"We’re two bookends," said U.S.S. Requin veteran Eric Silver (left) to fellow vet Salvatore Nigido. Nigido served on the Requin’s first dive, and Silver on its last. (Photo/Kelly Thomas)
On Aug. 21 and 22, U.S. Navy veterans who served about the submarine U.S.S. Requin gathered on the sub for a behind-the-scenes tour with museum visitors and a memorial service.
The Requin served the Navy from 1945 until 1968, when it was decommissioned. It now sits outside the Carnegie Science Center on the Ohio River as a museum ship.
Ronnie Lowe, who served on the Requin in 1967 and 68, organizes these reunions about every three years. This year, he said about 40 veterans were able to come, and another 10 wanted to but were unable because of health reasons.
The Northside Chronicle’s Assistant Editor Kelly Thomas met with several of the veterans on the Requin to talk about fond memories, funny stories and life under water in a metal tube.
Salvatore Nigido served on the Requin in 1945 and 46. The son of Sicilian immigrants, he speaks Italian, grew up in New York City and now lives in Bel Aire, Maryland. He has two grandkids that “are the best grandchildren in the world, bar none.”
NSC: Tell us about your service on the Requin.
SN: Well, one of the important things I could say was that I made the first dive with the submarine. The very, very first dive in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I hate to say it, but I soiled my skivvies. No, not really, that’s a joke. No, I was a bow plainsman, controlling the depth, and we didn’t go very far, and we didn’t go very deep, but I was in the first dive.
NSC: What are your favorite memories from your service on the Requin?
SN: Well, a moment is when we were going to dock alongside an Italian submarine in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the skipper was going too fast and threw out the lines to tie up and the Italian sailors didn’t know what to do with the line. So he’s hollering orders in English, and I ended up hollering orders interpreted into Italian, and we got the submarine anchored or tied down. That was one of them. It was pretty exciting. We were going too fast and we were going into something dangerous, but we got it stopped.
[Another time] we went to the crew’s toilets, and we had a chief, he was, I don’t know, how should I say … he was after every little thing, you know, and we knew what seat he always used to take. We took a Baby Ruth, and we put it on his seat and then waited. And when he came in and saw that Baby Ruth, right away in his head, it wasn’t a Baby Ruth. He came flying out of there using words I had never heard.
NSC: What’s it like coming back to this ship?
SN: I’m so happy to make this reunion. Because at 84, time is getting short, and I’m having a hell of a time getting through the hatches (chuckles).
Eric Silver served as an officer on the Requin in 1967 and 68. After the Requin’s decommissioning he served in Vietnam and was awarded a bronze medal.
NSC: What’s your favorite Requin story?
ES: I remember one time we had the squadron commander riding us for an inspection of whatever and so we took a ball bearing — under the officer’s bunk there are little compartments where you put your clothing and a long one running the length of the bunk where you put your sword — every officer has to have a sword — so we opened it up and we put a ball bearing in that one. And then during the night [it] was going ch-ch-ch-ch clunk! Ch-ch-ch-ch clunk! Ch-ch-ch-ch clunk!
NSC: What were your duties on this sub?
ES: I was the only officer on board who never got seasick. And so when we were going through heavy weather, I would be chained into a stanchion up there on the bridge for 24 hours. And there would be green water breaking over me. Because the Navy requires an officer to be topside at all times, and I was the only officer who could function. They would send up food every so often. It tasted like salt water. And you were literally chained into your position because you would be carried overboard by the waves if you were not. And a diesel submarine has to surface during heavy weather.
NSC: What’s it like, coming back to this ship?
ES: When I heard that the ship was here, I was really thrilled, because it was fun to serve on it.
I pointed out my bunk to people, you know. First bunk I had was a top bunk so when I turned over the curvature of the hull would catch me and throw me out onto the deck. The second bunk I had, I would lie there and my nose would touch the bunk above me. And in order to turn over during the night I had to reach out and grab a stanchion and swing my hips out, turn over, and slide back in. And finally I graduated to where I had the bottom bunk. I had tons of room.
The U.S.S. Requin, SS-481, on the Ohio River outside the Carnegie Science Center. (Photo/Kelly Thomas)
Peter Wessner gained his United States citizenship while serving in the U.S. Navy and served on the Requin from 1963 to 68. He served in the Navy as a master chief electrician for 30 years.
NSC: What is it like, essentially living in a metal tube underwater?
PW: Well, actually, you’re so busy. You live in 3 groups called 3 sections. One’s on watch, one is resting, and the other one does menial work, whatever it takes. That way you decrease the flow of traffic on the sub. But if something breaks down, everybody works. We had something break down and I was up for 72 hours, just working around the clock.
You do have a little time. I used to study a lot to get promoted, you know. Play cards, of course. Of course (laughs). Lots of cards (laughs again). So you’re very active.
NSC: Are there any challenging parts about living on a submarine?
PW: You have land fever when you’re gone for 60 days on a patrol. We’re gone from home port 7 or 8 months, you make two 60 days patrols, and after the second one when you are going home, right, the last three days you can’t sleep because you’re excited to get home. So then everybody is up, everybody is playing cards, everybody is on each other’s nerves.
NSC: Does the sub crew become close with 80 plus people living in such a small space?
PW: We could tell, we knew when somebody got mail and they got bad news, we could tell right away. Packages was the exciting one. He got to look at the package first and take what he wants. After that, it was crew property. Cookies, candies, you know, cake (laughs). But you could tell when somebody received sad news from home in no time. Because you get to know the people so well.
NSC: What is your favorite Requin story?
PW: Well we had one guy fall overboard. [When] you dump the trash, you have a safety line, and you have trash in bags, and you weigh it so it will sink. His line broke. He fell overboard. That captain was so fast on the bridge — we had a kid out in the water. That was … everybody was tense.
Requin vet and reunion organizer Ronnie Lowe wondered if a pipe on display at the back of his old submarine belonged to shipmate Eric Silver. (Photo/Kelly Thomas)
Ronnie Lowe served on the Requin in 1967 and 68 and organizes the reunions.
NSC: What made you decide to hold these reunions?
RL: I was the youngest guy, and they volunteered me! (laughs)
NSC: What was challenging about serving on a diesel submarine?
RL:The showers, that’s a big thing. On here you could only take a shower every now and then. Because back there, the unit that makes the fresh water, it creates a lot of heat, so we didn’t like running it. Since we didn’t use the showers, we would fill the showers up with trash until we got into port. You had a little sink, you’d do your bathing in that.
NSC: What’s one of your favorite Requin stories?
RL: One thing, when you qualify [for submarine duty], you had to be able to walk through here and tell the officer what’s that valve do, what happens if you have a leak in this line, so you have to know pretty much the whole submarine. Once you qualified, you’re not allowed to wear your dolphins (a patch with the name of the submarine) on your uniform until you drink them.
I was at Freddy’s Anchor Bar in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and I ran into my chief right after I qualified. He said, “Okay Lowe you’re going to have to drink your dolphins.” They take a pickle jar, a big gallon jar, put a shot of everything behind the bar in it, and then drop the dolphins in, and you tip it up until you get it in your mouth.
I woke up in my bed with a watermelon, that’s how I found myself the next day (laughs).