Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Stirring But Certainly Never Shaken

I received an e-mail from my big brother Bill yesterday, forwarding me an obituary from the New York Times of a man who I am embarrassed to admit I had never heard of while he was alive. The obituary was of Vice Admiral James F. Calvert who at age 88 died at his home in Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania on June 3.

The man of whom I had never heard lived one hell of an interesting and important life. After attending Oberlin College for two years, James Calvert was appointed to the Naval Academy. He graduated in 1942, was sent to submarine training in New London and soon after was assigned to the Jack. He served for three years in the Pacific and was awarded two Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars. Thereafter, in 1968, Vice Admiral Calvert was appointed Superintendent of his Alma mater and during his four years there he broadened the curriculum to include more than 20 majors. Until then, all cadets took the same military-related courses. All laudable achievements to be sure.

However, one wonders how much of a rush Vice Admiral Calvert received from running the Academy in 1968, given how he had spent his summer vacation only a decade earlier. In an earlier incarnation of his career, prior to overseeing the training of midshipmen at the Academy, he captained the Skate, which was the third nuclear-powered submarine in the American fleet. On August 11, 1958, he and his crew did something quite extraordinary in their 265-foot-long home under the sea - they surfaced at the North Pole.

Imagine for a moment being where Calvert was and where his crew was in August, 1958 - moving along beneath the ice at the North Pole. I will defer to my brother regarding the ins/outs of submarine technology and the level of sophistication of the equipment on the Skate but it would seem to me that it is a safe bet that doing what Calvert, his men and the Skate did took nerves of steel. There were happier, safer and less stressful ways to serve one's country in 1958 than as a member of the crew of a vessel that spent most of its time below the surface of the water and came up to take a look around at such fun-filled venues as the North Pole - in the off-season nonetheless.

And remember as well the times in which Vice Admiral Calvert sailed and lived. In the late 1950's the Cold War was in full force - and not just at the North Pole. The Skate and its underwater brethren, which included the Nautilus, carried the Polaris missile, which was designed to soar several thousand miles to hit on-shore targets with nuclear warheads. The strategic importance of having that weapon aboard a vessel that the Soviets could not track as it cruised 'neath the chilly waters near the Soviet Union was not lost on President Eisenhower. One presumes it was equally apparent to his opposite number in the Kremlin.

According to the Times, about seven months after the historic ice-breaking moment at the North Pole, Vice Admiral Calvert and the Skate returned to their room at the top of the world. On March 17, 1959, as the Skate floated between ice drifts, crew members fulfilled a wish of Sir Hubert Wilkins, a polar explorer in the early 20th century, who had died three months before. Sir Hubert had hoped to reach the North Pole by submarine, but never made it. Atop the globe, in the half light of the polar winter, the crew of the Skate scattered Sir Hubert’s ashes into a fierce wind.

The Times did not mention it in the Vice Admiral's obituary but one presumes that in addition to scattering Sir Hubert's ashes to honor his memory the men of the Skate raised a glass in his honor as well. I do not know what they drank but I have a hunch I know where they got their ice.


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