- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 10, 2015

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. (AP) - The recruiting posters bragged: Join the Navy and see the world.

James Wilhelm, a Navy veteran of the Cold War, did not see much of the world - just U.S. ports and Rota, Spain.

“With submarines, they don’t have windows,” Wilhelm said.

Wilhelm, 75, is sharing a bit of his naval heritage. He’s build a parade float to show off a vintage Mark 37 torpedo.

It doesn’t bother Wilhelm in the least that he spent much of his five-year career underwater in either the diesel-powered U.S.S. Sirago or nuclear U.S.S. Woodrow Wilson.



“I wanted to do this,” Wilhelm said.

A black and white television series, not a poster or slogan, inspired him to be a submariner. Silent Service, which ran 1957-58, was based on the patrol reports of submarines in World War II. The crews featured young actors such as Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Jack Lord and Chuck Connors.

Life on a submarine held true to Wilhelm’s expectations.

“The thing under riding all of it was the camaraderie,” Wilhelm said. “Everybody was close. The food was outstanding. Where else could you hear ‘Not steak again?’”

Wilhelm, a native of Martinsburg, West Virginia, joined the Navy when he was 20. He was on the Sirago for a year, then signed up for accelerated schooling in nuclear power. He learned the operations of a nuclear reactor. He earned a certification to weld a reactor’s pipes. He joined the crew of the newly constructed Woodrow Wilson.

Even after 50 years, Wilhelm evades questions about what the nuclear sub did or where it went.

Cold War secrets have spilled out about dueling submarines and the possible recovery of a Russian nuclear sub. He’s read the stories.

“I can’t tell you those things happened,” Wilhelm said.

The Woodrow Wilson and its ballistic missiles were part of the nation’s nuclear defense triad. Strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles also could deliver nuclear warheads.

“If we had to fire (the missiles), there was nothing left to go home to,” Wilhelm said. “Home had already been annihilated. If we received an order to fire, everybody would have done it and done it with the knowledge they had no place to go home to.”

They drilled time and again.

Submariners relaxed in their day-to-day routines, “but if there was a problem, they were on top of it,” Wilhelm said.

The nuclear sub carried twice the crew that the Sirago had. It stayed at sea for two months, while the Sirago was out for two weeks.

“The Sirago had limited space and water,” Wilhelm said. “I had to get out of my bunk to turn over.”

He could change sleeping positions without fully waking up.

Sailors on a diesel-powered sub got a bath once a week, so Wilhelm said they probably smelled.

“Of course you didn’t notice it,” Wilhelm said. “Everybody smelled the same.”

In port between patrols, the Sirago’s crew would meet at a bar for a beer and shoot the bull.

“You can’t do that today,” he said.

Life aboard the Woodrow Wilson was a constant 72 degrees and 50 percent humidity.

“I was a little warmer in the engine room,” Wilhelm said. “We had plenty of water. The food wasn’t quite as good, but it was still good.”

After an early honorable discharge in 1964, Wilhelm worked as a shipyard electrician, then inspected the electrical systems of coal mines in Pennsylvania. He transferred his government employment to Letterkenny Army Depot, where he retired 20 years ago.

“I wanted to get back close to home,” he said.

He fiddled with many projects in his retirement. The latest is a float that can hold a Mark 37 torpedo and 16 members of the U.S. Submarine Veterans Tri-State Base.

Wilhelm intends to roll out the float for the Memorial Day parade in Waynesboro. He’s getting the torpedo fitted for a western saddle so someone can sit on it the way actor Slim Pickens rode a nuclear bomb in the movie “Dr. Strangelove.”

The Tri-State Base acquired the last Mark 37 torpedo from a Navy curator in Hawthorne, Nevada. The Navy made the torpedoes available to war memorials and cemeteries. Qualified groups need only pay shipping.

Wilhelm picked up the 1,445-pound dummy after it was shipped to Hagerstown, Maryland. He towed it behind his son-in-law’s pickup truck to his shop where he removed 1,000 pounds of lead weight.

The dummy torpedo never carried the normal load of 330 pounds of explosives.

The Sirago was outfitted with the Mark 37, the next generation of torpedoes after World War II. The Mark 37 became the standard anti-submarine torpedo of the 1960s. Eventually modern submarines ran faster and deeper, and the weapon was mothballed.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/18vHlnH

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Information from: Public Opinion, https://www.publicopiniononline.com

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