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This week, the US Submarine Veterans have held their national convention in Springfield. But traveling alongside these sailors this week is another strong group: the women who waited ashore for their sailors to return home. KSMU’s Jennifer Moore reports.
They became accustomed to relying on each other as they went for months at a time without hearing from their men.
Sheri Gardner was the wife of a submarine sailor from 1967 to 1987. Her husband went out on patrols that reported the locations of Russian subs.
“We also had what they called ‘Family Grams.’ He was a radioman. And when anything actually happened, it went out on a Family Gram, from us. And we were allowed so many words. It went out from station to station to station. So you had to be very careful what you were saying. Because everyone who was transmitting heard exactly what you said. So most of us wives had little key words. And we’d have little phrases that only the husband knew what we were talking about when it hit the other end. So it would be silly all the way along,” she said.
And then there’s Ruth McConnell, president of the US Wives of Submarine Veterans. She and her husband Jim, both of Rhode Island, were dating during World War Two.
Ruth McConnell: “He was in the Pacific, out of Australia. And at one of the hotels that they would go have lunch at…”
Jim McConnell: “It was a rest camp.”
Ruth McConnell: “Oh a rest camp. Okay. One of the girls who worked there got the address of his mother, and would write to his mother to tell her that he was in Australia. Because the letters were censored. You couldn’t tell where you were. That’s why it was called the Silent Service. They never told where they were, because ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships,’ that slogan. And so we knew that he was in the Pacific. But that’s all that we could hear about.”
Walking around the conference at the University Plaza Hotel and Convention Center, I then met Mary Cheek. She’s part Rosie-the-Riveter, part Betsy Ross. She tells me that she was also “going steady” with the man who would become her husband during World War Two.
“He enlisted when he was 18 years old, in 1940. We were seeing each other. That was hard. Once, he managed to get in touch with me through an amateur radio. And somehow, they patched him in and got in touch with me by phone to let me know that they were okay. Sometimes they’d be gone for 60 or 90 days without hearing from them. You didn’t know if they were dead or alive. You could have all kind of thoughts, but thank God, they made it back.
"And of course, I wrote letters each and every day, sometimes more than one, to keep in touch.
“I did work in a war plant that made 55-milimiter shells. And I worked in a foundry that made parts for the airplanes.
“We got married in 1944, but we had gone to grammar school together. I’m sure he probably had lots of sweeties while he was going from port to port…but that’s okay, [because] he came back to me.
“Our first formal date was in the rumble seat of a car. That was very uncomfortable.[laughs]
“We got married in Mulga, Alabama, which is a little country town. And of course, I was a city girl from the big city of Birmingham, and Mulga was a little country town. His uncle was a justice of the peace there. He performed the ceremony, in the bedroom! Because his aunt was kind of sick with the flu at the time. And of course, this was a 2:00 a.m., in the morning that we’d located the uncle, [who] had moved since the last time my husband had visited. And we had to find the house. So we were married in a bedroom, and the aunt was in the bed, and the uncle performed the ceremony.”
Moore: “How long were you married?”
Cheek: “Fifty-six and a half years. Happy years, I must say. That’s why I’m hanging in here. That’s been 11 years ago, since his death, and I’m still hanging in here. And you can ask most anybody in this group, and they say, ‘Oh,’ they might not know my last name, but they know Mary. ‘That’s that tall woman.’”
Again, those are the voices of the wives of submarine veterans, who are here for the national convention of US Submarine Veterans.
During World War Two, 16,000 men made war patrols. Of those, over 3,600 were lost. That 22.5% loss accounts for the highest loss for any branch of the military during the war.
US submarine sailors made up less than 1.6% of the US Navy, yet they were responsible for over half of Japan’s losses at sea.
Theirs is referred to as “The Silent Service.”
For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.