Cavalla Crew Interview

David J. Wick

      At the time, Lt. Cmd Fitch was the Captain who had taken command from the previous captain who was thought of highly by the crew - so highly in fact that the crew gave him a very expensive shotgun as a going away present. It seems that I might have come aboard the Cavalla at the same time as Jerry Prescott, but I don't remember him. 

      The radioman at the time was Cautious Campbell from Boston, who could never seem to get to Boston, as he always waited for the train at the Dolphin Bar and Grill, and by the time the train came, he was in no condition to go. One raining Sunday night I had the topside watch, and here comes Cautious down the pier with all of his children's Christmas presents. He had spent all of his money at the Dolphin and he didn't have any money left for the train to Boston - so a collection was made by the weekend duty crew. The other radioman I remember was "Sparks" who always had a smile on his face, and he was the printer for the "Sometimes Daily". 

       As a new unqualified submariner coming aboard the Cavalla, we were assigned to Gunner Coller, who was a first class gunners mate with a war patrol pin. As I remember those days, most of the first class NCO's and above had war patrol pins. Gunner Coller ran the deck crew, or the 1st Division as it was called. We were the line handlers, deck crew and lookout watches. Gunner Coller was a very nice gentle man, who treated everyone that worked for him with exceptional understanding and was a great example of how a true submariner should carry himself. The forward torpedo room was run by a 1st class torpedoman from Portland, Maine, who's family owned a bar and grill in Portland. I wish I could remember his name, as he is a bases for a very funny story about him and what he had done to himself when we were in the Portsmouth Naval Shipyards in 1958. 

      The forward battery, officers quarters, was run by "Mama" Ragland Stewards mate 1st with a war patrol pin. He also had a Philippino by the name of Valez, who was just qualifying. Mama was my monitor or instructor for qualifying which we had to complete in six months, Mama's method of instruction was to slap your head if you were wrong and say "go on" if you were right. Mama's mantra was " you can get anything you want in the US Navy, as long has you have something to trade". One day when we I had the "topside watch" and Mama had the "below decks", in the yards in Portsmouth, a supply truck came up to our dry dock and delivered to me two large boxes of light foul weather jackets, which should have been delivered to another sub at the adjoining dry dock. As per ops, I signed for the shipment with the name of John Paul Jones, and the driver left. Being curious, I opened one box, which I immediately closed and looked around - the area was completely void of anyone. I called Mama topside, and asked him to take a look, he did the same thing I did, one look, closed the package and look around to see if anyone had seen him looking in the package. Mama immediately asked me who had signed for it, and when I told him that a John Paul Jones had, the boxes immediately disappeared below decks - with Mama turning his head to me, as he carried the boxes below decks - "Good work boy". 

       Mama Ragland was never big on conversation, and kept his conversations to a minimum, but after that incident; I was his friend and every time I went through the forward battery or was with him during quarters, he would always ask how I was doing and if I needed anything. The other crewmembers were quite taken back by my friendship with Mama, which they couldn't understand and I couldn't tell them, for fear of punishment by Mama that he would inflect on me if I told anyone about our adventure. Because, of this relationship with Mama the crew had many stories and suggestions on how I became friendly with Mama. I had recently read a book titled "Thunder Below" by a captain of a submarine during WWII, and he mentioned a Paul Ragland, I was wondering if he was one in the same. 

      There were three CPO's on the Cavalla when I came aboard, one was Gus Laird EMCPO who was chief of the boat, another was a Chief machines mate (who's name I have forgotten) and Chief Dickens who was also the ships barber. When Dickens took over as COB, he tried to bring the Cavalla crew into the US Navy by requiring that we kept our haircut and our workclothes in a presentable manner, which was pretty hard for an EM striker like myself who was assigned to the after battery batteries which had a closed pipe ventilation system which leaked acid on our cloths that "ate" holes in our clothiers. Because the Cavalla was the only operational boat at SubDevGroup 2, we got selected for the bad patrols that no one else wanted, such as the North Atlantic barrier patrols; While the other boats, K1 for example, got to go to New Orleans for some celebration and the Blenny was always going someplace exotic - while the Cavalla was always going into the North Atlantic. 

      Many of the crew members (myself included) where not very happy with our lot in life, as we had joined the Navy to see the world and the only thing we saw with Point "Alpha" and Montauk Point. During my tour with the Cavalla the crew had relatively low moral, regarding our assignments, and we directed our resentment towards the Captain for not getting us a good port of call (such as the World's Fair in Brussels in 1959) and also toward Chief Dickens which was really uncalled for, as Chief Dickens had nothing to do with our assignments but I guess he was readily available for our resentment. Geo Maxwell was an ET striker at the time, and he was on my watch where he would man the sonar when submerged and the ECM when on the surface, I believe that Geo reenlisted on the Cavalla. On my watch was Barry Stoddard, Gary Wagner and Lt Muncey. The quartermaster was a 1st class war patrol veteran and the 2nd class was a quartermaster who was always studying or taking a course in some subject relative to his job, I assume that he was commissioned and retired from the Navy. He was a very good quartermaster. After battery mess was manned by a 1st class, a cook by the nickname of "Scummy" and a cook striker from Riverhead, New York. The main induction valve was in the mess room, and every time "Scummy" manned the valve for a dive, he would give it a fast spin and all of the hydraulic oil in the drip pan would fly out over everyone. 

     The food was very good, but boring. I had mess cooking for one month during a north Atlantic patrol, which was a 12 hour tour daily, there were not any Sunday's during patrol. The after battery was the largest crew quarters, and this is where 2nd class corpsman by the name of Jarvello would hold sick call, in Hogan's Alley - this is where all the 1st class PO lived. Jarvello was a career sailor who had just volunteered for sub duty, was going through the qualification period. Jarvello was a very concerned "Doc"; he had noticed my broken nose and had me sent to the Naval Hospital in Boston for cosmetic surgery; I never did thank him for this operation. The forward engineer room was manned by "Billy Jeffcoat" or Billy Goat. I met Billy many years later, in 1974 when he was an engineman on the Long Island Sound ferry going between Orient Point, NY and New London. After his wife died, he signed on a coastal tanker, traveling up and down the Atlantic seaboard. I have called his nephew 10 years ago and found out that Billy had died. 

     The maneuvering room was the home of Gus Laird CPOEM, with his two able assistance Eddie Skrocki and Ronnie Hall, who were the best maneuvering crew in the world. If some of you remember, the Cavalla sometimes took over 70 bells to come into New London. The after torpedo room was my home, the the location for the scariest time in my life. We were performing a test after leave the Portsmouth Shipyard in Kiddery Maine, and part of the test was firing a torpedo out of the number 8 tube in the aft torpedo room. When we fired the torpedo, the tube's "popet valve drain tank vent" bust open and flooded the room. When it bust, I ran for the maneuvering room door but Eddie Skrocki slammed it in my face, and I was trapped with the rest of the crew in the room. I manned the "Scavenging air valve" and put a pressure in the room, in the mean time the control room was blowing every tank they could think of to bring us to the surface, which caused the boat to develop a 25 degree up bubble. The bow of the Cavalla was on the surface and the stern or the aft torpedo room was at 125 ft. The Scavenging air keep the water back and they pumped the bilge from the air manifold in the control room which brought us to the surface. The torpedo room now had over 70 pounds of air in it, and the rest of the boat was an atmospheric pressure as they were on the surface - it took us 2 hours to bleed the aft torpedo room. 

      After my discharge from the Navy (1960) I had many contacts with former members of the crew. In 1962 while a recruit trooper in The New York State Police Academy I met a fellow recruit who was aboard the Cavalla in 1954 and 1956 and knew many of the crew that I knew. I don't remember his name. In 1970 while living in Houston, Texas I met my old friend Gary Wagner who was working at NASA in Houston as a design engineer. Gary had spent 9 years in the Navy, after his tour with the Cavalla he served on the Patrick Henry and the George Washington. Gary and I had many revisits to the Cavalla and many joint ventures in the electronics/computer work. Gary became a very wealthy man by designing a faster interface for the Reuter's computer network in Europe during the 1980's. We lost Gary in 1996 to a heart attack. His wife Mary lives in League City, Texas. I regret that Gary wasn't around for the great reunion you all had in 2000.

December 2000

Return to Cavalla Crews
Return to the Deep Domain