22 November 2016
Disneyland calls itself the happiest place on Earth, but Pier 8 at the Naval Submarine Base New London had the edge for a few hours Tuesday as the USS Dallas arrived home from an eight-month deployment and gleeful children, wives and girlfriends wrapped their arms around dads, husbands and boyfriends.
"Daddy," one young boy said with a mix of shock and joy as he spotted his father walking toward him. A young girl, her front teeth missing, smiled broadly as she spotted her dad.
The joyful reunions were the point of Tuesday's gathering at the sub base, but since it's the Navy it was no free-for-all. First, the boat had to be secured to the dock.
Then a customs enforcement officer had to look things over. Then the garbage had to removed.
Then it was time for crew to reunite with loved ones.
The cruise that ended Tuesday is very likely the last for the submarine, scheduled to be decommissioned in 2017. The Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine joined the fleet in 1981 and is the second oldest Los Angeles-class sub still in service. It was made famous in the Tom Clancy 1984 debut novel "The Hunt For Red October," and the 1990 movie based on the book.
"It's kind of amazing how well these ships are built," said Dallas Capt. Jack Houdeshell. "At 35 years ... Dallas is still going strong and met all the requirements of what our commander wanted us to do."
As Dallas approached the sub base at Groton, first passing the Electric Boat shipyard where its construction began in 1976, horns sounded. The first to blast a greeting was the Nautilus, the Navy's first nuclear-powered submarine and now a museum moored next to the sub base. Other submarines in port sounded their horns as the Dallas got closer.
Following Navy tradition, the first crew member off the boat was Chief Petty Officer Eammon Sirhal, who would be meeting his 5-month-old daughter, Emma, for the first time. She was born about two months after the Dallas sailed from Groton.
Sirhal walked from the gangway and his wife, Kate, carrying Emma, walked from the end of the pier, where other family members waited. Cheers went up as the couple got closer, then Sirhal hugged his wife and took his daughter's tiny hand into his. "There she is," he said.
Sirhal said he'd seen photos of his daughter via email, but Tuesday was special. "Now I finally get to meet her," he said. The couple settled on Emma's name before she was born and before Dallas departed April 6.
Lisa DeGraff of Mystic had her 16-month-old daughter, Hannah, and her in-laws, John and Beverly DeGraff, with her to await the arrival of her husband, Chief Petty Officer Sean DeGraff.
When he left, Lisa DeGraff said, Hannah wasn't crawling. Now she's a toddler who is constantly on the move. "He has no idea what he's coming back to," she said with a grin.
While at sea, Sean DeGraff attained the rank of chief, something his mother said had been a life goal. "Since he was 8 years old, that's all he's talked about," she said. "I want to be a Navy chief."
Where'd he get the idea? Both of his parents are retired Navy chiefs.
Becoming a chief is a big deal, Beverly DeGraff said. Her son will now be a manager and guide young sailors as they go about their work.
When submarines go to sea, crew members have limited contact with family. There's sporadic email from the sub and phone calls when the submarine visits a port.
Three months after the Dallas sailed, Petty Officer Jaron Saunders was emailing his mother-in-law, Andriette Bonds of Hartford, to let her know what he wanted for Thanksgiving dinner. The Dallas was due home a month ago, but then its deployment was extended. Saunders said he was grateful to get home in time for the holiday.
His wife, Teonna Saunders of Hartford, was barely able to contain her excitement as she awaited the sub's arrival at the pier.
"I just need him to hurry up and get to me," she said. "I want to hug him." Teonna Saunders was joined at the pier by her mother and sister, Ahjah Gamble, also of Hartford.
Bonds said her son-in-law, a cook aboard the Dallas, will get his wish and have macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes and collard greens at Thanksgiving dinner. He also won't have to cook, she said.
During its final deployment, the Dallas served in the Central Command area, which includes the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, and sailed about 37,000 nautical miles. Houdeshell said he could not talk about what missions the boat performed.
While at sea, its 132-man crew had port calls in Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Scotland and France.