USS Pargo crew opts for Razorback reunion
Vets swap tales, tour sub docked in NLR
BY RAINER SABIN
The Eight World War II veterans maneuvered, stretched and contorted their bodies through tight openings inside the USS Razorback submarine Thursday, reminiscing about their experiences fending off the enemy and spending weeks at a time submerged hundreds of feet deep.
"We came here to see this beauty," said Robert Williams, 84, of Hingham, Mass., as he climbed aboard the boat docked on the Arkansas River bank in North Little Rock. Williams made the trip to Arkansas to attend the 30th reunion of the crew that manned the USS Pargo, a Gato-class submarine commissioned in 1943. The Pargo was submerged in the Sea of Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The crew members meet in a different location each year.
Last year, 16 crewmen from the Pargo attended the annual reunion. That number, however, has dwindled recently as veterans pass away.
"I’ve made the last eight," said former petty officer Tom West of Ames, Iowa, who at 79, is the youngest of the group. "I really look forward to it."
Joined by their wives and children, the men have traveled from Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas to see one another again in a state that is the home of one of their fellow crew members, Max Sears. Sears, 80, lives in Hot Springs.
Wearing a red floral pattern shirt and khaki slacks, he gave a tour of the USS Razorback, a submarine that shares many similarities with the USS Pargo. The Pargo was scrapped in 1961, according to navsource.org archives.
Trading stories and laughing, the veterans meandered through the sleeping quarters and the communications station while stopping near the tiny cafeteria and kitchen.
"We had a great cook," yelled Vince Soleo, 83, of Pensacola, Fla. "He wasn’t that good," Sears replied. "Aww, he made the best baked beans," Soleo, a former motor machinist, countered.
The camaraderie among the men was evident, the bonds strengthened through the years by their voluntary service aboard an engineering marvel. James Barnes, a maritime maintenance chief at the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum in North Little Rock, says that submariners are a close-knit group. The few he has seen come through North Little Rock jump at any opportunity to reminisce about life aboard a submarine.
"For them, it’s kind of like going home," he said. "During World War II, there was only about 50,000 submarine sailors and support people. ... I never met these guys before and we were standing here talking like we were old shipmates."
For the men’s wives, however, all of the tales remain abstract. With a cool breeze whipping around Mary Lou Hewett, she smiled minutes after touring the submarine with her husband, Les. "We have all heard these stories," said Hewett of Arlington, Texas. "Every time I hear one of them they are a little more embellished. But it makes you very proud of what they achieved."
Soleo said, for at least two hours, he was allowed to be 22 again. "It brings back a lot of memories," he said.
This story was published Friday, September 30, 2005