Navy submarine vets are a unique breed. Hardened by long tours of duty, spending months deep beneath the surface of the ocean sealed into a high-tech tin can, they share a strong camaraderie and a special pride of service.
Many see themselves and their modern-day brethren as sentinels, patrolling the seas to guard America's shores and protecting the Navy's surface fleet from attack.
It's that pride that has led a small group of veterans who are members of the Lehigh Valley base of the U.S. Submarine Veterans Inc. to launch an effort to build a Pennsylvania Submarine Memorial Park in Lower Macungie Township.
"Our memorial's mission is to motivate and educate our nation's future leaders on the importance of military service, emphasizing the United States Submarine Service, dedication to what is right, commitment to freedom," said Vince Flaherty, chairman of the local chapter of the submarine vets group.
The group needs to raise between $1 million and $1.2 million to make the memorial a reality and has established a fund, Pennsylvania Submarine Memorial Foundation, to accept donations.
If successful, the vets would bring the sail, planes, dorsal sonar dome and rudder of the USS Groton, a nuclear attack submarine launched in the early 1970s and decommissioned in 1997, to serve as the centerpiece of a memorial park.
The submarine parts won't be available until the end of the year, so Flaherty said the group has about a year to raise the funds for the project. It is working with developer David Jaindl to try to find a location for the memorial park, which they say needs about 2 acres.
Efforts are under way to build a memorial for submarine vets, similar to the one shown here at Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant, S.C., in Lower Macungie Township. (UNITED STATES SUBMARINE VETERANS, CONTRIBUTED PHOTO / January 27, 2014)
They'd like the park to be near a body of water, but it's not a deal-breaker, Flaherty said. In an interview, Jaindl wouldn't commit to a particular location.
"I'm going to continue to work with them to see what we can do," he said. "There is a good possibility. It has to be something that works for them."
The memorial would be the first of its kind in the state, designed after a similar installation at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant, S.C., that makes it appear as if the submarine is surfacing from underground.
Pennsylvania is home to some 8,000 submarine vets, Flaherty estimates, and several other types of submarine exhibits. The Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh has the USS Requin, and the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia has the USS Becuna. Both World War II subs can be toured.
Memorials to the USS Trigger and USS Wahoo, whose crews perished when the subs were sunk in battle during World War II, are in Philadelphia and Williamsport. And the Reading chapter of the U.S. Submarine Vets have erected a marker honoring fallen submarine vets.
The Lehigh Valley chapter, or base, as the chapters are officially known, originally targeted Allentown's Lehigh riverfront for the memorial, hoping to have the park near water. They were unable to find a suitable location, turning down the offer of property along the Lehigh behind the America On Wheels museum.
The location would have been hidden, difficult to access and wasn't large enough anyway, Flaherty said.
For Flaherty, who believes his five years in the submarine service paved the way for a lifetime of success, this mission is personal. He's retired from a career in printing, the owner of a printing and graphic design business he founded, helped by the electronics know-how he learned in the Navy.
"The Navy set me up to do that, and I will never forget that in my whole life," he said. "The Navy was very good to me."
Flaherty said he served on two submarines, the USS Irex and USS Sea Wolf, between 1959 and 1965.
Flaherty said the group plans to seek donations from individuals and corporations as well as financial support from the state and federal governments. He hopes to apply to Harry C. Trexler Trust of Allentown for funding.
Trexler Trust Executive Director Janet Ross said the trustees allocate grants to registered nonprofits every year for community projects that benefit Allentown and Lehigh County. She couldn't promise the submarine memorial would qualify for or receive financial support.
"Veterans memorials are very important, and I think that's a good thing," Ross said, adding that funding decisions are made by Trexler's five trustees.
A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, to whom Flaherty went for help, said the senator will do whatever he can to help the veterans find federal grant money for the project.
"Sen. Toomey's staff pledged to help the group find out what funding options might be available for this project and is still working with them," spokesman Steve Kelly said.