Setting sail, again: Navy vet returns to volunteer on retired submarine

Ron Bell is one of 10 U.S. Navy submarine veterans who volunteer to lead weekly visitor tours on the USS Blueback, a sub docked outside the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, Oregon. Retired from a career in scrap metal construction, Bell spoke with me about why he loves volunteering.

This post originally appeared on Next Avenue, a PBS website that informs and inspires the 50 + crowd. 

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Ron Bell below deck in the USS Blueback

I had been following the USS Blueback submarine since it was retired in 1990, because that’s what we submarine vets do. I was in the Navy for four years during two wars, and worked on a few submarines similar to this one, doing everything from maintenance to communications. When I heard the Blueback was coming to Portland, I had to see it and I had to be a part of it.

So in 1995, soon after it docked, I got involved in volunteering there. From giving tours of the sub to performing maintenance — whatever needs to be done, I do it.

I’m also here because submarines are the most beautiful pieces of machinery. Once you get bit by these things, you want to know all there is about them. You can’t quit.

Checking up on the sub

The Navy still owns the Blueback, but they’ve made it non-operational. For good reason, maybe. To be honest, I don’t think they trust us old sub vets not to take it for a spin. Every year or so, they visit to make sure it’s still up to par. Which, of course, it always is, since they’ve got us on deck.

I enjoy everything about what I do down here. I love telling our tours how we lived on a sub back then and sharing old stories. People like hearing them and I like telling ‘em, so it works out nicely.

In the Navy, I was in Hawaii, Australia, the Philippines — during the Vietnam War — and then the coast of Europe, especially Russia, during the Cold War when I was in a nuclear sub. We got hit by Communist missiles a couple times.

You have to go through sub school, which is a rigorous, intensive type of training. Everyone on deck needs to know how to do everything, in case something goes wrong.

The USS Blueback docked outside of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (Photo credit: Meltedplastic on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/meltedplastic/8415091795)

The USS Blueback docked outside of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (Photo credit: Meltedplastic on Flickr)

The joy of volunteering with fellow vets

The point is, sub vets worked hard to get to where they are. We are all very proud of what we’ve done and deeply respect each other. That’s what makes it so rewarding to work together here. Being on a sub in the Navy is something that connects us all at a very deep level.

I’ll tell ya, if you get a bunch of sub vets together for a cup of coffee after our shift, you end up sharing a lot of laughs and old sea stories, which is just the Navy term for lies.

I’ve visited amazing places around the world while on patrol, but now all I want to do is stay in the states and see this beautiful country where my wife and I live. We make time for RV trips every year to do just that.

An opportunity for time traveling

And of course, I travel back in time when I’m on the sub. As soon as I first walked on board the USS Blueback, it was just like “Boom!” I was back. And I loved it.

And I think the rest of the vets here feel the same. Being here brings back so many fond memories; it’s good for the heart.

I have to say my favorite part of volunteering is when young sub sailors come down to look at the old machinery — it’s a piece of history. They respect us more than anyone, since they know they wouldn’t be where they are if it wasn’t for us guys. That’s why doing this matters.

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