The Sub Patrol

Volunteers: Submarine veterans board the Inner Harbor's Torsk all these years later, and the memories rise quickly to the surface.

May 24, 1999|By LIZ ATWOOD | LIZ ATWOOD,SUN STAFF

Joe Most hadn't set foot on a submarine for 40 years, but when the former seaman stepped onto the USS Torsk at Baltimore's Inner Harbor during the weekend, the memories came flooding back -- the smell of diesel fumes, the deafening noise of the engine room and the feel of the hard metal bunks.

Most, 63, of Fort Pierce, Fla., was among 30 volunteers who went to the Torsk during the weekend to help restore the 55-year-old vessel that is part of the National Historic Seaport.

As tourists squeezed by in the narrow passageways, examining torpedoes and marveling at the cramped living quarters, Most and several other submarine veterans labored on the Torsk's wiring, trying to restore it to working order.

"What is amazing is people started asking questions, and I started answering them," said Most, who served on a submarine along the East Coast in 1955. "It was like I never left."

He brought his son, Matt, a 14-year-old eighth-grader with aspirations of becoming a Navy Seal.

Most tapped on an overhead bunk and opened a crewman's lockers. "Everything we had went in there or under our bunks," Most told his son, pointing to the shoe box-sized opening.

Matt smiled at his father's enthusiasm. "It's not every day I see my Dad all happy like this," he said.

Many of the veterans said the memories of submarine life as well as love of the old vessels inspired them to spend the weekend in the hot, cramped belly of the Torsk. They came from as far as Seattle, Wash., some staying aboard the Coast Guard cutter Roger Brooke Taney while in town.

The Torsk, commissioned in 1944, served in the Pacific and made history by sinking the last warship in World War II. The vessel completed a record 11,884 dives and served as a training vessel and active boat in the Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets after World War II.

Eighty crewmen lived on the 311-foot-long vessel while it was in service, taking tours of duty lasting up to 90 days.

The Torsk, an attraction at the Inner Harbor since 1972, became a National Historic Landmark in 1988 and today is operated by the Living Classrooms Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization based in the city.

For two years, a group of submarine enthusiasts calling itself the Torsk Bandits has spent several weekends a year helping restore the boat. Members have repainted its hull, repaired its electrical circuits and restored much of its radio capabilities. When they are not working, volunteers scrounge for parts and supplies for the project and research the vessel's history.

"There is always something that has to be done," said Gilbert M. Bohannon Jr., a leader of the volunteers. Although not a submarine veteran, Bohannon said he fell in love with the Torsk while visiting it as a tourist in 1980 and has spent two years aiding its reconstruction.

While the Torsk will never be taken out to sea again, Bohannon said the volunteers want to restore as much of the ship as possible to the way in was in the 1960s.

"It will be in as good a condition as we can get it," he said.

Yesterday, John Cadell, a retired Navy radioman, stood in the Torsk's radio room and tuned in a BBC broadcast. Nearly 40 years ago, the radiomen who sat in the compartment were America's ears in the Cold War, keeping track of Soviet ships during a blockade of Cuba.

Farther back in the boat, volunteers in one of the engine rooms pulled out wiring that had been installed in modern times and tested circuits. They hope to restore the electrical system not only to make it more authentic, but to provide greater comfort and safety to thousands of tourists who visit the submarine each year.

Patrick Householder, a retired submarine engineer, traveled from Seattle to help with the work. In 1960, as a young naval recruit, he had spent a weekend aboard the Torsk.

"It's still beautiful," Householder said.

To see the attraction, the veterans explained, one must look past the peeling paint, the stench of diesel oil and the cramped compartments where men once slept alongside torpedoes, spending weeks at a time at sea out of touch with friends and family. Instead, the veterans recall the camaraderie of the submarine and the excitement and pride of taking part in one of the Navy's most elite assignments.

"We were all very young," Householder said. "We look at it as the time of our lives."

Pub Date: 5/24/99

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