Veterans Day like 'a brotherhood'

EVART — Plaques, photos and memorabilia line a section of walls in the Evart home of Dan Howe. The space has been dubbed the "Wall of Heroes," and tells a large portion of the story of his life while serving in the U.S. Navy, beginning in July 1973.

The Chippewa Hills School District alum joined the military following his graduation that year.

"I originally wanted to be a Marine, a big tough guy," Howe said. "But there was a guy who told me nuclear power was a big thing and said I should go into the nuclear power program. The Navy office was open and the Marines office wasn't, so I walked into the Navy office and said I would join the Navy only if I could be in the nuclear power program."

Although he was told less than 1 percent qualify to be a part of the program, he took a test and passed. Joining the Navy, he enrolled in six months of school and six months of training at a nuclear power plant before he officially became a nuclear reactor operator. The time in school, however, was a huge challenge, as it was a lot to learn in a short amount of time.

"If you can't digest it fast enough, you'll fail," Howe added. "It was by far the hardest school I've ever been to in my life. We went through almost a couple years of college in six months, and along with that I was working from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. at night for over a year. It took me about two and a half years to get through the whole nuclear power program until I got to my first submarine."

Submarines became Howe's world for the next 13 years, working as a reactor controls technician and reactor operator and as a watch supervisor on a number of tours on fast attack submarines, which is a submarine specifically designed for the purpose of attacking and sinking other submarines, surface combatants and merchant vessels, and on missile submarines.

"It's hard to describe being in a 200 foot tube," he said. "For two and a half months you don't see the sun, don't breathe fresh air. You don't take milk to sea, you don't take vegetables. You take canned goods and frozen meat and you make your own bread."

Howe said some sailors become stir-crazy or claustrophobic during their time in a submarine, even when testing is completed before launch. Some cannot handle the isolation in such a confined space, he added.

"You're starved for information and you have no idea what's going on in the outside world other than what news-grams or family-grams come in," he said. Now, there are a little more electronics to talk to family, but that isolation was very hard to deal with at first. Then you find how to deal with it and put home out of your mind. It'll eat you alive otherwise."

Often, he would only see his wife 10 days in one year, with those days being at different intervals.

"When I got married, I had duty on Friday, got married on Saturday, they gave me Sunday off and had duty on Monday," he said. "When I came back on Tuesday they said we had to leave out to sea. So I'd been married over a month and only seen my wife for two days."

Many details about Howe's life on submarines is classified, including at what depth they traveled, information about tracking Russian subs and specifics regarding the Cold War. However, he said the novel called "Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage," by Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew, and Annette Lawrence Drew, revealed some secrets, including secrets about submarine missions in which he took part.

His path in the Navy likely saved his life, Howe said, because his position as a nuclear reactor operator meant he would not be sent into Vietnam as a solider or as a Seal, even when he stepped forward to volunteer for the job.

"I could have gone over there, and who knows, I might have come out, but I'd have put myself at risk doing that," he said. "So being in the technical field kind of protected me."

Working in the Navy's nuclear power program also helped him advance quickly. In 1987, he became an officer and was moved from submarines to aircraft carriers.

He served on the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman as a plank owner, a member of the crew of a U.S. Navy ship when that ship was placed in commission, and the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt. Moving up in ranks, he became a Senior Chief in charge of the engineering department.

"The creature comforts on an aircraft carrier were great," Howe said. "You had food, you had mail, you could transfer on and off and go on leave if you had to. It was very nice. I had a regular bed that was bigger and lot more cushioned than the submarine racks."

When conflict did break out during his time in the service, Howe was stateside. However, on Sept. 11, 2001, he found himself in the middle of a military lock down while an executive officer on a floating dry dock at New London, Conn., which is a few hundred miles north of New York City.

During the emergency, weapons were out, sandbags were stacked to make barricades and military personnel were on high alert.

"It's hard to describe the feeling," Howe said of that day. "Training kicked in, you go into automatic mode and think, 'we have to do this, we have to do that, we have to send the people home who don't belong here and start getting everything together.'"

After 32 years in the military, Howe retired with the rank of commander and with many service medals, awards, achievements and honors. This month, Howe celebrates his ninth year as a retired member of the Navy. Now, he works at the Reed City Yoplait plant alongside his brother, who also served in the Navy beside him on two submarines. Howe also is the serving chaplain at the Evart VFW Post No. 7979 and helps organize events hosted by the post.

For him, Veterans Day is similar to the feeling of being a part of a club or fraternity.

"It's kind of like a brotherhood," Howe said. "You don't remember the causes, you talk about things that happened and people you'll remember forever, those who etched a memory in your mind."