Veteran Keebler earned his ‘dolphin,’ no regrets

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
Robert Keebler served as an electrician’s mate in the U.S. Navy.

OKEECHOBEE — Bob Keebler was born in Hughesville, Pa. He joined the Navy in 1966 while still in high school but through the 90-day deferral program so he could finish school before leaving for boot camp. In October, he went to the induction center at Wilkes-Barre, Pa., before heading to boot camp in Great Lakes, Ill. That was where he first began to think he had made a huge mistake, he said. “It was a cold place.”

Camp Dewey had two sides, one for boot camp and one for the training. After boot camp, he went to the training section, but he said it was interesting because many of the things they would normally do — fire training, obstacle course, etc. — they weren’t able to do because it was frozen. So, they didn’t do a lot of the training. They just did the classroom stuff. They didn’t do damage control which he said was when they put you in a ship’s compartment and they turn on the water, and there are holes everywhere. You have to plug up the holes, and you are very wet. It was so cold, the pipes were frozen so they couldn’t do that training. They couldn’t do the obstacle course because there was so much snow on it.

Here, Bob Keebler sports what they call a poopie suit. He is aboard a boomer.

At that time, there were not enough options to just close that camp for the winter. They only had San Diego and Great Lakes, he said. There was one in Florida, but it was used for the WAVES.

The point of basic, he said is to take these kids who think they are going to conquer the world and totally break them down and demoralize them and turn them into sailors, and it worked. Since he was designated for submarines, he had to have special dental work done. He said all the fillings he had done in high school had to be re-done because you have to have a certain type of filling on a submarine. He explained, in a sub, you encounter changes in pressure and your tooth will expand and contract at one rate, and the filling would expand and contract at another, and they would just pop out. They didn’t want people with terrible toothaches at the bottom of the ocean, he said.

When he first went in, his plan was to be an electronics technician, but the recruiter called him, and told him they had another program he was qualified for. It was a nuclear program, and he said he was interested. He ended up going to electrician’s mate A school, where they teach you the basic electrical, he said. One of the biggest lessons he learned during A school, he said, was that sometimes it is a good idea to volunteer. One day they were asked if anyone knew how to type, and he said he did. Everyone thought he was an idiot for volunteering that information, but after that, he spent his mornings typing up the plan of the day and drinking hot coffee and eating donuts while the rest of the guys were out there shoveling snow. “I was glad I volunteered that time. It was cold up there,” he said.

This is the Sand Lance, Bob Keebler’s boat. He is a plank owner.

After A school, he went to nuclear prototype in Ballston Spa, N.Y. He went to a nuclear plan on a destroyer and then to Bainbridge to take a nuclear physicist course. He said they actually took what would normally be a six-year course in six months. They went from trigonometry to calculus in four weeks. The reason they could get through it so quickly is they did not do any courses like philosophy or things like that. They only did the ones that pertained to the field of study. From there, he went to submarine school in New London, Conn.. He also had to take a fireman’s exam which he said he found very difficult because he knew nothing about it at the time. It took him about three attempts to pass that test, he said. The first year and a half he was in the service was all training. Then when he got to his submarine, they had a new program, and he had to train again, he laughed. It was a type of pilot program to see if guys who had gone through that program could qualify faster.

Bob Keebler said they always grew a “submarine beard” in the Navy. At least halfway through the patrol, everyone would start growing their beards to see who would have the best one by the time they were done. One lieutenant always waited until about two days before or maybe the week before it ended to start growing his, and he would always win! “You could literally watch his hair grow if you looked close enough,” he said. “He could come onto a watch clean shaven, and four hours later, he would have a 5 o’clock shadow!”

His first patrol was four months, and they wanted him qualified by the end of it. That means you can walk from the bow to the aft with your captain and he can ask you anything about anything on the boat, and you have to know the answer. He might ask, “What tank are you standing over?” or “What’s that valve for?” He might take you down to the torpedo room and tell you to show him how to fire a torpedo. “What are those lights for?” You have to know everything in case anyone is hurt or killed so you can do their job on the boat if you need to. Before long, Mr. Keebler got his “dolphin,” which is what they call becoming qualified on the boat.

There are about nine or 10 electricians on a boat he said. He first qualified as a roving electrician. He just walks around taking readings, he said. Then he qualified on the throttles, and he loved that. Then he qualified on the electric plant which is where you get to play with the electricity. You can shift it all over the place, he said. “We had the power to put the people who gave us a hard time in the dark.”

By the time he got to his third boat, they had a mission where they were tracking a Russian submarine, and they were within 25 yards of it. The Russian sub was opening its torpedo doors. “We didn’t know if they had discovered us and were going to fire torpedoes. We hoped they would, just so we could prove we could outrun their torpedo which we could. I had beat the record of going from dead in the water to all ahead flank by about four seconds, so I knew I could get us out of there fast, and the adrenaline was just pumping, but they were just holding drills,” he said.

Mr. Keebler says he has no regrets about his time in the service. He considers his sub crew like one big family. They would have done anything for each other and still would. “If churches got along as well as the crew of the submarine, we wouldn’t have half the problems,” said Mr. Keebler.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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