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Veteran Subculture

By Robert A. Hamilton
Published on 12/29/2001     Copied from The Day      Featured in Military
40 School interview
Photo by Tim Martin/The Day

John Carcioppolo, right, of Gales Ferry, speaks with Billy Kitchens, of Groton, who is a life associate Subvets member and retired master diver in the Navy, at the end of the bar located in the Subvets club in Groton.
  Groton -- Jerome F. Connolly, who qualified as an Interior Communications petty officer on submarines in 1961 aboard the World War II-era USS JALLAO, joined U.S. Submarine Veterans Inc. right after the group bought its clubhouse in 1965.

"There was only one light down here in the bar in those days, and you had to get your own drinks," Connolly said as he sat in the School Street clubhouse one evening this month. "We thought we were doing great when we got to 132 members."

As time passed it became more expensive to manage its own clubhouse. "Five or six years ago we were at 200 or 300 members and there was talk about closing it down because we couldn't pay the bills," Connolly said.

No longer. In an era when some veterans organizations are facing that same struggle because of declining memberships, Subvets has experienced phenomenal growth.

This year it has more than 1,650 dues-paying members, and almost 1,000 have already pre-paid for next year. They range from a sailor who qualified in 1919 aboard a gasoline-powered submarine, to young men just out of the Naval Submarine School.

"The Submarine Centennial last year had a lot to do with the growth, I think," said the Groton Base commander, John Carcioppolo, a retired Master Chief Petty Officer who served as chief of the boat, or COB, on the DALLAS, and was Command Master Chief of the Naval Submarine Base when he retired in 1997.

"And our location is important, too," Carcioppolo said. In addition to having the base just up the river, there are a lot of retired submariners in the area who went to work for local companies such as Electric Boat " there was an old joke that the promotion track for submariners was E7, E8, E9, EB.

Another factor is the ease of modern communications. He can keep in touch with people via e-mail and make sure they all know when it is time to pay their dues.

"I can reach out and touch 1,000 people in the blink of an eye," Carcioppolo said.

He gives a lot of credit to other members who have undertaken high-interest projects lately, such as getting the state Department of Motor Vehicles to issue a special license plate commemorating the submarine force, convincing state Rep. Nancy DeMarinis, D-Groton, to introduce a bill that would designate Route 12, from Route 1 in Groton to Route 2 in Norwich, as "U.S. Submarine Veterans Memorial Highway."

But others credit Carcioppolo's own work at building interest in the organization.

"When you have someone who works that hard at the top, everyone else works hard too," said Dick McGirr, who qualified aboard the USS REDFISH, AGSS 396, in 1961.

Carcioppolo has organized or spearheaded things such as Thanksgiving Day dinner for single sailors, participation in local Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Independence Day observances, fund-raisers for scholarship funds and collections for the local Caring & Sharing holiday drive.

"It's an organization where sub people get together and do the best they can, for sub people and for others," McGirr said.

Subvets was incorporated nationally in 1963, and the first base incorporated was in Groton in 1964, with about 75 members. In 1965 the shipmates decided they needed a clubhouse, so they bought a gold Cadillac, auctioned it off at $10 per chance, and bought the School Street building with the proceeds.

"For a long time we were the silent service," Carcioppolo said. "Nobody knew what we did, but we knew, and we could share it with each other."

Today it is one of 86 bases nationally, though besides Groton the average base size is just 86 members, and the next largest bases are typically a few hundred members.

"It's kind of like the Horse and Cow on the west coast," said Master Chief Shawn Burke of the JIMMY CARTER, which is under construction at EB. The Horse and Cow is a legendary gathering place for undersea warriors. "Submariners are very tight. Very tight. This is a place where we can talk, share stories and vent."

"You can come down here and rub elbows with people of your kind," said Carl H. Hochstetler of Ledyard, who qualified aboard USS POMODON in 1962. "They know what you've done and they know where you're coming from."

Senior Chief Ray Hajny, the COB on USS ANNAPOLIS, said he has been an off-and-on member since 1987, depending on where the Navy sends him. As a senior enlisted person he considers it a great place to bring young sailors to listen to old war tales.

"This place represents the heritage of the submarine force," Hajny said. "It's a great place to come and shoot the breeze with old shipmates, and the chili is good," he said, adding with a grin, "not as good as when Joe Negri was making it, but good."

Carcioppolo said the clubhouse is one of the reasons that Groton Subvets is such a viable group.

"For members to have a place to go and call home helps a lot," he said. Many national members traveling through the area stop in to see one of the largest collections of ship plaques anywhere, with every boat since the SS 416, and many from boats before that era, on display somewhere in the building.

"Instead of it being in an attic or a basement, guys bring them down here so other people can see them," Carcioppolo said.

There are other mementos as well: a black & white photograph of President Kennedy at a periscope; a copy of the governor's proclamation last year of the Submarine Centennial; a diving officer's checkoff list; the brass plaque from "Tube 5" with no other identifying marks.

"Stuff shows up," Carcioppolo said with a shrug.

Locally, he said one of his goals is to establish a memorial to all submariners. The Flasher and the Wall on Thames Street are dedicated to submariners of World War II, he said, but he would like to see a memorial to anyone who ever qualified on submarines.

Nationally, he would like to see Subvets grow to 15,000 members, from 9,000 now. He's not sure how much larger the Groton base can grow.

"The tough thing is not just getting the numbers, but keeping them, getting people to renew their dues every year," Carcioppolo said. "But if anybody wants to join, I'm not going to turn anybody away."

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