Memorial Day has special meaning for sub veteran

Dean Hamburg is glad he eventually raised his hand.


On first thought, however, the 18-year-old didn't think it wise to volunteer for detail aboard a nuclear Navy submarine. Neither did about 70 other enlisted sailors learning to be cooks when asked by an officer.

"He left the room and then came back and he said, 'Did I fail to mention that you get $50 extra a month hazardous duty pay to sign up?'" said Hamburg, now 57, with a laugh. "Seven of us raised our hands."

Before he knew it, Hamburg was down the hatch and in the kitchen of the USS Bergall SSN667 submarine helping set up and knock out a meal every six hours as one of three cooks deep under the ocean. The Bergall was on the prowl conducting missions in the Arctic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea hoping to stay out of sight of Soviet Union opposition.

For 3 1/2 years, Hamburg lived in the big steel tube for better or worse with 90 other enlisted men at a time when military service wasn't highly regarded, he said. The Vietnam War was coming to a close and the Cold War was heating up.

There was no enemy in the jungle for Cold War submarine men, Hamburg said. Just the constant, unseen threat of the Soviets discovering their location as both parties lurked underwater unsure of the others' position. At risk? Perhaps a worldwide nuclear conflict and mutual assured destruction, Hamburg said.

But those thoughts were far away as the numerous ordinary daily tasks of enlisted men didn't allow much time for contemplation, Hamburg said.

"As we operated against the Soviet Navy, we really didn't have a, 'They were the bad guys, we were the good guys (mentality),'" he said. "We really projected an empathy onto the Soviet sailors doing the same thing we were. You know, 'Let's hope that nobody gets crazy so we can go home.' We didn't have this animosity. It was a dangerous game tracking each others' boats and my role was just to feed the guys day-to-day."

Hamburg usually spends today -- Memorial Day -- contemplating those submarine veterans who are on "eternal patrol," particularly those lost during World War II, he said.

"It was very much put upon them to be aggressive," he said of WWII submarine servicemen. "You don't come home unless you've expended your torpedoes. You just don't go out and be safe.

"The aggressiveness ... and the resulting loss of 52 boatloads of kids is kind of what I reflect on. I do think about all of those submarines right now, both fast attack and the ballistic boats that have got kids just like me in the day riding around wanting to safely get through the day and get home."

'Of trust and tease'

Hamburg, who now works as Administrator of Student Nutrition Services for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District said he learned a lot from his submarine service and subsequent four years in the Navy Reserve. The biggest of those lessons was adapting the culture of "dedication to task."

"It set a level for me of what hard work was and pulling your weight," he said. "Taking care of your own business in life with minimal complaint is expected of you. In a work environment where there was no backup, you don't call in sick, you double up on duties."

Because of the sensitive nature of many of the missions the Bergall performed, Hamburg isn't eager to share specific details of his service. Also, he sometimes finds it difficult to relate to other veterans from that era, he said.

"I don't have that full camaraderie with Army guys other than their experience in the jungle being very different from riding in a steel tube for years," he said.

But the desire to reminisce is quenched through his involvement in the Bergall Association, which includes the three remaining men who served on the WWII-era Bergall (SS320) in the Pacific.

"They can call and say, 'Hey, you remember when?'" Hamburg said.
Now, the Bergall has been torn apart. Its bow planes -- the part of the sub he and the other men would jump off for an ocean swim -- now rest now in a Seattle park.

But back then there was always someone within 10 feet of everyone else and work to be done, he said. The cooks would cram the torpedo room full of eggs and usually fresh food would run out in the first week or so of deployment. It was on to dehydrated foods afterwards, he said.

Once Hamburg said he spilled eight pumpkin pies as the sub took a steep dive testing for depth, but he cleaned up and had 300 chocolate chip cookies ready for the next noon meal.

When not on duty or cleaning, many of the young men kept busy playing pranks on one another, he said.

"There was a culture of trust and tease," he said.

Such stunts at sea involved others' pillows, placing certain objects in shoes and perpetual banter back and forth, among others. The cooks were tasked with making the cream pie destined to land in the face of whoever's birthday it was that day. Toilet paper rationing was an eventuality and those sailors who took too long of a shower were labeled a "Hollywood" to discourage waste of fresh water.

On News Year's Day, Hamburg found himself the youngest sailor on board and therefore was required by custom to sit on the lap of the oldest sailor while wearing nothing but a diaper made of an apron.

"Back when (Muammar) Gaddafi first took leadership in Libya he developed this 'Line of Death' he called it across the Gulf of Sidra and so we surfaced, threw garbage bags over the side, shot holes through them for small arms training and watched them drift into Gaddafi's Gulf of Death just to be obnoxious," he said.

Other pranks and shenanigans are probably best left to the imagination, Hamburg noted.

Little news from home was provided to crews, but on occasion they were allowed to send communications to friends and family.

"You just don't want to be that submarine that put up a radio scope, get spotted by the Soviet Navy when you were just sending a message home to say, 'Hi Mom,'" Hamburg said with a laugh.

'Riding a loaded gun'

Although he felt generally safe during his service, there were times when danger was present on the Bergall.

On occasion the nuclear reactor would shut down, and once the oxygen generator located below the galley "blew up" causing a fire.

"I think the explosion snuffed out some bread that was rising," he said.
He also spent much of his time cooking within 30 feet of the ship's nuclear reactor.

"It was always a silent prayer in your head all the time that the reactor would just do its thing," he said.

He once made a serious mistake discharging compact garbage canisters out of the ship. Hamburg unfortunately allowed an empty, un-crushed Tabasco bottle to be put in the garbage. As it sank to Davy Jones' Locker, it imploded in the garbage can from the sea pressure.

"Imploding bottles are a signal," he said. "'Ah, a United States submarine has just discharged its garbage and it's over there.' I was called to the control room: 'Mr. Hamburg, sonar has just reported your garbage was extremely noisy.'"

One time the Bergall was surfacing and the man on the periscope spotted a light immediately ahead of the bow. The collision alarm was sounded and the men sweated and braced for impact.

"When you are in the bow compartment coming to the surface and you hear the collision alarm, you say it's all done ... but turns out that light was the moon," he said. "... Of course (the man on the periscope) was harassed forever."

Although the boat was armed with torpedoes, those aboard hoped they'd never have to use them. If they did so, chances are the jig was up and the enemy was guaranteed the boat's location.

"It was just understood that you're riding a loaded gun and you really hope the gun never has to be fired," he said.

Hamburg said his work sometimes takes him to Washington, D.C., and he makes sure he takes the time to touch the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He thinks about the lost generation of men who would be his age now, he said.

"I experience that moment of rage ... and heartache and acknowledging the loss of all those of my generation of friends in Vietnam," he said. "You also experience a bit of rage of 'Our nation thought that was a good idea for 20 years to throw young men and women into that nonsense.'"

With that in mind, Hamburg said he doesn't reflect on his service with anything but positivity.

"I'm not saying, 'Oh gee I really suffered in my enlistment,'" he said. "I made it home. I made it home without any exposure to radiation, fingers smashed, whatever. So all was good for me.

"I was proud to have been part of that time and I appreciate the kids who are still raising their hands to jump in those subs."

Brian Smith can be reached at