Navy vet: Think #stayhome is hard? Try submarine life.
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Navy vet: Think #stayhome is hard? Try submarine life.

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Kevin Killkenny

Kevin Kilkenny in the submarine galley. 

Vietnam veteran Kevin Kilkenny, 71, chuckles when he hears folks talk about the challenge staying indoors during the COVID-19 quarantine.

Kilkenny, of Illinois City, knows isolation: He served on a submarine during the Vietnam War.

He remembers having no personal space, no windows, and sleeping in one of 36 bunks stacked four high.

And that was for 64 days under water in the USS Haddock, where there was no such thing as social distancing.

A California native, he moved to Illinois City because his wife, Doris (Barber is her maiden name) has family in Illinois.

After two years of junior college, Kilkenny joined a Navy Reserve Unit during the middle of his first year in college, and did two years of active duty.

“I figured I had a choice. I could serve in Vietnam and get shot at, or serve on a submarine and not let anybody know where I was,” he said.

“The hard part is because I was on a nuclear sub.” The vessel was only 275 feet long, full of equipment and people.

“There was no isolating yourself from people,” he said. “Everywhere you went there was someone next to you.”

Of course, there was no internet in the early 1970s, and no TV on the sub. “There wasn’t much of anything to do except do your job and sleep.”

Quarters were very, very tight, he said. “You walked down a passageway, and you’d go stomach to stomach as you walked by each other. You couldn’t do a shoulder-to-shoulder.”

He only looked out a periscope to view the world once during his 64 day mission. For security reasons, he still can’t discuss where he was stationed except to say “It was very cold.”)

“We were on anti-submarine and anti-ship missions,” he said. “What we did was run up to the enemies’ ship yards, and sat off the bay where they were stationed.” Then they followed what came out of the shipyard.

“We followed Russian nuclear-missile submarines to be behind them in case they were ever in a position to fire weapons.

“We saw other ships and followed them. We were sufficiently far ahead in technology, for the most part, they never knew we were there. They had noisy submarines that were easy to follow, while ours were very quiet and hard to find.”

He was packed inside with other submariners who kept busy. “The Navy is very good at finding ways to keep you busy,” he said. “We had 18-hour days, six hours on duty, 12 hours off. You would do all the jobs your rating required you do. I was a yeoman. “

The first year he was on board he spent his time learning every system on the boat, with various hydraulic and electrical distribution systems, weapons handling among “a multitude of different systems.”

After that, he was qualified to wear his “dolphins” – a pin indicating a sailor is qualified in submarines. 

If you didn’t qualify to wear the dolphins, you didn’t have time to do anything except work on your qualifications, Kilkenny said.

Those who qualified could enjoy movie night.

“They had a 16-mm projector. They would show movies on that,” he said. “They would be played over and over again during those 64 days. There were no CDs or DVDs like we have now.”

The primary way to pass the time, he said, was sleeping. “If you were up, you were working."

Also, there was a tendency for the commanding officer to run drills, Kilkenny said. “You might work for six hours, do six hours and maintenance and get woke up from sleep for a drill. You never really ever got a solid block of sleep.”

After being out of sea, Kilkenny could look at his watch and it would read 12 o’clock. “But I didn’t know whether it was day or night,” he said.

“The monotony and the boredom just droned on and on, and you got whatever sleep you could. There was no other choice. You were locked in tight.”

The bunks were six feet long and about 2½ feet wide.

“There was a curtain you could draw for privacy,” he said.

The food was adequate, he said. “You didn’t have anything fresh after a month … actually, after three weeks. Everything was dried, powdered, canned, frozen,” he said.

“In that forward berthing space, if there was nothing in the walk way, which was about 10 feet high, it was completely filled with cans of food," Kilkenny said. "You had enough room to walk through on your hands and knees.”

There have been cases of suicide on submarines, Kilkenny said. “You have all the same stressors you have on the shore, but they are doubled when you’re out at sea.

“If you’re having marital problems or financial problems, those stressors are still there," he said. "Your issues with children and all that – they don’t go away. They can become magnified, because you have so little else to dwell when you’re out at sea.”

He stayed busy, and, at the end of his 64 days, he remembers when they cracked the hatch, and he emerged from the highly filtered air inside.

“The outside world really stinks,” he remembers. “The smell of the ocean water and everything else about knocked you over.

“It’s amazing how much odor there is, especially in a ship yard.”

His skin was about the color of a sheet of paper, he said.

“I had no pigmentation in my skin.” He was sunburned after a topside watch.

He has looked back on his experience, especially during the recent COVID-19 quarantine.

“You know what you have to do,” he said. “It’s not a matter of is it hard or not. It’s simply part of the job.”

“It makes me laugh that people have a hard time staying inside," he said.  You have windows to look out. You have books. You have TV and the internet — all those things that are so much part of life nowadays. They’re not taking it away. It’s not a great sacrifice,” he said.

“I don’t think what I did was a great sacrifice compared to friends who got shot at and did two tours of Vietnam," he said.

“I had three meals a day, I had a bed to sleep in, and for the most part nobody knew where I was or what I was doing.” (There was no mail until he returned to port.)

He advises those struggling with the current quarantine to keep busy.

“Keep busy. Find a book to read. If you have to go out and do something, maintain your six feet from people.

“And live your life,” Kilkenny said. “We’ll get through this. That was pretty much the attitude of being out at sea.”


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