Torsk-y business: The fight over the USS Torsk

Volunteers in dispute with museum, vow they’re done working on sub

By Jenny Hottle, Daily Record Business Writer
July 3, 2014
Originally posted on

Gil Bohannon spent nearly every Saturday for 17 years aboard the USS Torsk, archiving photographs, books and other documents. Bohannon and a band of 25 to 30 volunteers, part of a larger group of mostly naval veterans, their families and historians, often averaged eight hours a day restoring the shark-painted World War II submarine docked near the National Aquarium.

These days, you’ll see tourists visiting the Torsk, but you won’t find Bohannon and his fellow volunteers.

The Torsk Volunteer Association members say they no longer feel wanted by Historic Ships, the maritime museum that oversees the submarine. And after years of devotion to the Torsk, they’ve stayed away since April.

For its part, Historic Ships is mystified, executive director Chris Rowsom said Wednesday.

The nautical standoff appears to center on volunteer paperwork requirements instituted a few months ago by the museum.

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Rowsom said the association’s members have not been allowed to return to service because they have failed to complete the museum’s new application process, which includes release forms, media releases and background checks. He said he discussed the requirements with members of the group before the policies went into effect.

Torsk Volunteer Association members said they were unaware of the changes.

“No one’s told us about that,” said Bohannon, a network engineer and a ship’s historian for the association.

Volunteers say they feel disrespected and unappreciated by the museum. And they are miffed about the need for the application after 17 years of loving and caring for the old submarine.

Previously, some members had their own keys to access the submarine, Bohannon said. But the museum, which also oversees three ships and a lighthouse, updated its procedures in April to better fit with legal and insurance requirements, Rowsom said.

“No one’s been told that they can’t volunteer. Members of the volunteer association are welcome at any time,” Rowsom said. “We wanted to know their names, their contact information. We are separate organizations working out some differences, which I’m sure will be taken care of and solved over time.”

The volunteer association, founded in 1997, aimed to help preserve the submarine’s history and build a community for the veterans who served on it. Mike Eacho, the group’s chairman, estimated that members have spent more than $36,000 on restoration projects and about 1,000 hours of volunteer work per year.

“We did it out of honor for the people who served on that submarine and other submarines, so the public sees it in a good light,” Bohannon said.

Over the years, volunteers have changed light bulbs, cleaned and painted rooms, repaired equipment and collected artifacts for display.

On Wednesday, about a dozen tourists passed through the submarine’s narrow corridors, stern to bow. A family stopped in front of 10-foot-long brown and green torpedoes. A father and his daughter counted the number of bunk beds in the crew’s berthing area. One visitor walking around the crew’s mess laughed at a poster reading, “There are two kinds of ships: submarines and targets.”

A few rooms away, a light bulb flickered in the crew’s washroom above a poison antidote locker. Outside, where a man and woman snapped photos of the Torsk with their smartphones, chips in the submarine’s gray body revealed rust.

Joan Murphy, who works for Historic Ships, sanded down the submarine’s newly replaced deck. She usually works on the USS Constellation’s restoration crew but was helping out with the Torsk for the day. She said she had not heard much about the volunteers who used to help the museum staff with restorations.

“It’s been three months without the regular maintenance on board,” Bohannon said. “We monitored everything on a regular basis, but we don’t know if they do.”

Historic Ships staff members are “highly qualified, and our board members are very committed to the stewardship of the fleet,” Rowsom said.

While the submarine was in use, it held about 80 crew members, including Kimberley Coleman’s father.

Coleman, a Connecticut resident, found a Reddit post earlier this week expressing volunteers’ frustration with the museum.

“I was just horrified to think that the volunteers were being prevented from doing what they love and what is such an important part of our history,” said Coleman, who sent a letter to Rowsom about the volunteer association.

“The good work that they’ve done for almost two decades has halted.”

Coleman’s father, William Coleman, served aboard the Torsk from 1944 to 1945. He dropped out of Dartmouth College and joined 17- and 18-year-olds to fight in the Navy.

Growing up, Coleman and her three sisters loved to hear their father’s stories of life on the submarine. He recalled close encounters with mines in the Tsushima Strait and rescue missions of Japanese sea merchants.

Coleman saw the Torsk in person for the first time shortly after 9/11, when her father and his friend ran a bell for submariners lost at sea. She felt a rush of emotions as she saw the cot where her father slept and the room where he loaded torpedoes.

The submarine represents the people who no longer are alive to tell their story, Coleman said.

“The volunteers are preserving a rare bit of history with all that it deserves,” Coleman said. “They’ve committed themselves, dedicated themselves. They have in their hearts and souls a love for the Torsk.”

Rowsom said Torsk Volunteer Association members can help out again by completing the required paperwork.

“A lot of the boat looks like it does because of the wonderful work that the Torsk Volunteer Association has done over the years,” Rowsom said. “We really appreciate the efforts of everybody who has donated their time.”

But Eacho said he doesn’t expect the volunteers to return, unless they can come back as a group. He said he wants Historic Ships to work with members as an association, not as individuals.

“No one has approached the museum, and as far as I know, none of the members will,” Eacho said. “We’ve told every single member that it’s up to them. But nobody wants to.”

Wikimedia Creative Commons photo. 

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