In the late 1930s my mother’s youngest brother, August Napoleon Gravel, just out of high school, was experiencing the normal situation for the Great Depression years. He had a high-school diploma, but was unable to find a job. His father had recently died and the oldest brother, Victor, who had a steady job with Continental Can Company, was the sole support of his mother, Gus, and his youngest sibling, Teresa.
As did so many young people at that time, Gus joined the military. Not wanting to dig foxholes and go on long marches, he wisely joined the U.S. Navy. Interested in radios, he applied for Radioman school, and after completing that course, volunteered for Submarine School in Groton, Connecticut. After sub school, Gus was assigned to a fleet boat — a diesel powered submarine and went to the Pacific Fleet. They were headed into Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. Had the attack happened an hour or so later, Gus’s sub would have been tied up in the harbor.
Uncle Gus was only about 14 years older than I, and he was pretty much my hero, so without a second thought, I joined the Navy as soon as possible after graduation from high school. I too went to Radioman school, and then on to submarine school. After that, Gus no longer allowed me to address him as Uncle.
Skipping from 1950 to the summer of 1964, we find Gus retired from the Navy for about 5 years and working for RCA as a Missile Range Controller at Cape Canaveral. I had gotten out – then back into – the Navy and was stationed on a newly commissioned nuclear submarine, the USS Ulysses S. GRANT, a Polaris-missile “boomer.” We were docked at the cape, having made our initial launch of an unarmed missile that morning, as in “This is a test. It is only a test.” We passed with flying colo…oops… flying missile.
We were aware that Norman Rockwell, the artist who painted many covers for the Saturday Evening Post, would be visiting the sub that afternoon for a guided tour with his family. I was not on the guide list, so I quickly finished my late lunch-after-launch and went topside to see the celebrity visitors who had just arrived.
To my amazement, Gus was standing on the pier. I hurried across the gangway and we exchanged hugs. Gus informed me that he had been Missile Range Controller for our missile firing that morning. I suppose it just had to be that way, but I was unaware Gus was even working at the cape until he told me. He also told me that he had never been aboard a nuclear submarine.
I went to the Officer of the Deck and informed him that my uncle, a retired submarine sailor and the RCA employee who had been Range Controller for our test shot that morning, would like to come aboard. He informed me that it was necessary for any visitors to have security clearance approval 24 hours prior to being allowed on board any missile submarine docked at the cape. I respectfully asked him if it was possible to make an exception in this case. He said that he had been directed that no exceptions were to be permitted — a prime example of military intelligence at work.
So Gus and I stood on the pier and watched seven approved civilian celebrity visitors board the sub and descend the ladder for a tour of the inside of the boat. I don’t know which of us, Gus or I, was the more disappointed. Gus died about 20 years later, never having been on board a nuclear submarine. Even 48 years later, I still get angry when I think about it.