It's often said that submariners have an unfair advantage over their surface adversaries. As someone who gets mildly claustrophobic in the backseat of a Volkswagen, I just don't buy it. I can't imagine the mental preparation that would be necessary before I could sign on for a tour of duty in a modern nuclear submarine, let alone in a tiny World War II era boat - not at the age of 47, and certainly not at 17.
Insignia of the USS Corsair SS 435
But that's what long time Hillsborough and lifelong area resident Al Nittolo did in 1946 when he, along with seven officers and 68 other enlisted men, was assigned to the USS Corsair, a brand new diesel-electric sub destined for service in the Atlantic.
Born in 1929, Al was bitterly disappointed that he was too young to enlist during the war. He soon came to realize that for submariners in Atlantic and Arctic waters, the war was just beginning.
USS Corsair under way
Submarines proved to be the perfect vessels for intelligence-gathering in north Atlantic waters - shadowing the Russian Navy at the outset of the Cold War. When I introduced my kids to Al at the Memorial Day Parade, he recounted the time that the Corsair got just a little too close to a Russian vessel. On the surface, (the Corsair's batteries only permitted dives up to 22 hours), the Russian ship fired a warning shot across the sub's bow.
The skipper immediately ordered an empty torpedo to be fired from one of the sub's ten tubes. Al recalls the Russian ship turned and ran from the bogus bomb, and was out of sight within minutes!
Clearly, the unfair advantage has never been in our weapons, but always in the bravery of our young men who fight them.