by Bob Ciminel
November 15, 2004
During the Civil War, sons and brothers went away to war and their fate often remained unknown until they either came home or never returned. World War I and II saw some improvements, but the communication was usually one-way, with the dreaded telegraph from the War Department. Our soldiers in Vietnam weren't much better off.
Photo courtesy U.S. Navy
Submarine Squadron 16 operated out of the U.S. Naval Station at Rota, Spain, up the coast from Gibraltar at the end of the Bay of Cadiz. It was from here that we would embark on our patrols into the Mediterranean Sea. Sixty days later, we would return to Rota. We submerged and surfaced at the same spot in the ocean, and there would always be a Russian "fishing trawler" in the area to greet us. Russian submarines operated in the Mediterranean too, and we would spend days on end quietly following them around the ocean. If the balloon had gone up, and World War III started, our first action would have been to torpedo the Russian submarine we were tailing and then launch our 16 Polaris A2 missiles toward targets in southern Russia.
On patrol, we trailed a long black antenna called a floating wire that enabled us to receive radio messages while underway. The crew could also receive "familygrams" from their wives and loved ones. A familygram was a 28-word telegram containing a personal message to an individual crewmember. Each crewmember could receive six familygrams during the patrol. I received one familygram in seven patrols, but I wasn't married then, so it was no big deal. The one I did receive was from my future wife. I could kick myself for not saving it.
Photo courtesy U.S. Navy
Because familygrams could also contain very bad news, they were always read by the folks in the radio room as they were transcribed. It was up to the Captain to decide if a crewmember should be given a familygram that might affect his performance during the patrol. In case of a dire emergency, some submarines surfaced and the crewmember was taken off by helicopter.
I know how much our married
crewmembers looked forward to receiving their familygrams. When
you were completely out of contact for two months, that 28-word
message from home was your toehold on reality. It was a personal,
poignant reminder that you did not live in a vacuum. I encourage
you to get in touch with any family members who are serving in
our armed forces, even if they are distant relatives. Help them
keep their toehold on reality.