5 Jan 2007
I was born November 11, 1946 In Chicago, Illinois. I always liked having my birthday on
Armistice Day (now known as Veteran’s Day) since the day had historical significance -
plus it was a holiday so I got my birthday off when I was in school.
My father was a printer and my mother always worked wherever she could to supplement
our family income. My dad died in 1991 of lung cancer (too many Pall Mall cigarettes).
My mother turned 85 in June and is still active. Have two younger brothers: one 57
(divorced) and one 48, (married) and both have kids, so I have nieces and nephews in
Rochester, NY and Santa Rosa, CA. I married my wife Linda in 1992 (first marriage for
both of us), I at the ripe age of 45, she at 35. We both decided not to have children and to
let our siblings provide our parents with the grandchildren.
Our family moved to Downers Grove, IL in 1952 after my parents built a house where my
brothers and I grew up and attended local schools. I graduated from high school at age
17 in 1964 and got a job at Western Electric in downtown Chicago as a draftsman. This
proved fortunate, as a year later I was approaching draft age and was evaluating my
options to avoid the Army when an employee returned from submarine duty and was
seated in front of me in the office.
Carl Vrzal (QM3) was attached to Submarine Division 9-225 in Chicago, which was a
Naval Reserve Unit based in the Naval Armory at the foot of Randolph Street and the old
“S” curve on Lake Shore Drive by Lake Michigan. The USS Silversides (SS236) was the
boat tied up in the slip next to the Naval Armory and, although it was no longer operable,
was used for training purposes. The Silversides was later replaced by the USS Runner
Carl told me the Reserve Unit was seeking recruits so I took a vacation day to go down to
take the aptitude tests, etc. at the Armory. The recruiter said I was well qualified and
wanted to sign me up but I needed some time to think. A week later I went to the Armory
after work one evening, telling myself I was only going to find out more information.
However, I ended up signing up on August 11, 1965 and went home late that evening to
tell my parents. Although they weren’t overjoyed at the prospect of me in uniform, I think
they were truly relieved I was no longer eligible to be drafted and sent to Viet Nam.
My timing was good because the Reserve Unit was closed to any more applicants a
couple months after I joined because of the influx of guys trying to avoid being drafted. In
February 1966 our Reserve Unit went on a weekend cruise to New London, CT to
acquaint the new recruits with the workings of an operating submarine while we cruised
around the New England coast for two days. The sub we rode happened to be the USS
Clamagore (SS343), which is now at the Patriot’s Point naval museum in Mt. Pleasant, SC.
I was sent to New London again a couple weeks later for two weeks of Basic Military
Training (in lieu of having to go to boot camp!) and eight weeks of Submarine School.
The Sub School curriculum in 1966 was based on the George Washington class FBM so
we learned all about nuclear reactors, Co2 scrubbers and H2 burners as well as the
principles of air and hydraulic systems that were common to Fleet Boats.
While basically a “C” student through high school, I ended up graduating in the top 10th of
my sub school class in class # 351 on May 6, 1966 and returned to my Reserve Unit to
await orders for active duty. These orders finally came and I was sent to Norfolk, VA on
November 1, 1966 for transient duty to await orders to a submarine. I reported aboard the
USS Gilmore in Charleston, SC since the Thornback was still on its way back from Ft.
Lauderdale. On November 23, 1966 I reported aboard the Thornback as an E-3 and was
immediately assigned to the “seaman gang” to repaint the boat in preparation for the 1967
Springboard Ops. Our Commanding Officer was LCDR Douglas A. Williams. He was in
command until being relieved by LCDR Ronald E. Pitkin about six months later.
Since I had completed my official correspondence course for Torpedoman during my
previous year in the reserves, my “sea daddy” was “Warhead” Powers, a 2nd class
I soon learned that to qualify SS, you had to draw all of the sub’s systems in schematic
and you had to have a signature from a Petty Officer and a Commissioned Officer
showing you knew the system. These had to be completed at the rate of one a week to
prevent “going delinquent” (“delinquent” meant confinement to the boat – not good in a
liberty port!). Since I knew the upcoming Springboard Ops were going to be an extended
deployment, I hurried to complete my drawings on the cube tables in Barracks 33 and got
my signatures timely in the weeks to come.
We left for Springboard in January, 1967 and promptly ran into a huge storm off the coast
of Florida. As one of the lookouts, I was in awe of the size of the waves and the way the
boat was pitching. It was during this time that I first learned what it felt to be seasick. I
quickly got my sea legs, though, and the rest of the trip was pleasurable with visits to San
Juan and St. Thomas. Being in the tropics was especially nice since during this time
Chicago had the great 1967 blizzard that completely shut down the city. I sent lots of
sunny postcards to my family and friends to remind them where I was while they were
under all the snow.
After we got back from Springboard Ops, a number of us sat for Petty Officer exams. I
was eligible even though I had completed a correspondence course instead of going to an
“A” school. My score was high enough to get 3rd class in the first increment – only about
90 days after I came on active duty. I quickly saw the benefit of having spent time in the
reserves prior to active duty.
In June 1967 we went to Guantanamo Bay for about a month to work with destroyers and
aircraft in a “cat and mouse” exercise. I remember they used code words for the
submarines when transmitting to each other. While on the helm in the conning tower, I
heard the Thornback’s name was “Shady Lane” and the Chivo’s (SS341) was “Eskimo
Hobo”. I remember going to “battle quiet” and hearing the screws of the destroyers
rumbling above us and hearing the sonar “pinging” as they searched for us. I also
remember hearing the passive sonar pick up the splash of “Papa Delta Charlies” (i.e.,
Practice Depth Charges) which were hand grenade sized charges the aircraft or
destroyers would drop. You could hear the PDCs hitting the water, the explosions outside
the hull, and I wondered what it must have been like when the WWII crews heard real
Awhile later we did a mine plant off the Norfolk coast where we had to sneak by a large
number of surface craft. It was an intensely physical exercise that used off-duty hands to
help the torpedoman winch the mines in rotation for loading and ejecting into the sea. All
was going well until there was smoke throughout the boat – the cook had badly burned
the chow and white smoke was everywhere. We couldn’t surface to clear the air without
being detected so we all tried to breathe lightly as possible. Finally, the Conning Officer
couldn’t take it anymore and ordered the snorkel raised and to run one of the main
engines until the smoke cleared. That solved the smoke problem and the surface ships
didn’t see us so all was well.
In the Fall of 1967 we were informed that the Thornback was going in to the Charleston
Shipyard for overhaul. I was selected to be a member of the Supply Operations
Assistance Program (SOAP) team. The SOAP team needed one crew member from each
department to help account for the 10,000 or so spare parts each sub was supposed to
carry, turn in excess parts and order those needed. I was the Weapon Department
We worked in a Base warehouse for months sorting and categorizing stuff we never even
heard of before while the rest of the crew worked in the shipyard. Meanwhile, the
Thornback was being cut open like a beached whale in the floating dry-dock to replace
the batteries and move old equipment out and new equipment in. On my duty days, I stood
watch in a little guard shack at night and wondering how good the welds were that the
shipyard workers were doing to patch up the pressure hull.
Evidently, they did their job well since we survived sea trials that included going to test
depth, which was deeper than we had ever been before. Several shipyard workers were
also on board, which boosted our confidence level that the welds had been good. We
were at battle stations as we dove in 50-foot increments. Meanwhile, the hull creaked
occasionally and valve packing in some sea valves gave way in a spray - the shipyard
workers then jumped to tighten the packing to stop the leak. This was my last ride on the
Thornback before going to separations.
I stayed in the barracks a couple days before my separation date of August 12, 1968
because the Thornback was off to another destination. I served less than the required
two years active duty for reserve staff because I got an early out to go to college for the
first time. My grades in Submarine School convinced me I had the aptitude to go to
college, which I attended until I graduated with an MBA in 1973.
While I was in college, I stayed in the reserves and picked up the 2nd class rank that I
couldn’t accept on active duty without extending my enlistment. I went on two weeks of
active reserve duty in 1969 and again in 1970 to Key West. Each time, I was assigned to
the USS Grenadier (SS525), once while it was in dry-dock. However, I never went to sea
again as a Navy sailor after leaving the Thornback, and I took my Honorable Discharge on
August 10, 1971 (that date seemed so far away when I signed up in 1965!)
After bouncing around a bit at different jobs after graduating from college, I ended up in
the computer and healthcare field. In the 1980’s I worked for a company that developed
and implemented Medicare claims processing systems. I also worked for a hospital
information company that installed computers and software in hospitals to track all of their
patient information and billing, performing payroll and accounts payable functions, etc. I
ended up working for 15 years as a consultant at Blue Cross Blue Shield Association in
I retired early from the Association in July 2005 to start my own consulting business in
partnership with a former co-worker. Business has been good and being my own boss
has given me time to work on improving a house I bought 20 years ago in Downers Grove,
IL that is closer to my old high school than when I attended it. Also have a 1966 red
Mustang convertible I spend some time on restoring but so far it seems like something
always gets in the way on completing that project.
I like to travel – my jobs required frequent travel and have been on cruises to South
America, Mexican Riveria, and Caribbean (several times). I have been to every state in
the US except Alaska and Montana and plan to get to those states one of these days to
make the collection complete.
Went to my first Thornback reunion last April. Had a great time and am looking forward to
the next one!