Submariners land for USS Razorback visit
BY JAKE SANDLIN ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
With the submarine USS Razorback’s arrival in North Little Rock two years ago, the next goal for civic leaders became to entice as many submariners to central Arkansas as possible. Being hosts this week for the 2006 national convention of the 11,600-member U.S. Submarine Veterans, Inc., accomplishes that mission.
About 1,000 people will take part in the submariners convention today through Sunday in Little Rock and North Little Rock, with most events at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock. The convention’s draw, of course, is the World War II-era submarine sitting across the Arkansas River on the southern edge of North Little Rock’s downtown.
The most recent conventions have been in much larger cities, such as Kansas City, Mo.; Reno, Nev.; and Syracuse, N.Y. “The submarine is the magnet,” said Steve Nawojczyk, North Little Rock’s project liaison to the Razorback and the adjoining Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum near the Main Street Bridge. “It’s the centerpiece for the entire convention.”
The conventioneers could put close to $1 million into the central Arkansas economy through hotel rooms, restaurant meals, souvenirs, attractions and other items, said Karen Trevino, director of the North Little Rock Visitors Bureau.
That’s according to a formula using $224 spent per conventioneer for each overnight stay. Representatives from the North Little Rock Visitors Bureau, the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Peabody Little Rock Hotel and the Razorback Submarine Base veterans group made their bid in late 2004 to bring the submarine veterans to the Razorback and central Arkansas.
The effort came on the heels of national news services’ coverage of the Razorback’s tow from Turkey - where it had served the Turkish navy since 1970 - to New Orleans and then North Little Rock that summer. The city acquired the submarine for its preservation as part of a maritime museum.
“We put on our dog-and-pony show and won,” recalled Barbara Wewers of Russellville, who is organizing the week’s events with her husband, Ray Wewers, the convention’s chairman and chairman of the 181-member Razorback Base group. The bid didn’t involve a monetary figure, but it included a detail of available hotel rooms, convention accommodations and local attractions, she said.
Little Rock is one of the smaller cities to land the convention in its 21-year history, Wewers added. The convention expected between 1,200-1,500 participants, based on past conventions, Wewers said, but attendance is beyond their control. “We’ve had people call and say the gasoline crisis has kind of curbed their travel,” she said.
In all, 16 submarines will hold reunions during the convention. The biggest will be between 60-70 expected for the reunion for former crew members of the Razorback, commissioned in 1944 during World War II, with later service in the Korean War, Cold War patrols and then Vietnam.
“So many of the men who served on the Razorback are World War II veterans,” Wewers said. “They just want to see her again.”
In conjunction with the convention, the Razorback and the maritime museum completed a move and additions to display for the many veterans who will tour both. A submarine research library is also available for any type of research and includes about 2,500 books, museum officials said.
“Instead of wandering down to the other building, you can go through the museum when you go through the submarine,” Nawojczyk said. “Some people cannot get down into the submarine. This gives them an opportunity to watch videos and basically take a tour without getting onto the submarine.”
The experience for submarine veterans runs much deeper than just recalling their military service. Submariners have a unique closeness stemming from what is called “the silent service” of undersea duty, said Greg Zonner, director of the maritime museum.
Submarine service was most precarious during World War II. In the Pacific theater, 52 submarines were lost, most with all hands. The 3,506 officers and enlisted men who died in submarines comprise 22 percent of all submariners who went on patrol during the war - the highest percentage of lives lost for any U.S. Armed Forces.
“You go to sea on a submarine for three and a half months with 140 guys, no communication with the outside world,” said Zonner, a submariner with the USS Von Steuben from 1970-76.
“There’s also the pressure of living in one of the most hazardous duty areas in any military service. “Everybody depends on everybody else. You form a real strong bond.” Ray Wewers, 66, served on two submarines, one being the USS Redfish (SS-395 ), the sister submarine to the Razorback (SS-394 ), both commissioned in 1944.
Barbara Wewers still can’t imagine service underwater, she said, but has witnessed the emotions the memories brings to its veterans. “We’ve seen gentlemen cry when they go through [the Razorback ], remembering all that happened,” she said. “These [conventioneers ] are the ones who formed the original USVI. They don’t want those sailors who lost their lives to be forgotten.”
A memorial service open to the public will be at 7 p.m. Friday at the Riverfest Amphitheater in Little Rock’s River Market to honor submariners lost at sea.
This story was published Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Copyright © 2006, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. All rights reserved.