High-tech crew aids old vessel

Submarine: A World War II relic receives the loving attention of sailors from one of its modern counterparts.

January 10, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Most days, Navy Cmdr. Keith P. Bowman is on secret missions deep in the Atlantic, making sure that the USS Maryland's billions of dollars' worth of nuclear ballistic missiles are hidden.

This week he's at the Baltimore Inner Harbor with 10 of his men, helping to restore the World War II submarine Torsk, as one of the crew's volunteer projects.

"We owe an awful lot of legacy to the submarines in World War II," Bowman said yesterday. "Much of the prosperity enjoyed today is possible because of the stability enforced by the armed forces."

Gil Bohannon, chairman of the Torsk Volunteer Association, says he's as appreciative of the effort by Bowman and his crew.

"It's an incredible honor they're here," Bohannon said.

The 11 volunteers from the Maryland are working primarily on the Torsk's radar system, doors and plumbing system.

Other civilian and military volunteers work on the boat every Saturday and Sunday, fixing lights and completing tasks similar to what the crew members from the Maryland are doing this week.

But not as efficiently.

"It's stuff regular handymen could do, but they do it faster," Bohannon said. "They've already done more than we do in a month. They can pinpoint a problem and go at it."

By March, Bohannon said, he hopes the boat will be ready for educational overnights for groups such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

The crew of the Maryland stays at sea for 80 days, then comes ashore for 110 days, while another crew takes the submarine out. During their time on land, they train and many do volunteer work.

Despite its name, the home port for the USS Maryland is Kings Bay, Ga. The vessel has no connection to the state of Maryland other than its name. Sixteen other submarines are named for states.

But the name is enough to bring crew members to this state four times a year for volunteer projects such as repairing homeless shelters in Frederick and laying stone paths at Rocky Gap State Park in Cumberland.

The Torsk (the word means "cod" in Norwegian), is the Maryland's first military-related volunteer project and the repair project is the crew members' first trip to Baltimore.

The submarine, which is open for weekend tours, has been docked at the harbor since 1972 and is operated by the Baltimore Maritime Museum.

The boat's narrow passageways are crammed with what were state-of-the-art gadgets in 1944, when the boat was commissioned. Among the high-tech items: air conditioning and a torpedo data computer.

Eighty crewmen lived on the 311-foot vessel, taking tours of duty lasting up to 90 days.

Today, the quarters seem cluttered with wires and the electrical system looks archaic and dangerous, Bowman said.

"With my modern standards, I look at this stuff and it gives me the willies," Bowman said as he pointed to electrical panels with fuses behind them.

By contrast, Bowman commands a $3 billion nuclear-powered vessel that stretches 560 feet - a little longer than the Washington Monument is high. Inside the Maryland is a nuclear arsenal that would have been unimaginable to the crew of the Torsk.

"He's got literally most of the world under his fingertip," Bohannon said.

Bowman is a bit more humble about his job.

"I hope you have faith in me and guys like me who have been chosen to operate these submarines," he said.

The Torsk became a National Historic Landmark in 1988. With 11,884 dives to its credit, the submarine was the last warship to sink an enemy vessel in World War II. It also served with NATO during the Lebanon crisis of 1960 and enforced the blockade during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

It is easily recognized at the Inner Harbor as the vessel with the teeth painted on the bow, which is a sore point for the volunteers' association.

"The teeth were painted after it got to Baltimore," Bohannon said. "It's a sticky situation. It draws tourists; it's not historically accurate."

But the Torsk still brings history to life. And for some of the crew of the Maryland, being on the Torsk is stepping back in time.

Petty Officer Jason Allnutt, 23, a missile technician from Frederick who coordinates the crew's volunteer efforts, said he toured the Torsk as a kid, and thought it was "a big toy."

Now that he's crawled into missiles - and slept next to them - for 3 1/2 years while serving aboard the Maryland, he takes the Navy's submarine fleet more seriously. Especially the weaponry.

"When you're inside the missile, laying down on your back, and you have a warhead above you that can make a small country into a parking lot, it's exhilarating," Allnutt said.

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