerton SSN 698 Reunion.
We are in the early stages of planning for 2020.
This would be the 3 in series organized by this particular group of 698 shipmates, though the “group” per say is morphing as we get to know other who we did not serve in the same years on the boat with.
It’s important to note, we are not the only ones who have organized successful 698 Reunions and every time old shipmates get together to share in the comraderie and the memories, we consider those very important happening and events in the life blood of the 698 community.
What we’ve managed to accomplish in the course of two successfully completed reunions, one in Reno, NV in August 2016 and one in Bremerton, WA in 2018, was plan events that are non-profit, family-friendly, for the old and the young, and with times built in for the mandatory classic shipmate bull-session around the local watering hole.
Apprehensions of a First Time Reunioner
As we all were once a first time reunioner, we know we each can have a lot of apprehensions about coming back into your “old” world, in some cases, from over 36 years ago. “Will I somehow not fit in or not feel accepted or welcomed?” These are some of the abstract thoughts that could course through ones mind.
It’s been really amazing how attendees have felt at home and at ease in record time. Though, yes, it can be a bit of a nervous experience at first.
In general, we’ve found that we’ve all managed to get older, slower, and not quite so rambunctious but at the same time remarkably the same people we have ever been and there’s still a fire in every submariner waiting to be rekindled.
During the “first” reunion, we embraced every rating. Some guys may have thought that sonar guys planning the event would somehow ostracize other ratings and other departments… no such thing. Everyone was welcomed, felt included and appreciated. The programmed event also seemed a little out of the ordinary for guys who would be happy to ship-talk around a watering hole, but as one attendee mentioned, “I was blown away by how well it worked out, I think you really set a high standard.” (Thanks to the event coordinating knack of shipmate and volunteer service of Reno resident Rich Crombie).
During the “second” reunion, we had strong representations from different generations from Plankowners to past year 2000. While we spent the majority of our time catching up with our former running mates, we all recognized that we shared the same heritage and were glad to build bonds with everyone who called the Bremerton home. Everyone has their own important stories from their experiences and your Navy careers and what you’ve managed to get yourself into after the service – you have something that needs to be expressed and what a unique way than you being part of a gathering with your fellow shipmates. There’s a spirit and camaraderie in our connection through the submarine we called home.
As planners, we are becoming more aware of these dynamics and will do the best we can to build on the strengths and learn from our mistakes as we go forward into planning the next Reunion. Each event has its own unique challenges to overcome.
The price of the event is pretty much at cost, your volunteer shipmates who have been organizing these reunions are doing it as a non-profit. One of the ways we keep the price of the event down is we will try to support of veteran friendly establishments, and this may lead us to areas that have an affinity for veterans, especially submarine veterans.
In 2020, we are looking areas that would be fun to travel, have broad appeal to all generations of Bremerton shipmates, be relevant to the Silent Service and the Bremerton specifically to give the reunion as much inherent meaning for every attendee as possible. Our destination for 2020 is intended to build on top of our proud heritage and rekindle the friendships that were established so many, or not so many years ago.
Some of our first reunions, organized by different groups of shipmate were done out of convenience to the organizers, for example, a farm in Michigan (Larry Gray and Eric Festor, organizers) and Reno, Nevada (Rich Crombie, Jeff Marcey and Challen Yee, organizers) while not Navy towns, worked out because a substantial amount of planning and organizing where provided by the local resident shipmate. These reunions were very successful both well attended by the generation of shipmates close to the organizers.
Ahead of the curve and coming in first, Tony Rothenfluch organized an amazing reunion in New Orleans in 2013.
If there were other large gatherings, please let me know.
Part of our event is a “formal” reunion dinner, usually on the first night when the bulk of the attendees are expected to arrive. We offer a chance to come together as a Bremerton family, to honor our distinguished service, give everyone a chance to introduce or reintroduce themselves, have an opportunity for some mild entertainment and/or guest speaker(s), be part of a group and individual photos, and eat some food with a no host bar in tow.
We like to think that no one needs to be left out as long as they can get to the reunion site and find affordable accommodations. We look to find a convenient and reasonable quality hotel to find a block of rooms so guys don’t have far to walk back to their rooms. We understand some shipmates can work into the reunion schedule to and at the same time, work out their own accommodations if that suits them.
Depending on the venue, we may have a variety of tour type events scheduled which can work out well to add more memories of doing things together that are age friendly or handicap person accessible. Not all of us are spring chickens like some of you young studs, yep, we’re not as young as much as we were back to those glory days! (the Bremerton, until recently, was the longest serving active-duty submarine at over 37 years, having just last year handing off the honors to the Olympia).
The on-going crypto-drama in the background is the mystery surrounding the Decommissioning schedule of 698. It’s ironic, a year ago we had hopes she would be able to serve for another few years and now we’re a bit piewacked regarding the remaining significant public event that could influence our decisions regarding the time and place of a reunion.
The Decommissioning Ceremony will include formal invitations to all the original crew members (at least those whose addresses are known), which will likely be many of the people who would would also attend a general bi-annual reunion. The event should also be open to all alumni. Since planning for travel any purpose is often difficult, especially for the purposes of Navy ceremony and reunions, the planners need to respect the eventual date set for Decommissioning. However, we’ve heard nothing regarding this yet and are tentative at the moment of where the mission of the reunion will be set.
Our preferences, since we had just had a super-reunion in Bremerton, WA, last year is to target another city far away from Washington State for 2020. But the Navy has a way of sticking it in your face just when you get something else going. Welcome to your lifelong association with the Service.
Before I shuttle you off here, I want to give heartfelt credit to the small bands and individual shipmates around the country and even in foreign lands who are quietly getting together with other shipmates without the big billboard on your head.
In particular, I wanted give a BZ to those who have afforded the time and effort to serve your fellow shipmates, helping those of our Bremerton crew who are limited in their ability to move about the country due to difficult times or ill-health. I know that the heroes of our Silent Service are looking down upon you approvingly on this Memorial Day Weekend 2019.
Please note: I had to crank this out on a schedule, so please forgive for typos, nautical or other gaffs, and oversights. Contact me with any additional, comments and feedback.
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