BREMERTON, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — Shared experiences aboard the Navy's most decorated vessel drew 60 former crew members to a reunion this week, but they still can't share their stories. Exploits aboard the spy submarine USS Parche remain classified.
"This girl was a special girl," said Daniel Gonzalez, joining peers for a welcoming ceremony Friday morning around the sub's preserved black sail. Colorfully marked with the boat's many awards, it sits in front of Puget Sound Navy Museum in downtown Bremerton. Gonzalez, of Modesto, California, served two stints as a storekeeper aboard the Parche.
Commissioned in 1974, the Parche spent 30 years and 19 deployments as the United States' top espionage sub. It reportedly tapped into the Soviet Union's undersea military communications, recovered missile fragments from the ocean floor after test launches and performed other intelligence gathering.
The Parche earned nine Presidential Unit Citations for "extraordinary heroism against an armed enemy ... under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions." Most ships never get one. It also received an unprecedented 13 Navy Expeditionary Medals and 10 Navy Unit Commendations.
How the honors were achieved remains officially secret, though some have tried to tell the submarine's story. In particular, a book called "Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage," by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, details many of Parche's alleged exploits. The Navy neither confirms nor denies the stories.
One Presidential Unit Citation was awarded for a 1982 mission in which the Parche stayed submerged for a then-record 124 straight days. Several alums at the reunion were there.
"When we came in (to Mare Island Naval Shipyard), we did not have enough food for one more meal," said former yeoman Gary Robertson, 57, of San Diego.
Submarine crews, working together in a tube for months at a time, develop a camaraderie and closeness. The Parche added an aura that the sailors were part of a crucial mission, though not everybody knew what it was.
"Some people knew more than others," said Robertson. "I knew it all because of my job. It's interesting, but I can't talk about it."
The Parche was designated by the Navy as a "research and development" submarine. To serve on it, sailors needed to be chosen for "special projects," which required a "top secret" security clearance instead of the usual "confidential."
The boat changed its homeport to Bangor in 1994 and operated from there for its final 20 years. It was decommissioned at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in 2004 and scrapped in 2006.
Crew members don't mind that they must remain mum. Most are proud that so little information has leaked out. The missions happened quite a while ago, though.
"I understand the importance of national security and stuff, but I think enough time has passed," said Dan Morsette, 54, a former mess cook from Finland, Minnesota. The whole world needs to know about this boat how important this crew is."
©2016 the KitsapSun (Bremerton, Wash.)
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