LINCOLN — The USS Nebraska runs silent and deep.
Nebraska's pride in its submarine runs deep, not silent.
About 260 landlocked Nebraskans made sure of that Saturday at a celebration marking the 20th anniversary of the USS Nebraska joining the nation's ballistic missile submarine fleet. The public event at the Champions Club on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus featured a retired Navy admiral, three former submarine commanders and 13 current USS Nebraska sailors.
Nebraskans' support of the submarine nicknamed “Big Red” is legendary in the Navy. The bond initially baffles and ultimately delights the boat's sailors, former commanders said.
The boosterism is anchored in the Omaha-based Big Red Sub Club. The all-volunteer organization was created in 1993 to continue the strong relationship between Nebraskans and the crew that was created before the boat joined the fleet. The 400-member club raises money to underwrite the cost of bringing submariners to Nebraska twice a year. Nebraskans, in turn, visit the submarine.
Lt. Rodney Grogan of Belfair, Wash., the submarine's navigator, led a delegation of 13 current crew members visiting Nebraska through this week.
Retired Capt. David Volonino of Suffolk, Va., said no other ship during his 30-year Navy career shared as strong a bond between sailors and a namesake city or state. He said sailors tend to consider their submarine jobs and military service as routine, until they view it from a visitor's perspective.
“What happens is magical,'' he said. “When they see the awe in the eyes of visiting Nebraskans, it reminds them that their service is necessary and important. It makes them more willing to make the sacrifices necessary to defend liberty.''
Life and duty on a submarine is tough, Volonino said. On average, the boat spends 77 days at sea followed by 35 days in port for maintenance. The Nebraska has two crews, which alternate staffing the boat while on patrol.
“Most Americans would not endure the harshness required to make a single tour of duty,'' Volonino said. “The sailors work hard for their paycheck. They don't get much glory, but they feel the glory when they share time with their extended family here in Nebraska.''
Retired Adm. Hank Chiles of Alexandria, Va., was the commissioning officer for the Nebraska as commander of the Atlantic submarine fleet in 1993. Later, the boat was one of his nuclear assets when he led the Strategic Command at Offutt Air Base south of Omaha in 1994-96.
Chiles said the sailor-Nebraskan exchange visits have played a key role in maintaining high morale on the submarine. He said Nebraskans share in the five Battle Efficiency Awards presented to the submarine's crews as the most proficient in the squadron. The award recognizes sustained superior technical performance and continual combat readiness.
“Some of the high morale comes from the support they get from Cornhuskers,'' Chiles said.
The Nebraska's mission of strategic deterrence shouldn't be under appreciated, Chiles said.
“It's been 70 years since the start of the last conflict between superpowers on this Earth,'' he said. “Sure, we've been to war in Korea, Vietnam and, more recently, Afghanistan and Iraq, but it's not like we had two world powers going at each other. The Nebraska contributes mightily to that deterrence.''
Retired Capt. Chris Haugen, a Minnesotan who commanded the Nebraska from 2002 to 2004, said the bond between sailors and states appears rooted in Midwesterners' love of country and respect for institutions.
“The young sailors see that pride and they reflect it in their operation of one of the most complex machines on Earth,'' he said in an interview. Haugen planned to attend the Lincoln event but his flight was canceled at the last minute.
Volonino said the Nebraska is a technological marvel.
“The sailors who operate it are extraordinary professionals,'' he said. “What we can accomplish with those young people is frankly astonishing to folks who haven't been on a sub.''
The Nebraska is 160 feet longer than the Nebraska State Capitol is tall. The sub is 6 feet wider than the three lanes of Interstate 80 between Omaha and Lincoln.
The Nebraska is one of 14 Trident-class subs — nicknamed “boomers'' — in the U.S. Pacific and Atlanic fleets. The submarine has completed 61 deterrent patrols. It has successfully launched Trident missiles for testing four times.
Capt. John P. Carter, commander of Submarine Squadron 16 at Kings Bay, Ga., and a Nebraska commander in 2004-07, said the boat's uninterrupted record of success is shared by its sailors and the families and communities that support them. The Big Red Sub Club and the Nebraska Admirals Association exemplify impressive support of the men and women in harm's way below the seas, he wrote in a letter for the celebration.
“Nobody does it better,'' he said. “Nobody.''
Capt. William Hansell of Vienna, Va., the submarine's first commander, said his family is well acquainted with Nebraskans' support of the military. His father was wounded at Okinawa during World War II. Weeks later, he was strapped to a stretcher and put on a train to the East Coast. The train stopped at the North Platte (Neb.) Canteen. Hansell said his father long remembered the kindness shown during the stop by women at the stop.
Haugen said Nebraska sailors share the pride in the accomplishments of their adopted state, whether it's the Husker football team or the rodeos and College World Series baseball games they're invited to attend. They even look forward to receiving packages of fruitcake from Beatrice (Neb.) Bakery Co. every Christmas.
“I'd keep going back to the mess for more and gain 6 pounds every holiday on that stuff,'' Haugen said.
He commanded the Nebraska when it was transferred from a base in Georgia to Washington.
And the Big Red Sub Club was there to welcome the submarine to its new home.
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