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U.S. Navy submarine fleet 114th anniversary celebrated on campus

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Students ring a ceremoniously bell 54 times and announce the names of the 54 U.S. Navy submarines that have been sunk since WWII Wednesday during a ceremony commemorating the 114th anniversary of the inception of the U.S. submarine fleet. Julian Paredes / The Collegian

Sweltering heat, cramped quarters and exploding depth charges were just a few of the challenges World War II submarine veterans had to face.

A ceremony to commemorate the 3,733 submariners of the U.S. Navy who have died since the war was held Wednesday at the Submarine Memorial Monument in the Maple Mall at Fresno State.

Wednesday marked the 114th anniversary of the inception of the U.S. submarine fleet. The 54 tulip trees that line the Maple Mall were planted in the honor of the 54 Navy submarines that have been lost since the beginning of World War II.

The granite monument was draped in American flags, and Fresno State students rang a gold bell and announced the name and call sign of each submarine that was sunk.

Vintage photos of World War II sailors and a scale replica of USS Seawolf (SSN-21) were available for students to view after the ceremony.

Fresno Navy veterans of the Wahoo Base of the United States Veterans Inc. were present to witness the ceremony and hear Bernard Vinovrski, associate vice president for enrollment services of Fresno State, honor the deaths of their fellow submariners.

Vinovrski himself is a veteran of the Marine Corps, and he said that it is now more important than ever for students to remember the country’s men and women in uniform.

“Especially us coming off two conflicts now, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, for students to understand that the price of freedom is an enormous, enormous price,” Vinovrski said. “In many cases they were their grandparents, even their fathers, so it’s really wonderful to see students come out.”

Several representatives of state assemblymen were also at the ceremony to support the veterans. Ben Bergquam, field representative for Assemblyman Jim Patterson, has family who served in the armed forces and said that students don’t always remember that U.S. citizens enjoy rights that citizens of other nations do not have.

“Students especially need to remember where our freedoms come from. It’s easy to get comfortable in life and the freedoms we have,” Bergquam said. “It’s easy to take them for granted.”

Submarine warfare has existed since the 19th century, but submarines were utilized to devastating effect by Germany in World War II. Wolf packs of German U-boats wreaked havoc among allied merchant vessels. However, the Navy countered with its own fleet, such as the USS Bowfin (SS-287), a Balao-class submarine that Navy veteran Donald Johnson helped convert into a museum ship.

Johnson served on several nuclear-powered submarines during the Cold War, and he called World War II submariners heroes.

“The state-of-the-art was so much more primitive than what we have now,” Johnson said. “I’m not comfortable when people call me a hero, because I pretty much did my job when our country called. But any of us who go on ships that sink on purpose has got to be special.”

Johnson, a 20-year Navy veteran, said that years of extensive training helped him have no fear while at sea.

“The big thing that makes submarining possible is the knowledge and the trust that every submariner has in his crew,” Johnson said. “That they are trained and competent and capable of doing their job under all circumstances — smooth sailing, casualties, wartime combat.”

“When they finally pin these dolphins on you, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that you’ve got their back and they’ve got yours.”

Veteran Ted Dick, a Fresno State graduate, served in the Navy from 1948 to 1968, and said he hopes students will remember the service and sacrifice of submariners as they walk across campus.

“I just want them to realize when they pass the markers and the trees on campus that it represents the submarines that have been lost and that freedom is not free,” Dick said. “I’m not a hero. The real heroes, they didn’t return.”