The day – The submarine that escaped
Editor’s Note: This story was taken primarily from the files of the Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton and the Archives of The Day.
On a cool day in December 1987, a decaying submarine was pushed into the Thames Channel by tugs and towed by a Navy rescue vessel.
This quiet start closed the book on a unique saga in the maritime annals of Southeast Connecticut. Most of our submarine stories are triumphant, like Nautilus’ trip to the North Pole, or tragic, like the loss of the Thresher.
But this story ends in simple failure. It is the story of a doomed attempt to preserve the past that was spurred on by determination and undone by money.
“Does anyone know the name of the submarine that was on the river 30 years ago?” asked a reader. “I remember visiting it but I can’t remember the name.”
The name was USS Croaker, and it helped win World War II, sinking 11 enemy ships. But unlike his contemporaries, immortalized by their adventures in the Pacific, this submarine was defined by what happened to it later.
In Croaker’s greatest battles, she did not launch torpedoes, but witnessed clashes over her fate as a museum ship.
* * *
The marching band witnessing the launch of a submarine was absent on December 19, 1943, the day Croaker slipped into the tracks of Electric Boat’s Victory Yard, where Pfizer is now located. The urgency of the war had trivialized the launches.
EB was building submarines at a breakneck pace. The shipyard launched two in one day in October 1943, then repeated the feat a month later. Croaker’s was the 25th and final launch of the year, averaging one every two weeks.
The following August, the Croaker (SS-246) was on its first patrol in seven days when a warship appeared off the coast of Japan. The crew fired torpedoes and waited. When an explosion was heard, the captain shouted, “We hit him! “
Eerie sounds of a disintegrating ship followed, and a blurry periscope photo shows the Japanese cruiser Nagara descending from the stern. As he disappeared, Croaker rushed to dodge the depth charges.
Three more shipwrecks followed, and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal called the crew “relentless, daring and tenacious” when awarding them the Navy Unit Commendation. Croaker sent seven more ships on five subsequent patrols.
After the war he sat in Groton, out of service, for five years. Then, with submarine technology advancing on several fronts, the Navy converted Croaker and six other Gato-class ships into “hunter-killers” for anti-submarine warfare, the wave of the future.
Croaker emerged from his 1953 conversion so changed that he no longer looked like one of the “fleet ships” that had humiliated the Japanese Navy. Instead, it became an artifact of a Cold War moment that was quickly overtaken by the nuclear age.
Struck off the navy register in 1971, Croaker seems to have reached the end of the line.
But his next chapter hadn’t even started.
* * *
Frank Scheetz was born in West Virginia and never made it past sixth grade, dropping out of school to work in a coal mine. In 1942, he joined the Navy and carried out six submarine war patrols. When he left the service after 21 years, he remained at Groton, where he had spent most of his career in the Navy.
With straightforward, unadorned demeanor and the kind of intelligence that doesn’t come from books, Scheetz, an entrepreneur and developer, has built homes, started businesses, and made money. A shopping center on Route 12 still bears his name.
In 1972, Scheetz set his sights on a jackpot: New London station, on the verge of being demolished. He wanted to create a transport hub and made an offer for the building, which was rejected.
Meanwhile, someone else pitched the idea of turning the station into an underwater museum. Scheetz made this plan himself and tried to buy the building again. He also offered to hire City Pier and dock an old submarine there.
New London was lukewarm at the idea, but a fire had been started under Scheetz. His goal became an underwater tourist attraction to honor the silent service in which he had served. He formed a group called the Submarine Memorial Association and in 1974 presented his plan to Groton.
At the time, he had a boat in mind: Croaker, still in storage at the subbase.
Groton was receptive, but opposition to details came from all sides. Environmental officials feared the impact of the backfill on the wharf site. Voters in the city refused to sell a building. Even WWII submarine veterans were against admitting charges and feared Croaker would become a “horror.”
“Anyone who opposes this memorial is throwing stones at the American flag,” Scheetz said.
When he chose a site other than Thames Street, just north of EB, things fell into place. On July 27, 1976, Croaker was transported down the river to his new home. But the submarine, on loan from the Navy, required thousands of dollars worth of work.
After nearly a year of scraping, painting and replacing parts, Croaker opened to the public in May 1977. For the first time, the Submarine Capital of the World exhibited a submarine. That summer 40,000 people visited, making the old sailor’s dream come true.
* * *
WWII submarines were a hot item. As the conflict receded and warships were demolished, the dwindling number of survivors became prized as portals to the past, even though they hadn’t seen combat. A photo taken in Groton just after the war shows six decommissioned submarines, including Croaker; five were intended to become memorials.
On July 4, 1969, one of the five, Drum (SS-228), was unveiled in Mobile, Alabama, the first war submarine open to the public. When the Navy jettisoned its remaining diesel boats in the early 1970s, many found a second life as museum ships. Today, 16 American submarines remain from the war, six of which were built by EB.
Groton was in the market early for one of them. In 1958, the city’s chamber of commerce attempted to secure Flasher (SS-249), which also appears in this post-war photo. The Navy promised the Subvets, but the group couldn’t raise enough money. They still managed to secure the turret before the boat was scrapped, and today it is the centerpiece of the National Submarine Memorial on Bridge and Thames Streets.
Croaker had been open for barely a month since Scheetz began another quest on behalf of Groton: Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine, which was nearing the end of its lifespan. His goal was to get him home and tie him up next to Croaker. But the Navy wanted him in Washington or Annapolis, Maryland.
At a politically opportune moment, Scheetz assembled a coalition to save the Nautilus that included power brokers as high as the Vice President of the United States. But he again faced opposition from the Subvets, who believed that putting the iconic ship next to Croaker would only line Scheetz’s pockets.
“I’m starting to get tired of people saying Frank Scheetz is trying to make money with the Nautilus,” Scheetz said. But for the sake of unity, he reluctantly declared his support for a berth near the subbase, where the historic ship ended up in 1985.
Scheetz helped win the battle for Nautilus, but it may have cost him the war for Croaker.
* * *
A stern letter Scheetz received in September 1986 listed six problems Navy inspectors had found with Croaker that “required your immediate attention”, including a list pronounced to port. The words “serious deterioration” were used several times.
The sticking point was the ongoing replacement of the bridge. Scheetz used fiberglass; the Navy wanted teak, which was 10 times more expensive.
Since the return of the Nautilus, Croaker’s attendance was down and money was tight. To fund the repairs, Scheetz offered to rent the boat from the University of Connecticut as an off-season lab. But when the Navy greeted the idea with silence, he told them to come and retrieve their submarine.
Croaker’s decade as a tourist attraction in Groton came to an end on July 23, 1987, when tugs pushed him across the river to a temporary berth at the Naval Underwater Systems Center in Fort Trumbull. The day before, Scheetz was asked if he would be there to watch the move.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m not going to funerals.”
With Croaker’s fate pending, New London and Norwich briefly considered claiming it. Groton weighed up a plan to bring him to earth near the National Submarine Memorial. City officials were still talking about it in December when a rescue ship towed the submarine to Virginia to be stored there for the winter. But when the expected cost of the land berth doubled, interest dried up. Six months after Croaker left, Groton gave up trying to get him back.
“We already have our memorial,” said a city councilor. “I don’t think having more is necessarily better.”
This is the end of the story but not the end of Croaker. The Navy, which could have used the boat to train on the target, found a taker instead.
In late 1988, Croaker was towed to Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park in Buffalo, NY, where it has been fully restored. Alongside a cruiser and destroyer, it has been there without incident since.
Nowadays, the old submarine has largely exceeded its time in combat, in the Pacific and especially in Groton.