USS Irex Reunion, April 28–30, 2000

By Coley Joyce, U.S.S. Irex (482) Newsletter, June 2000

What a weekend! I had hoped for a lot, but it was far better than that. I had hoped to renew old acquaintance, but instead I renewed old friendships and found them as strong as they had ever been. I hoped that forty three years hadn't dulled the memories or cooled the warmth that we felt for one another, and found that time had honed the recollections and embedded the good times forever in our thoughts. I hoped that time had been kind to us all, and found a group of guys who were sharp and clever and funny and intelligent and soft spoken and gracious as any I had ever been lucky enough to observe. And to be a part of all that made it a very emotional experience for me.

For me, it all started last summer. I got a call from Joe Ballone in upstate New York, and he told me that this guy he works with had found an Irex web site on the Internet, and there was some fascinating information on there. I'm not on line, so I had to go to my daughter Peggy's house and learn how to get to the web page I was looking for,

A gent named Haines Brown had set up the web site, and had a photograph on there that included the men and officers of the deck ratings. The photo had been blown up to a size that took three pages on the site, and below the picture(s) were spaces where the names of the men In the photo were written. Many spaces were blank, though, and there was a request for help from Haines Brown. If anyone knew the names of the men in the photo, would they please till in the blanks and send the info back so that as many as possible could be identified. Since the photograph included ME, I was able to fill at least one blank space.

Actually, I did much better than that, I was able to add several names to the list of knowns, and stirred up some additional memories of the time I had spent with these guys. There was “Dutch” Larch, the COB (Chief of the Boat…the ranking enlisted man whose duties included liaison between Captain and crew), and Bobby Kreeger, who had the strongest throwing arm of anybody I ever played softball with, and Rod Snedeker, who welcomed a small group of us shipmates into his home in New Haven at about 2:30 one morning. And over here is Arthur Callahan, a hard working, intense, gentlemanly Gunner's Mate who— when being awakened in his bunk—would come immediately 110% awake with a leap that taught the waker-uppers to quickly stand back. Quiet, soft spoken Joe Quinn, Stanley Wishnafsky, a flamboyant (and excellent cook), Ed Vesh, one of my regular running mates, and of course, Haines Brown himself, the originator of this homepage.

Also in the picture was Wallace Krupenevich, more easily known as “Russian”. Much more about him later.

My daughter printed out the photograph and I was able to write in the names of the guys I could remember with some certainty, and offered a few comments about some of them that I thought might be informational. For instance, I apologized to Haines Brown because I never knew his name was Haines, or Howard (his other front name), but knew him only as “Seaman” Brown. It was a nickname, not a rank, and he won it fair and square. He was known for his penchant for climbing up into the after battery hatchway when the boat was underway, and meditating. With his feet on the ladder and his back against the wall of the hatchway, he could brace himself there and be away from the activity below him and ponder whatever he chose without disturbing anyone and without being disturbed. He was definitely not a slave to conformity.

I sent the photo and the additional info to Haines, and in his reply thanking me for my input, he mentioned Wally Krupenevich, who was compiling a listing of the crew from the time the boat was commissioned right through to it's decommissioning in the fall of 1969. He asked if I'd mind if he passed my name and address along to Russian, and I said of course not, and he did just that. I had several Internet notes back and forth with Russian, and in the process he mentioned a possible reunion being planned for Texas…Fort Worth, I think.

As things turned out, the reunion was scheduled for Mystic, Connecticut, and the dates were the last three days in April. It sounded like a great idea, and when I ran the thought past Joe Ballone, he agreed. Ed Vesh came to visit Peg and me in the fall and he was inclined to be there as well, but his work status was such that he couldn't plan that far ahead.

When the time came, Joe had made plans to fly into Providence on the morning of 4/28, and I'd pick him and Dorothy up there and continue to Mystic. His return flight would leave Providence on Monday, 5/1/00, so we rearranged our dates at the hotel so we'd be there an extra day, and would be able to drop him off at Greene Airport on our way back to Weymouth.

Russian had done all the legwork, and had everything at the ready when we arrived at the Best Western. He had kept us informed of the progress through newsletters, and also said he'd be checking in on Thursday, so be sure to knock on his door when we got settled.

Our room was the only one ready for occupancy, so the Ballones put their luggage in our room while they waited for their quarters to be squared away. While we were waiting it was decided that we'd go look up Russian and see how things were going with him.

The hospitality suite (a generous description) was a short way down the hall from where we'd be staying, and we knew we were in the right place because copies of the logo page of one of Russian's newsletters was on the open door. Just inside were a few people I didn't recognize, so I offered my hand to the nearest one and introduced myself. He said, “I know…I'm Dutch Larch.” I couldn't believe that I hadn't recognized him right away. I extended my arms to grab him (being careful not to spill the drink he was holding), and he yelled, “No kissing. No kissing.” He needn't worry. I was just so pleased to see him again that it was a natural reaction. Frequently in the weekend that followed I would wonder how come I didn't know instantly that it was him, because as we talked I noticed all the old mannerisms were there, the voice was the same, the wit and the smile were as quick as ever, and except for the fact that his hair had whitened and I was seeing him in a sport coat for the first time ever, he hadn't changed much at all. The same applied to Wally Krupenevich. I mentioned to Russian that there seemed to be so much less of him than the last time I had seen him, meaning his more slender build. He said the difference wasn't than great-only about ten pounds-from the time on board.

When the reunion was taking shape several weeks ago, I had made copies of some photographs I had taken back on our Med Cruise of 1956. I was pleased to see them prominently displayed in the room along with others who had contributed.

Much time was taken to scrutinize all the pictures being displayed around the room. Trying to remember names, to go with the faces we were seeing, made it very interesting. As more people arrived at the suite we were able to draw on a larger pool of information; and, as the faces in the photos were given identities, the ice was definitely broken.

Name tags were provided for everyone there, and they included the dates of each man's service on Irex. Conspicuously absent was any indication of rank or status. This was not an oversight. The thinking was that we were shipmates without regard for rank. As it turns out, Dutch had become a commissioned officer, and before he retired had risen to the rank of Lieutenant. Another gent who was on board during my time, J. B. Lynch, had also gotten his commission which he carried through to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Because of their age they wouldn't have had time to rise through the commissioned ranks a command, so neither was able to serve as an officer aboard a submarine and spent their remaining time on surface ships. Or, as I heard surface craft referred to on the weekend, targets.

I was keeping an eye out for Bob Kreeger, Mike Richards, Paul Gruber, Charlie Ames, or any other familiar face that might present itself, all to no avail. When the Ballone's room was ready I went back to the room with Joe to free up his luggage. On our return to the hospitality suite we learned that Mike Richards =l arrived with his wife, and he had a grand reunion with Dutch. He had only stopped in for a short while an left to freshen up. He did say that he'd be at the cocktail party that evening, so we looked forward to seeing him there.

On the ride from the airport in Providence to Mystic, we stopped at a restaurant (Bickford's) and had . substantial lunch, so there wasn't much desire for more food before the cocktail party. We went back to our rooms to shower and change, and got together again for the walk to the function room where the cocktail party would be held.

This was billed as a “No Host Cocktail Party”, which meant that you shouldn't look for anyone to organize anything. We were all on our own, and that's as it should be. There was a great comfortable feeling of A knowing everybody there even though most were on board Irex at times other than my own tenure. This feeling lasted throughout the weekend. As more faces became familiar, and strangers became friends, the mixture became as completely blended as cream does in coffee. Russian told me later into the weekend that one of his small fears was that guys would gravitate to former shipmates to the exclusion of others. The cliques never formed. Joe and I and Don Simpson did spend some early time together just getting caught up on each others activities, but once that was taken care of it was a case of everyone trying to make sure they didn't miss talking to everyone else there.

Mike Richards made his entrance with his lovely wife. Mike in a black suit and yellow tie appeared very dramatic, and rightly so. Since I last saw him, he had worked his way to a Ph. D. and was a retired professor of English Literature, of all things. Mike had some college time before he joined Uncle Sam's navy so I'm not surprised that he went back to school, only that he went as far as he did. We heard some great stories from his wife about how he was a great favorite of the students but not so popular with the administration. The students liked him because of his flamboyant style in the classroom (he would occasionally take unsatisfactory written work out behind his house, nail them to a tree and put a few rounds through them with a rifle). He displeased the administration because he always told them what was on his mind. A scary thought, from what I know of Mike.

I congratulated him on having earned the title of “Doctor”, but he waved it all away with a sweep of his hand and said, “All I had to do was to read the damn books.” Nothing to it, right?

We had the use of the function room until ten o'clock, and those of us who still hadn't had enough went back to the hospitality suite to extend the evening a bit. There was no lack of sea stories, and some of the land stories were even better. Dutch was at sea off the west coast when his boat suffered a compartment fire which damaged it enough to require putting into port in Seattle. According to Dell (now Mrs. Larch), he called her in San Diego and said, “Hey, if you want to get married you better get your ass up here right away): How could anyone refuse a proposal like that? Dell couldn't. And they've been married now for fifty-seven years. To put it into perspective, it was wartime and there were no guarantees about tomorrow.

Saturday was a day we could use as we wanted to. Originally, Russian had hoped to set up a tour of a nuclear boat and possibly the sub school as well. A recent Flotilla policy change precluded any such tours. Most of us decided to visit Nautilus, which is now set up outside the main gate as a museum. It has more significance to Dutch because he became COB on Nautilus when he left Irex in 1956. He was in that titled position when Nautilus steamed under the polar ice cap to become the first boat to ever do so. There are few, if any, places on the planet where no one has ever been. Until that cruise no human had ever been below the ice cap at the north pole in the four and a half billion year history of this third rock from the sun. At least none that I know of. I would have loved to have been on that cruise. Imagine, if you can, being among the first group of people to ever arrive at a certain point on the planet. It won't happen very often, if ever, again.

The visit to Nautilus was wonderful. I had been there before, about a week after it opened to the public, but the atmosphere was different this time. The topside watch recognized that we were part of a submarine group and asked questions about how it had been on an old diesel boat. He lit up even more when learned that Dutch had been COB on Nautilus in her younger days. Unfortunately, Dutch was pirated away by his wife before he could give us a personal tour of the boat, so we had to do it on our own. When the tour was completed we went through the Submarine Museum a few yards away.

The museum was a revelation. There were histories of many of the more famous boats from the Big War, and mock ups of the control room and canning tower of a Perch class boat similar to Irex. There were a few differences and it was fun trying to pick them out.

John Brazil was there with us, and has obviously been there before. Before we went into the museum, John showed us (Joe and Dorothy, Peg and me) some of the memorabilia he has collected over the years as he became more involved in the Sub Vets organization. He had pins, badges, emblems, and medals from every conceivable situation. John has a vest that is so heavy with these mementos that it almost takes two hands to hold it.

When we were going through the museum, John pointed out some of the things we shouldn't miss. He also added some information about some of the displays that wasn't on the info chart. Not anything scurrilous, just anecdotes he had picked up along the way. Very interesting gent. John asked us if we had been to the WWII Memorial in Groton. We hadn't. He said that he'd lead us there if we needed to be led (we did), and then would bring us to the Sub Vets Club not too far from the memorial. It sounded like a fine offer, so we accepted.

It was a short ride parallel to the Thames River that took us under the Gold Star Memorial Bridge and to the site of the memorial. The most prominent part of the display is the conning tower superstructure with all the masts—-radio, radar, periscope shears, etc.—-of a WWII submarine. A few yards away a granite monument, rectangular in shape, stands facing the conning tower. Two rows of black stone tablets reach out from each side of the monument like caressing arms trying to enclose the small restful park in front of them. Surrounding this small park are granite memorials of every boat that was lost in the war. On the face of each, tilted up at an angle to accommodate the viewer, is a profile of a submarine. Below that is inscribed the name of the lost boat, the date (if known) of the loss, and a count of the crew, telling if there were any survivors, whether they were rescued or became prisoners of war.

On the face of the main monument is inscribed:

Wall of Honor

In grateful memory of these submariners who died in the service of their country during World War II. They stand in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die so that freedom might live.

Their final resting places are known only to the almighty. Their family, friends, living shipmates, and future generations should know they will always be remembered. Walk softly, walk softly stranger. You stand on hallowed ground.

December 7, 1941-September 2, 1945

Side by side below the inscription are carved the dolphins and the combat patrol pin. On the reverse side of the monument, facing the Thames River is another inscription:


As the shipmates assemble
the ceremony unfolds.
They are here to pay tribute to men
on eternal patrol,
having made that last dive,
remembering them as they were then.
The flags are dipped
as the bell does toll.
Lost boats are called by name.
With heads bowed low,
each man praying alone.
Though silent
their thoughts are the same.
“It could have been me.”
Often times it's been said,
we were saddened to lose you,
good friend,
but we all knew too well
that war is hell and some lives
had to come to an end.
We never forgot you…
we always remembered the good times
as well as the bad.
And this is the reason
we have built this wall,
a memorial stone
that you never had.
When at this memorial
we gather to pay homage and tribute
to you.
We can look at the wall
and see each name
in this resting place
long overdue.

Robert H Moore, USN Retired

During the time we were at the memorial l watched several people read that inscription and not a single one did it with dry eyes. Not one. l thanked John Brazil for making sure we saw this tribute. It was an unforgettable part of the weekend.

Another thing that John wanted us to see was the Sub Vets hall in Groton. Not being members we couldn't go in unannounced, but John said he would be our sponsor for the visit. Dorothy and Joe, Peg and I went i to the compact building just a short ride from the memorial. The first floor hall was in use, and we passed to the lower level where the social gathering was in progress. Russian was there, and a few other guys from our reunion, along with a group of members who were just hanging out.

We had a beer and checked out the incredible collection of plaques representing most, if not all, boats past and present. All the plaques were not available to us because some were hanging in the upper hall where the meeting was in progress (Sea Robin guys if I remember correctly).

Our sit-down dinner was on tap this evening and we didn't want to cut it too close. Also, etiquette would suggest that as guests of John Brazil we don't overstay our welcome at the club. It was my impression that we were most welcome there and no one would have objected if we stayed for hours. But we didn't put it to the test, and we headed back to Best Western.

The hospitality suite was in full swing, so Joe and I stopped in for a visit. Peg went back to our room to start getting ready for the evening meal. Dutch was holding court, and Russian had returned before we got there and was egging Dutch on. Actually, anyone who said anything touched a nerve with Dutch and started him off on another story. Dutch's wife, Dell, was trying to get him to return to their room so they could start getting ready for the evening, but he was having none of it. Dell was starting to get upset, so I suggested she go to our room where Peg was waiting, and spend a few minutes with her while I try to get Dutch headed in the right direction. She agreed, so I called Peg on the house phone to let her know Dell was on her way.

I learned again what Dell already knew: If Dutch isn't ready to go, he ain't going! It was only after just about everyone else left that Dutch joined me on the walk back to my room where his wife was waiting with steam coming out of her ears. When we entered the room, the first thing he said (before Dell had a chance to say anything} was, “Don't forget…you have to do my nails before we go to eat.” That cracked me up, and I think even Dell started to smile before she got it under control.

The Larches headed for their room and I got ready for the evening. By the time I got to the dining hall which had been set up for us, they were in the process of taking group pictures. Some included the wives and some were strictly crew members. None, up to this point, included Dutch or Dell. I called their room to say we were holding up the process until they got there. They said they were hurrying, and I passed the word to the photographer, who was getting impatient. He only waited a minute or two before appealing to Russian for an answer to his problem. Russian would have liked to wait, but considering the whole situation with people and cameras and lights at the ready, he said, “Take the picture.” And they did. Dutch and Dell arrived before the shoot was completed and did get in some of the shots so all was well with the world. Let the meal begin.

The meal was fine, and in any restaurant where it might have been sewed, it would have been high quality all by itself. But in the setting where we were enjoying the meal, it was heavenly. The prime rib was substantial and well prepared, but the ambiance made the meal. Peg and I shared the table with Joe and Dorothy Ballone, Don Simpson and his wife, Jane (who had a very successful night at Foxwood casino last night…she broke even), and two other couples. I later learned that the gent sitting on my left was a former CO of the boat. It never came up in our conversation, and it really didn't make any difference. We were all on a level playing field on this night.

Long after the meal had been completed and most of the tables had been cleared, a few of us were sitting around and trying to remember that one more story that the group could enjoy. For most of the group this was the break-up dinner and they'd be leaving tomorrow morning. Paul Whelan's wife approached our table. Paul was an engineman who was on board sometime around ‘48 and *49. We had enjoyed an extended conversation with the Whelans earlier in the evening and I thought she was just coming by to say goodnight to our group. She did that, and then she added, “I wasn't going to say anything about this because I didn't want to put a damper on anything, but I have to. We lost our daughter during the past year, and Paul just hasn't been the same since. Of course, I could handle it O.K. (said with a wink, as her eyes tilled up), but I haven't seen him this happy since our loss, and I wanted to thank you all for making it happen.” For me, anyway, that identified what this weekend meant to all of us who shared it.

I told Mike Richards how pleased I was to see him and Mrs. Richards sitting with Dutch and Dell Larch at dinner. During Mike's time on board he had a somewhat adversarial relationship with Dutch. Mike was a free spirit and Dutch was trying to help him fit in somewhere on board. Mike surprised me by saying, “The man saved my life.” He went on to tell how the Larches had him at their home many times, and how Dutch was never angry or hostile, but just kept talking to him and giving him lots of what turned out to be very good advice. Mike never really conformed, and still doesn't, but he has carved out quite a niche for himself. Ph.D. indeed. Who'd a thunk it?

The state of Connecticut has some tight regulations concerning how evenings such as this should be run. As the time limit on our use of the function room approached, we were given notice by the function manager. Basically what she said was, “You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.” Our choices were to return to our room (or someone else's), or go back to the hospitality suite. Since there was still some beer at the H.S,, that was the choice of many.

Since many people were planning to be on the road early in the morning the crowd was a lot thinner than at earlier visits to Wally's Watering Hole, but those who lingered for a while made up for those who were missing. .

Although no one wanted the weekend to come to an end, it eventually had to. We all made it back to our rooms without incident, and 911 was never a consideration.

I made it a point to tell Russian how much I appreciated all that he had done to make the weekend what it was, which was great. He confessed that it was a labor of love, and I believe him.

Since Joe and Dorothy's return flight was for Monday morning, we had booked ourselves into Best Western for an extra night. That way we'd have Sunday to catch up on anything we wanted to talk about without having it slip by in the activity of the reunion. Most of the Irex group left early Sunday morning. Others, who didn't have a whole lot of traveling to do, were able to enjoy a more leisurely breakfast at the hotel.

Paul Gruber stopped by for an all too brief visit during breakfast, but I don't think he ever sat down. He had things to do and apparently not much time to do them. I would have liked to have spent some more time with him. He looked great, and seemed well and happy. May he always be.

We had checked at the hotel and found that Saint Patrick's church, in Mystic, had mass at eleven o'clock which was most convenient for us. We had a chance to relax for a while after breakfast and head out with plenty of time to find the church and get to mass on time.

When we got to the church we were pleased to run into the Paul Whelans and the AI Hahns. The church is very attractive and well lit, and has a great sound system which allows the priest to be heard quite clearly all through the building. The bad news is that on this day the priest didn't seem to be in a very good mood. He was drumming up business for the Bishop's Annual Collection and was berating the congregation for it's showing in the past. While he admitted that the parish gave more than their assessment, he said it was due to the tourists and not the parishioners. He just didn't seem happy about anything.

His mood was brought to our attention once again when Dorothy got a chewing out for not saying “Amen” loudly enough when she received communion. He spoke to her Mice before she said it with enough volume to satisfy him. This had another effect. When they got back to the pew after communion, Joe commented on Dorothy's encounter with the priest. And he laughed a little bit. This set Dorothy off. She started giggling…and couldn't stop. The more she tried to stop the giggles, the more the pew shook. Fortunately the mass ended before she got a loud “Yaaah-Haaa-Haaa” which might have set the celebrant off to new heights. We had a few laughs about it in the parking lot after mass, though.

Long after the congregation and the singer and the organist had left, the four couples from the Irex reunion were still standing in the parking lot rehashing the wonderful weekend we had shared. Eventually we wished each other well, and headed off hoping we could do it all again someday.

We and the Ballones spent the afternoon checking out every shop in Olde Mistick Village, and ended up having our evening meal at a local Friendly's. During the day we kicked around anything that came to mind, and never ran out of conversation. The laughs were many, and the feelings warm.

Peg and I had done all our packing on Sunday evening so there was no big rush on Monday morning. We > J; had set a departure time of nine-thirty for our trip to the airport in Providence. The flight out was at 11:55 and we didn't want to cut it too close.

We enjoyed a fine brealfast at Best Western, and were pretty much on schedule when we got on the Big I Road to head east. The ride took less time than expected, and we were in plenty of time for the flight. We . checked out all the features at the terminal, and finally had to part with our friends from upstate NY.

We watched the plane lift off and climb until it disappeared into a cloudless sky. What a weekend it had been. I had hoped for a lot, and I got so much more than I had hoped for. And Peg finally got to meet some of the characters I've talked about for more than four decades, and found out that they were all I said they were, and more. The warm memories I had shared with her over the years were borne out by the people who lived them with me, and she also found that the great affection I had for the Irex, my fellow crewmen, and the spirit of the boat was shared by all we met on the weekend.

I've said over the years that much of what I am today I owe to my time in the submarine service in general, and the Irex in particular. If only everyone could be as fortunate as I've been.

Thanks again, Russian, for a reunion I'll never forget.

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