GROTON, Conn. – 2019 has come and gone and with it the entire decade came to a close. For Naval Submarine Base (SUBASE) New London, 2019 was an exceptionally eventful year of commissioning and change of command ceremonies, construction projects and community service events on a level and in a way that makes SUBASE New London stand out as the Navy’s “first and finest” submarine base.
The first few months of the year were marked by frigid weather, submarine homecomings and a long partial government shutdown. When USS North Dakota (SSN 784) steamed up the river returning from deployment, she was caked with sheets of ice in the 14-degree weather. Notable among the crew was Sonar Technician (Submarine) 3rd Class Jorge Alberto Garcia-Chavez, whose family drove all the way from Mexico to brave the freezing conditions to greet their son.
When the partial government shutdown left the Coast Guard high and dry, Sailors, families and the community pitched in to donate food, supplies and money to help their friends in uniform across the Thames until they could be paid again. Among the organizations who provided donations were the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut Foundation, Family First Life, the Mohegan Tribe, Chelsea Bank, Dominos and H&R Block.
The base hosted a National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 7 at Cross Hall Galley and invited reverends, rabbis and other religious leaders to dine, meet and pray together.
“Passion communicates reality,” said Zakary Stevens, associate pastor at Groton Bible Chapel, who spoke at the breakfast. “Young people read the importance of what you say in the way you say it. They can get information anywhere. The question is not ‘What’s out there?’ it’s ‘Who can I trust?’ When they come to you the question is ‘Does the person’s level of excitement line up with how exciting the thing they are talking about is?’ When the subject is sad, does the presenter appear sad or are they just speaking monotone?”
2019, the final year of a dramatic and ever-changing decade, also saw many a career milestone and conclusion. Domenic Venditti, Recreation Services Director at the base’s Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) Department, celebrated 45 years of government service while Master Chief Navy Diver Louis Deflice hung up his uniform after 30 years of proud Naval service in a ceremony held in the base’s Chapel on the Thames, surrounded by his fellow divers.
The capstone of the base’s retirements, however, was that of the beloved 51st SUBASE New London Commanding Officer Capt. Paul Whitescarver. Whitescarver was relieved in a traditional ceremony at Dealey Theater by Capt. Todd Moore, who previously commanded USS Montpelier. Present were Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, Congressman Joe Courtney (2nd-CT), and Rear Adm. Chip Rock, commander, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic.
2019 saw renewed discussion about living conditions in barracks and base housing alike. SUBASE New London leadership put on a town hall forum at the SUBASE Youth Center where residents could voice their concerns directly to the command triad. In addition, the base Unaccompanied Housing Department organized a Tiger Team, comprised of Sailors who had graduated from Naval Submarine School (SUBSCOL) but were awaiting orders, to refurbish barracks rooms and return them to satisfactory living standards for junior or bachelor Sailors.
"We have taken out the carpet in the affected rooms, cleaned up and repaired the rooms ourselves to save time and money," said Operations Specialist 2nd Class Howard Stewart, one of the Sailors coordinating the Tiger Team. "We have been cleaning up since the beginning of the year. We have a lot of [SUBSCOL students] who are on hold waiting for orders or their security clearance, so we put them to work fixing up these barracks rooms so they aren’t just sitting around TPU [Transient Personnel Unit], and they get to learn some useful skills and take pride in their work."
2019 was a year of improvement and beautification for SUBASE New London. From remodeling barracks rooms to repaving roads, large swaths of the base were transformed from old and historic, to modern and streamlined.
Other improvements and additions to the base included the Auto Hobby Shop, previously closed due to lack of funds, which was reopened with the help of volunteers, and a new brick-and-mortar sign to mark the base placed at the corner of CT Route 12 and Crystal Lake Rd. The base’s old sign, made from sheet metal and in place for more than 30 years, was removed and will eventually be placed at another location.
Sailors took pride in and showed care for not only their base, but also for the Earth itself. The entire week of Earth Day volunteers cleaned up brush and scrub in parks, brought a community garden up to par again, and removed garbage—including, notably, a plastic pickup truck bed—from behind houses at Polaris Park off CT Route 12.
“What I want to know is how they got the truck bed up there on the hill to begin with, and why they bothered?” remarked Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Trustin Keller after he, Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Robert Walsh and Hospitalman Tyler Mendez found an old pickup truck bed liner half buried under brush on a hill behind the houses.
The Holland Club, which honors submarine veterans who earned their dolphin pin 50 years ago or more, inducted several new members on June 1. Notable among the inductees was Radioman 3rd Class Cecil Burner, who served during World War II and took part in the capture of a particularly bizarre Japanese warship.
“We captured the Japanese submarine 401 and we took it to Tokyo harbor for the surrender,” said Burner, who enlisted at age 15 by faking his birth certificate. “Then Admiral Fillmore put his flag on it and took it to Pearl Harbor! That carries a lot of weight. I was on radar duty that night when we picked it up. I could not figure out what the devil it was, because we’d never seen anything like it before. It had three seaplanes inside it. It was a submarine aircraft carrier! The only one in the world.”
While some members of Navy history were alive to be celebrated in person, others have since sailed beyond the sunset and leave us with only memories. The base held a wreath-laying ceremony aboard Historic Ship Nautilus (SSN 571) to honor military members who had given their lives in the line of duty and the loved ones they left behind, called Gold Star families, Sept. 26. A month later on Oct. 18, Jackie “Mom” Kaye’s cremated remains were presented to the crew of USS North Dakota for burial at sea at the same spot her husband, Norman “Pop” Kaye was laid to rest 11 years earlier.
“Mom called herself a Navy Sponsor—nothing official, however—she was a one person operation,” said retired Rear Adm. Arnie Lotring, speaking to the crew. “While living in Ft. Lauderdale with Pop, she discovered the Submarine Force in the 1980s and then dedicated her life to supporting our Sailors and their families.”
While many military bases resemble small towns, for SUBASE New London the resemblance is more than visual. It stands alongside Groton, Ledyard, New London and other towns in the area as a community within a community, full of life and neighborly good will of a kind found only in New England. This became most apparent when the holiday season began as Sailors, veterans, civilians, families and neighbors lent a hand, celebrated and exchanged gifts for Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“I was the point of contact for this drive at the dental clinic,” said Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Sean Vincent, who helped coordinate the Caring is Sharing food drive for Thanksgiving. “I spent a lot of weekends and afternoons running the booths at the commissary and keeping track of who did what. If you’re going to do something, I say own it. Give a little, get a lot out of it. We’ve all been junior rank before. If you’re far from home and away from your people, that’s rough and I want to help. We fill the boxes with yams, corn, green beans, pumpkin, mashed potatoes, condensed milk and a lot of other stuff. The families also receive a turkey. It’s basic, but it feeds a whole family. I have a family of four and one of these boxes fed everyone.”
December arrived with winter winds as SUBASE New London experienced its first late-opening of the season, Dec. 1, while Public Works and Sailors on duty plowed the roads and shoveled the sidewalks. On the sixth, Santa and Mrs. Claus made their annual visit to the base to assist in Dealey Plaza’s Christmas tree lighting. At the ceremony children made crafts, enjoyed treats and got to meet Santa in person. SUBASE New London also put on a holiday party for Sailors before holiday stand down. Notable among the events was a raffle featuring prizes such as a flat-screen TV and a deluxe toaster oven.
Though 2019 and the 2010s have reached their end, Americans can rest assured there will always be a good Navy to defend the land and sea. SUBASE New London will stand ever ready to deploy its mighty submarines in 2020 and beyond!