USS Razorback (SS-394) Returns to America

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RAZORBACK at Turkish site

The Return of the USS RAZORBACK SS-394
By Warren Cornwall 
   (Seattle Times)

Seattle Times article contributed by Robert P. Walters
Image contributed by Sait Kucuk


Just a year ago, Bob Opple figured memories and scrapmetal were the only things left of the USS Razorback.

The World War II-era submarine on which he came of age in the early '60s had long been obsolete. Similar boats had, as sailors say, been turned into razor blades. Now the 63-year-old is making plans to help sail the sub from Turkey to the United States. The story sounds like Disney fiction: a group of aging veterans set out to rescue their beloved boat from the scrap heap by striking a deal to buy it from the Turkish navy and sail it home, where it will come to rest as a maritime museum.

"We're just a bunch of old submarine vets who have found ourselves a toy," said the white-haired Bellevueman. "I can't think of anything more fun."

It was November 2001 when a visiting salesman noticed photos of the Razorback on Opple's Tukwila office wall. The salesman had stepped aboard the boat a year-and-a-half earlier, he told Opple. It was called the Murat Reis, and it was in the Turkish navy.

The news reignited an ember lit when, as a 19-year-old, Opple first went to sea in the Razorback. Opple phoned two former shipmates and told them the submarine was still afloat. They discussed a final visit to the boat before its demolition. But talk of a farewell trip turned into a rescue mission. What if they could somehow buy the submarine and return it to the United States?

"Even as I think of it today, I've got to tell you it sounds like a fantastic idea," said Maurice Barksdale, a onetime cook on the Razorback and now a 63-year-old commercial real-estate consultant in Fort Worth, Texas. They wanted to save more than a metal tube with a turret. It's a piece of history that left an indelible mark on their lives. The veterans entered the Navy as cocksure young men. They came out of the Razorback as comrades disciplined by the pressure of weeks underwater and Cold War cat-and-mouse games with Soviet warships.

"There's a bond that's kind of hard to explain that develops between guys that serve on a submarine," Barksdale said. "You literally depended on each and every person on board for your life."

Cold warriors on diesel submarines spent days underwater in cramped compartments, without showers, living with the smell of diesel fumes and fear of getting caught. Secrecy kept them from discussing their missions even with wives and children.

"These guys gave up everything," said Sherry Sontag, co-author of "Blind Man's Bluff," a history of Cold War submarine espionage.

After the Razorback, their lives diverged. Opple became a marketer at NC Machinery, a heavy-equipment dealer, and settled in Bellevue. Barksdale returned to his home state of Texas and became active in the Republican Party. He eventually earned an appointment as an assistant secretary in the Reagan administration's Department of Housing and Urban Development. Max Bassett, now 67, remained in the Navy, moving on to other submarines before retiring to Florida.

The submarine, meanwhile, remained in the U.S. Navy until it was transferred to the Turkish navy in 1970. But the years on the Razorback stayed with the three men. They framed photographs, joined veterans groups and corresponded with shipmates. None, however, imagined getting the boat back.

Until Opple called. Mr. Opple, who made a career in marketng and whose sonorous voice and lively manner earned him a third place in the World Championship of Public Speaking, turned his skills to getting the Razorback They phoned a group of Arkansas submarine veterans, thinking a boat of that name belonged in the Razorback state.

The veterans lobbied Mayor Patrick Hays of North Little Rock, suggesting the boat as the centerpiece of a maritime museum on the banks of the Arkansas River. The mayor and the veterans in turn reached out to other officials and started talking with the U.S. State Department and the Turkish government. "It was nine months of up and down," Opple said. Finally, in September, Hays went to Turkey for meetings with government officials. There, Hays said, they were told the Turkish government wogive the submarine to North Little Rock. "They have told us they are going to give it to us. They are not going to charge us. But we don't have a bill of sale," Hays said, pausing for a moment. "I don't know if there ever is a bill of sale for a submarine." Capt. Alaettin Sevim, a naval attaché with the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C., confirmed that his government had agreed in principle to turn over the submarine to North Little Rock.

Weeks after the first visit to Turkey, Opple and Bassett stood at a naval dock in Golcuk, Turkey, looking at the Razorback.

"It was like meeting the love of my life who I haven't seen in 40 years," Opple said.

They climbed aboard and descended into the forward torpedo room. When they reached the maneuvering room, Opple put his hands on the levers he had stood beside for hours as a young man, controlling the boat's speed. Decades later, he could recite the steps to prepare for a dive.

"Is that not a guy who looks happy?" Opple said as he showed a photograph of him at the controls in Turkey, beaming.

Now he sits in his office and considers how they will get a 58-year-old submarine from Turkey to Arkansas. The crew, Opple said, would include a group of current sailors and submarine veterans, along for the final ride of their lives. New groups of veterans could join and leave as the submarine stops at ports along the way, hesaid."We've got several hundred people that want to go," said Opple, who wants to make the full trip.

First, group members need to figure out how to pay for it. An initial estimate put repairs at $1.4 million to make it seaworthy, said Greg Zonner, commander of the submarine veterans group in North Little Rock. They wanted to know how much it would cost to fix if they didn't need to dive the boat, and simply sailed it on the surface. That, he said, could cost $500,000.

The cheapest option, and the least romantic, would be to hitch it to another boat and tow it across the Atlantic. Donations could finance the trip, either from people who would pay to sail on it or from supporters eager to see the submarine return, Opple said. Buoyed by their achievements, he seemed unfazed by the remaining hurdles. "We're going to have to raise so some money," he said. "But what's a million dollars?"      

Razorback picture source:

23 Nov 2002

From: Robert P. Walters

Photo was donated by a retired (1969-1981) Turkish submariner who rode the CAIMAN (Turkish name: TCG DUMLUPINAR) after she was decommisioned from the US and commisioned into the Turkish Navy. His name is: Sait Kucuk.

He took the photo a couple of days ago. I would imagine the RAZORBACK is at the Golcuk Naval Shipyard.

Robert P. Walters



Here is an excerpt of his e-mail:

    "After send my E-Mail to you yesterday, I receive E-Mail from you telling about USS RAZORBACK. and this morning I took my camera to take her picture for you. She still on the pier ready to go to USA for memory I Pray to God to give you health and happiness.