A helicopter swooped in low and dropped a bouquet of flowers onto the bow of the submarine USS Gudgeon when it sailed into Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in February 1958. The Gudgeon was completing an historic voyage – the first submarine to circumnavigate the globe. During its eight-month journey, the vessel marked another first – it was the first U.S. warship to pass through the Suez Canal.
Lee Stine, the man who navigated that submarine around the world, lives in Green Bank.
“I was on that ship for three years and, by the time I got off of it, I had held every officer’s billet onboard except captain,” he said. “For awhile, I was executive officer, which was unusual. But I was navigator and we were the first submarine of any nation to go around the world – and I was the navigator. So I navigated the first submarine to go around the world and I was very proud of that.”
For most of the voyage, Stine didn’t have high-tech navigation aids to help him steer the sub. Like ancient mariners, he used a sextant and the stars to chart the submarine’s course.
“I had no modern, electronic navigation aids – including LORAN (long range navigation). I was able to get only two good star sights and two sun sights in about 10 days worth of travel. We were 10 minutes off on our ETA and a mile to one side of our track when we got to Sombrero Island in the Caribbean. I was very, very happy about that.”
USS Gudgeon received a festive reception upon its return to Hawaii.
“They had a helicopter fly over and drop a big flower lei on us,” said Stine. “The fireboats were out with their nozzles spouting. Yes, we had a very nice welcome. We flew the flags of all the nations we had been to.”
Stine graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy in 1951 with a commission in the Naval Reserves. He requested an active duty assignment and went into the Navy the same year. He served in a variety of demanding positions on surface ships, submarines and land.
On assignment as a sub commander in the Mediterranean in the early 1960s, Stine had a brush with royalty.
“The Christmas and New Year holidays, we spent in Monaco,” he said. “Her Serene Highness Princess Grace invited me and the skipper of another submarine to Christmas Eve in the castle. We went to midnight mass with the royal family and then to the castle to partake of a late-night supper.
“My recollection of Princess Grace was she was quite well along with her pregnancy. She was a very tall woman. She was wearing horn-rimmed glasses and she was gorgeous.”
A much less glamorous assignment followed for the young naval officer. In 1966, the Navy assigned Stine as Chief Staff Officer of Task Force 116 in Binh Thuy, South Vietnam. From a headquarters on a U.S. air base, Lieutenant Commander Stine helped command a fleet of 120 river patrol boats.
“We patrolled everywhere from the mouth of the Mekong River up to the Cambodian border,” he said. “We also patrolled the area around Saigon and down the river from Saigon.”
Not content sitting in an air conditioned headquarters, Stine often went out on dangerous patrol boat missions.
“We had to duck a couple of times,” he said. “Believe it or not, the Mekong River is a very weird place. The shoreline is solid foliage. I remember one night, we were cruising maybe about 150 to 250 yards offshore and came under small arms fire. We’d been drifting, so we started the engines and headed upriver. We eased back down and tried to draw fire again. That .50 caliber machine gun was like a 16-inch gun, as far as the Delta was concerned, four thousand yard range. But they didn’t bite.”
Stine’s next job in Vietnam was an admiral’s right-hand man, where he traveled around the country, gathering information. Stine spent a total of 13 months in Vietnam and earned a Bronze Star for valor and a Navy Achievement Medal for valor.
After retiring from the Navy in 1971, Stine went to work for the same shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, where he had worked as a kid – the same shipyard from which his dad had retired. After Stine retired from that job, he still yearned for the sea. He got a license and operated a crew boat in the the Gulf of Mexico for five years.
Finally, wife Dixie told him it was time to settle down. She was fond of West Virginia and the couple moved to Green Bank in 2005. Relaxing in his historic home, Stine reflected on what veterans bring to a community.
“If he’s a typical veteran with a significant amount of military experience, he’s had enough life experiences that he can, pretty much, judge right and wrong, truth and falsehood,” he said. “He has a sense of decency. I think they are a significant portion of our civilization – with the maturity and the knowledge that’s necessary to be a productive and good person.
“I don’t say that all veterans are good persons and none of them ever get into trouble. But the same is true of any group of people. I think veterans are more aware of consequences of what they do than other people.”
Stine said veterans face unique problems.
“They don’t like mickey mouse,” he said. “They have a tendency to look for solutions to problems, rather than create them. None of us really like frustration and sometimes, veterans feel very frustrated by the way that things happen. I think that veterans tend to be a little more productive than their civilian counterparts.
“You can say what you will. People are going to be individuals. The individual, who comes out with a hash mark on his sleeve or an insignia on his shoulder, might be no better than anybody else. But I happen to have a lot of confidence in him. And I think you do, too.”
Geoff Hamill may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org