Submarine veterans in landlocked Midwest are united by their underwater experience

05/25/2014 7:06 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

The Rev. Aaron Peters looked the quintessential monk as he recently finished noon prayers and walked to a simple lunch of egg salad and green beans.

He’s the designated tailor for his fellow monks at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kan., and his dedication includes tagging his emails with such missives as: “Have a happy day and may God bless you.”

But the emails also feature an animated submarine, a tipoff of deeper waters in his past: a 10-year stint in the U.S. Navy’s submarine force that included time on subs armed with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.

Peters, who sews a mean vestment, isn’t afraid to speak his mind, sometimes with words not found in Scripture.

“I’m a pretty tough guy,” he said.

He’s one of more than 100 submarine veterans living in eastern Kansas and western Missouri, far from the sea, where oceans are almost imaginary.

A monk. A former Sears manager. A Black & Veatch employee. A scuba shop owner. An electrician.

They all served in a branch of the military often overlooked in the Midwest, but they and other sub vets want that to change.

This Memorial Day, the Topeka-Jefferson City Base of the U.S. Submarine Veterans group is gathering in Columbia, Mo., to participate in the city’s Salute to Veterans parade. The members are bringing along their new 10-foot model of the submarine USS Missouri, one of the country’s newest class of attack submarines, which like battleships are named after states. The new model replaces a tattered one fashioned from a telephone pole.

They’re making other appearances this year, too, including at Old Shawnee Days, and they’ll have a tolling ceremony in Branson. A bell will ring for each of the 65 U.S submarines lost over the last century.

Most of those occurred in World War II, when submariners had a 21 percent chance of getting killed, the highest percentage in the U.S. armed forces, the Navy points out. Nine submariners from Kansas City were casualties.

If you look hard enough in the bistate area, you can find tributes to submariners, including a plaque near Blue Springs and an Olathe park with 65 bricks representing the lost subs. A stretch of Interstate 70 between Kansas City and Columbia is named the Submarine Veterans Memorial Highway.

Submarine veterans, at least in the Midwest, defy easy labels. Some settled here after their military service, but most were raised on farms or in towns thousands of miles from the sea. Yet they volunteered to go beneath the waves.

They joined for many reasons beyond serving their country: adventure, learning a trade or earning the extra pay due submariners.

What knits them to this day is simpler: They shared an experience that still tugs at them.

“There are times I would do anything to have one more ride on a submarine,’’ said Jim Armstrong, commander of the Topeka-Jefferson City group.

A remaining WWII vet

John “Jack” Peddicord, 87, lives in Odessa, Mo., and is part of a dwindling band. World War II submariners once had their own veterans group. But time has almost wiped out their ranks, and the group was disbanded in 2012 when membership sank below 100.

A 17-year-old from a “dirt poor” family in Baltimore, Peddicord in 1944 wanted in the war. The Marines told him to wait a year. So he joined the Navy and volunteered for sub duty to be with others he knew in boot camp.

He wanted to be a machinist. The Navy said fine, but the paperwork needed a second choice, and how about putting down “cook”?

He was soon on the way to cooking school and becoming a baker.

Before being deployed, he went back to Baltimore and in his dress uniform met his future wife at a social club.

“He made my 16-year-old heart go pitter patter,” Peggy Peddicord said.

But any glamor was short-lived. He was assigned to the USS Carp, where even the shower stalls were stuffed with food to last months at sea. The Carp’s orders were to circle Japan and sink cargo ships.

It got several of them.

It found one in a bay but was fired on by a shore battery and submerged. Visibility was poor, and the sub turned around and found two ships at the bay’s mouth. Depth charges were dropped as the Carp escaped.

“We went about our business,” he said.

Discharged in 1946, Peddicord returned to Baltimore, where he found a job selling and repairing sewing machines at a department store. In a few years he took a similar job at a Sears in Baltimore and then got a manager’s job here at the Country Club Plaza store.

He moved to Kansas City in 1959 and would become a merchandise manager for all the Sears stores in the area. He held that post until retirement.

Nursing an inferiority complex because he never graduated from high school, he credits the service for giving him confidence.

“You were doing something that others didn’t want to do,” he said.

Peddicord plans one more trip in the water. He has instructed his family to spread his ashes on the Missouri River. His wife, who remembers fishing with her father on Chesapeake Bay, plans to have her ashes scattered there.

They figure the currents will bring them together somewhere south of Florida.

“We’ll get reacquainted,” he said.

Fulfilling a fascination

Armstrong, the chapter base commander, is a graduate of Oak Park High School and joined the sub force in 1973. Now, he tells the force’s story.

Submarines eliminated 30 percent of Japan’s Imperial Navy during World War II, sinking eight aircraft carriers. They destroyed 2,400 merchant ships.

“Submarines took the fight to the enemy,” Armstrong said.

After the war, the force shifted from diesel to nuclear-powered and armed subs, which sent the message that an attacking enemy would suffer a massive retaliation. The Navy has attack subs that can chase and destroy enemy subs and surface ships and also carry cruise missiles to attack land targets.

Growing up, Armstrong saw his biggest body of water when he visited the Lake of the Ozarks, but he did watch movies and TV shows about submarines. One was “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” a series about a sub with picture windows that fought worldly and extraterrestrial enemies.

“I know I was fascinated by submarines,” he said.

After he joined up, stretches of “boredom,” drills and training interspersed with the business of protecting the nation.

“A lot of it is still classified, and we really can’t talk too much about it,” said Armstrong, who now works at Black & Veatch on controls for wastewater plants.

A less dramatic experience left a mark. A submarine is a confined space, with just 15-square-foot “berthing” areas for sleep and personal belongings. Armstrong says it’s like living in an RV with its windows painted black and filled with cousins you may not like.

You learn to get along. You know everyone depends on everyone else to do the job.

“You form a bond like none other,” he said.

A bit part on ‘Red October’

It was New Year’s Eve in 1981, and Bill Feller came home bearing news his parents didn’t expect or want. The Lee’s Summit High School student was joining the Navy after graduation.

He had volunteered to serve on a sub for the extra $100 in monthly pay.

The blow for independence — his parents preferred college — would lead to a 24-year Navy career.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” said Feller, now the owner with his wife of Playground Dive scuba shop in Blue Springs.

Feller wanted to be an electronics technician but didn’t take to the math. Instead he became a cook. On subs food is a big deal, so training included internships at a Sheraton hotel in Seattle and the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu.

His tour of duty included a minor role in the sub thriller “The Hunt for Red October.”

In 1989, he was serving on the USS Houston, an attack submarine, when the movie was filmed. USS Dallas, which in the Tom Clancy novel chased the Soviet sub, was unavailable. So the USS Houston boat was substituting.

The Houston can be seen when actor Alec Baldwin drops into the sea to get to the sub. Feller appeared as a Soviet sailor.

The sub’s own encounters with perils weren’t in the movie.

The crew named 1989 the Year From Hell, with fires and floods inside the sub. It also strayed into a firing range, and a torpedo reportedly glanced off its hull.

The Houston was on a training mission when a valve failed and let in 50,000 pounds of water, causing an uncontrolled dive. Water also got into a battery compartment, releasing chlorine gas and forcing the crew to don air masks. The engines running at full power got the sub back to the surface, but then the water flowed into the other end of the sub, sending it back down.

“Oh, great. This is it,” Feller thought at the time.

Emergency maneuvers stopped its descent before it reached “crush depth.”

“You had to depend on everybody,” he said. “If anything happened, you couldn’t run away.”

Finding his trade

James McCourt, born in 1936, thought his career was set when he got a railroad job in Osawatomie, Kan. But a friend, a military recruiter, persuaded him to join up in 1955.

He finished boot camp and in San Diego toured a sub when the crew had an off day relaxing and watching movies.

“I thought this is it for me,” he said. “It was a good job, and they fed you good.”

The Cold War was heating up, and McCourt became an electrician and then a missile controls technician. At the time, “it was like two people on the border pointing guns at each other, with one saying I won’t shoot you if you don’t shoot me,” he said.

His job required him to squeeze in and around the sub’s missiles to test and replace controls. Once for “the heck of it,” he said, he wrapped his arms around a warhead, and he slept in a bed between two missiles.

He served during the Cuban missile crisis but didn’t know much about it until it was over. His sub stayed submerged during and after the crisis. When it surfaced he was told his father had died, but it was too late to attend his funeral.

In 1963 he left the force after serving eight years, for a reason common among submariners. Extended periods at sea made family life difficult, and marriages often ended in divorce. McCourt didn’t see his son until three months after his birth.

He got a job as an electrician at the Bendix plant in Kansas City, now operated by Honeywell, which makes non-nuclear components for nuclear bombs. Retired now, he says that if it weren’t for his Navy training “I wouldn’t have gotten the job.”

A turn toward God

Peters, 75, born in Hutchinson, Kan., had a decision to make in 1957 about joining the military. His father was an Army colonel, and Peters was taking no chances of serving under that “tough cookie.” Besides, stealthy submarines had an aura of intrigue.

“The submarine service was it,” he said.

He didn’t know that the decision would eventually deepen his religious faith and put him on a course to Atchison.

Peters, called “Petey” in the Navy, trained to be a sonar technician but became a yeoman, an administrative assistant for the sub’s commander.

His first assignment was on a diesel sub before moving to others, including the USS John Marshall with its 16 nuclear missiles. His desk was just feet from the missile tubes.

Living on a sub was definitely a unique experience; one crew member died of a brain hemorrhage. The sub had weeks left before retuning to base, so the body was put in a walk-in freezer with the food.

Once he was a lookout after the sub surfaced, and a crew member was washed off and drowned.

“Why didn’t I get washed off, too?” he asked himself.

He was scheduled to transfer to the USS Thresher, but the sub sank with all 129 on board. Another close call came when his sub went into a dive after taking on water.

“OK, Lord, you win,” he told himself.

He became a Catholic and left the Navy for studies that would end in his becoming a priest and a monk. He wavered once before he was ordained and decided to go back to subs, but he stopped halfway through taking his enlistment oath in Kansas City.

“I can’t do this,” he said.

He took up residence at St. Benedict’s Abbey, where the sound of tugboats plying the Missouri River reminded him of a diesel sub and lulled him to sleep.

Heart attacks and prostate cancer have slowed him. He stopped doing puppet shows at churches, a talent he burnished with lessons from Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets.

But he’s still busy as a tailor and doing other monastery jobs. He regularly attends sub veterans’ meetings.

He rejects the notion that becoming a monk was atonement for his submarine service, where he could have been part of unleashing a whirlwind of death. Besides, he believes that was unlikely because the service’s mission was to prevent war.

Though now directly serving God, he realizes there was a time when his purpose was serving the nation.

“I’ve been blessed,” he said.

To reach Steve Everly, call 816-234-4455 or send email to severly@kcstar.com.

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