Undersea Adventure

Memorial Day came early for one group of Columbians. On April 11 and 12, Mayor Darwin Hindman and his wife Axie, along with 20 other delegates traveled to Hawaii for a tour of the USS Columbia (SSN 771) stationed in Pearl Harbor. The group took turns steering the 360-foot-long submarine and firing mock torpedoes, and did their best to understand, support and honor the boat’s more than 130 crewmembers.

The submarine was named in honor of the cities of Columbia, Mo., Columbia, Ill., and Columbia, S.C. It remains one of the Navy’s longest running, continuously active namesake city programs. The delegates’ trip was organized to coincide with the sub’s 15th anniversary.

A submarine steeped in history, USS Columbia was christened on Sept. 24, 1994, in Groton, Conn. It was one of the last American submarines to launch with the traditional slide down a 1,300-foot wooden ramp. Today, submarines are typically built in a dry dock that is later flooded during the launch. A group of delegates from Columbia, Mo., attended the historical ceremony.

The Columbia Submarine Committee, among others, sponsored the most recent trip. Former Columbia Mayor Mary Anne McCollum formed the group soon after learning that the city would be the submarine’s namesake. The committee’s primary purpose is to support and maintain a positive relationship with USS Columbia crewmembers.

In the past, the committee has worked to provide various amenities to the submarine. Anne Moore at D&M Sound helped furnish the submarine with its audio and visual system. Moore currently chairs the committee. Although she was not able to attend, Moore was heavily involved in the planning and organization of the recent trip, recognizing the great opportunity the trip provided.

“It’s very rare for any civilian to be inside a submarine and to see what it’s like for the sailors,” she says.

Delegate and former Columbia Mayor Bob Pugh also knows how rare an opportunity the trip was.

“I’m 69, and there aren’t many opportunities like this left for me,” he says. Before the April trip, the closest Pugh had ever come to touring a submarine was watching Hollywood films such as “The Hunt for Red October.”

“It was much more crowded than I thought,” he says. “Not at all like the movies we’re shown.”

During their visit to the submarine, the delegates enjoyed a cruise aboard USS Columbia and tour areas of the sub, including the torpedo room. The up-close-and-personal view of the submarine made Pugh realize just how incredibly complex a machine it is, he says. It was the human side of the machine, though, that he found most impressive: “The crew was such an incredibly smart group of people.”

Pugh, with close friend and fellow delegate Harry “Doc” Wulff, got to live out many boys’ childhood dreams by playing real-life Battleship aboard the submarine. The delegates experienced how USS Columbia functions while at sea by firing mock torpedoes and commanding the submarine’s steering. It was “a lot like flying a plane,” Wulff says. “There’s an artificial horizon and a turn-back indicator.”

Like Pugh, Wulff fondly recalls submarine’s crew.

“I was really impressed with the sailors,” he says. “They seemed like they knew exactly what they were doing and were all very cordial.” But for Wulff, the mechanics of the boat were most impressive.

Space is an issue on any submarine and USS Columbia is no exception. To make the most of the room they have, submarines are designed so that many areas have multiple uses.

“It kind of puts to mind something Frank Lloyd Wright would do,” Wulff says.

Sleeping quarters are often shared by multiple crewmembers who work and sleep in cyclical shifts — a term called “hot bunking” because the bunk is often still warm from the previous occupant. Even so, USS Columbia is still very cramped, Wulff says.

“Anytime you want to do anything in the submarine you have to go up or down a ladder,” he notes.

Wulff’s time aboard the submarine left him with great respect for how the crewmembers live while at sea. “I myself don’t know how they do it,” he marvels. “I’m too much of a land lover. I can’t imagine not seeing the sun for 100 days.”

The delegates concluded their USS Columbia tour with an Easter brunch aboard the submarine in the crew’s mess, named Flat Branch Café after the land-based eatery. Several years ago, while on a visit to Columbia, Mo., crewmembers were so impressed with the local pub and brewery that owner Tom Smith offered to share the name with the submarine’s dining hall. Hesitant to open the first watering hole on a submarine, the Navy approved the name under one condition — swap “Pub & Brewing” with “Café.”

Crewmembers from the submarine visit Columbia annually for Memorial Day, a tradition they have missed only once since USS Columbia’s commissioning in 1995. This past Memorial Day, Petty Officer Jamison Zrust, Ensign Jamie Steffensmeier and Sonar Technician Submarines Chief Petty Officer Keith Richter spent seven days reacquainting themselves with the delegates and honoring media appearances, visiting the air show, and attending the Memorial Day parade and wreath-laying ceremony. They also found time for a party thrown by Pugh and Wulff.

USS Columbia crewmembers enjoy their visits here to help their sub’s namesake city honor and support all veterans. It’s a fondness the city reciprocates — the consensus among the delegates is that they, too, would like a return visit to USS Columbia