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Final bell: Wahoo SS565 veterans reunite for last time

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Reunion

Navy veterans who served on the Wahoo SS565 salute during a reunion ceremony at the Veterans Memorial on the grounds of the Saunders County Courthouse in Wahoo on April 29. Pictured are (from left) Steve Ploeckelmann, Ed Banda and James Gee.

WAHOO — The men who served on the submarine Wahoo SS565 have held reunions every two years all over the country. But they had never gathered in the community that bears the same name as their beloved submarine.

So it was fitting that they decided to hold their final reunion in Wahoo at the site of a monument to another submarine that bore the same name.

“We thought we should go to Wahoo,” said Tom Young, one of four men responsible for organizing the reunion April 29 at the Wahoo SS238 memorial, part of the Veterans Memorial on the Saunders County Courthouse grounds.

Young, who lives in Hamstead, New Hampshire, served on the Wahoo SS565 in 1955 and 1956, just one deployment during his 20 years in the Navy.

Reunion

Tom Young speaks at the beginning of the Wahoo SS565 reunion ceremony on April 29 at the Saunders County Courthouse’s Veterans Memorial. Young traveled from Hamstead, New Hampshire, for the reunion, which he also helped plan. 

The first Wahoo submarine sunk during World War II on Oct. 11, 1943, during an air and sea attack in the LaPerouse Strait in the Sea of Japan while returning home from patrol. The 80 men on board, including Robert L. Jasa of Wahoo, died. The wreckage was discovered in 2006 by Russian divers.

Anyone who served on the second Wahoo was proud of the name because of the sacrifice paid by the Wahoo SS238 crew, said Ed Banda of Glendora, California.

“The original Wahoo lost all hands in combat,” said Banda, who served on the Wahoo SS565 from 1967 to 1970.

The Wahoo SS565 veterans are well aware of the reputation of the first submarine that bore the name Wahoo.

“It had the highest kill rate,” said Steve Ploeckelmann of White Bear Lake, Minnesota.

The second Wahoo submarine, this one tagged SS565, was in operation from 1952 to 1980. Young and the rest of the 16 men who gathered for the reunion from all parts of the country served on the submarine at one time during their Navy careers.

The day before the reunion, Young and the other three members of the organizing committee were in Wahoo for pre-planning. They stopped by the Wahoo Newspaper office to talk about their experiences on the Wahoo SS565 and the Navy, as well as the reunion.

Young said all submarine sailors volunteer for duty on a submarine.

“We’re a special breed,” he said.

Submariners are the “elite of the fleet,” Ploeckelmann said. He was on the Wahoo in 1975-78.

Less than 2% of sailors qualify for submarine service, according to Banda.

Once they raise their hand to volunteer, the sailors undergo rigorous training to qualify for submarine duty. It can take up to a year to earn your “dolphins,” the symbol of submariners.

“That is the ultimate goal, to get your dolphins,” Young said.

Submariners are trained for specific jobs on the submarine, but also cross-trained to do everyone else’s job, said Bill Smith of Lake Hughes, California.

Working in such close quarters, undersea for long stretches of time, forges a bond between submariners.

“The camaraderie on the sub is incredible,” said Smith, who was on the Wahoo from 1974 to 1978 at the same time as Ploeckelmann. “It’s a family.”

“You knew someone had your back in case something went awry,” Banda said.

Many have told Smith he was crazy to choose to be a submariner. But he said the tightness of the group was what drew him to the submarine service.

“That is what I thought was the best thing,” he said.

Because of these close bonds, all submarines have reunions, Smith said. This reunion will be the last, however, as many of the veterans are aging and no longer able to travel. Also, their numbers are dwindling, said James Gee of Marble Falls, Texas.

The Wahoo SS565 was known as an attack sub, or a “hunter/killer,” Banda said.

The whole purpose of the boat was to deliver arms and torpedoes,  Ploeckelmann said.

The reputation of those who served on the Wahoo SS565 was as storied as the submarine itself. Ploeckelmann recalled pulling into Puerto Rico and learning that sailors on a nuclear submarine were told to steer clear of the Wahoo crew because they had a reputation for fighting and winning.

“Do not engage,” was the announcement from their commanding officer, Ploeckelmann said.

There was also a rivalry between diesel and nuclear submarines, which caused heated exchanges during leave when sailors from both types of submarines were in the same port, Banda said.

While these submariners may have been part of the reason the Wahoo had a reputation for toughness, they were quietly reverent when the ceremony took place on Friday. Smith tolled a bell as Ploeckelmann and Banda read the names of each sailor who had served on the Wahoo crew and had since passed away. The bell was an actual piece of the Wahoo SS565, which was given to the Wahoo Veteran’s Club several years ago.

Many were sad to know this was the last time the Wahoo sub vets would gather for a reunion.

“I thoroughly enjoy these events,” said Gee, who served on the Wahoo in 1959-60 during a 24-year Navy career.

Ed Kitt of Las Vegas was the only Marine at the reunion. He served on the Wahoo SS565 in 1959 as a cryptologist. Because of his job, he was not actually listed on the ship’s manifest.

Kitt recalled an incident when the Wahoo got caught near Russia as their commander took photos with the submarine’s periscope.

“Things got pretty hairy,” he said. “We had to go down and laid for 52 hours to avoid (the Russians),” he said.

The entire crew had to remain silent. They couldn’t eat or smoke to avoid being detected by sonar.

While they were on the bottom of the ocean, they could tell the Russians were “throwing” torpedoes above them that they were told were fake. But most didn’t believe that.

“They said they were fake. They were not,” said Kitt, who went on to a distinguished career as an educator after he was discharged from the Marines.

Reunion

Bill Smith, a submariner who served on the Wahoo SS565 in 1974-78, tolls the bell for all of the veterans who served on the submarine and now have passed.

Also in attendance were Bruce and Lois Steyer of Lincoln. Bruce served on the Wahoo SS565 from 1959 to 1962 as an electronics technician. His wife, the former Lois Pearson, is a Wahoo native who graduated from Wahoo High School in 1962. The couple met after Bruce had completed his Navy service.

Steyer remembered signing a book as the Navy prepared to send one of the Wahoo’s torpedoes to the city of Wahoo for the memorial, which was completed in 1962. Clark Hill, who served on the Wahoo SS565 in 1962, also remembered the torpedo donation.

After the ceremony, the submariners and their wives gathered for lunch at the vet’s club. They were very impressed by the Veterans Memorial at the courthouse.

“It’s probably one of the nicest memorials in the country,” said Young. “It’s amazing what Wahoo has done.”

While local residents would like to think the submarines were named for the Saunders County capital, the name “Wahoo” came from a type of fish found in the waters of Florida and the West Indies. At the time, all submarines were named after fish, Banda said.

Young said a new Wahoo is being built. Wahoo SS806 could be ready in about four years. When it sets sail, a new set of submariners will learn the legacy the name “Wahoo” signifies in Navy history.

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