Lexington County submarine veterans hold solemn memorial for lost brother before Veterans’ Parade
Lexington, SC (Paul Kirby) - Veterans of the US Navy's Submarine Service are a very special breed. Like all military veterans, they are proud of their service and stand together as brothers after they’ve returned to civilian life. They are quick to point out that submariners are the smallest group of sailors by number that make up the United States Navy. They also have the highest fatality rate per capita of any other naval force.
According to Jeff Muniz, a retired submariner who gave 30 years of his life serving his country, submariners make up about 1% of the US Navy’s sailors. Being a submariner is also an assignment that requires sailors to volunteer to join their ranks. No one is assigned to serve on a submarine. Each sailor volunteers for this assignment when they join the elite group of men who dive below the ocean’s waves in the name of peace through strength.
Muniz is now the base commander of the Palmetto Base of the Submarine Veterans. Sunday afternoon, those veterans gathered at the grave of Robert Franklin Gibbs, a submariner who died on May 23, 1939 at the age of 34. Gibbs was from Lexington and was the son of William Edward Gibbs and Maggie Barrett. He was married to Milania Borisovna "Betty" Subeskio whom he married while in China. Robert "Robbie" Gibbs died at sea off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the USS Squalus submarine tragedy.
The sinking of the Squalus was an accident that occurred as the crew was training. According to Muniz, it was later determined that a valve was simply in the wrong position and that caused the boat to go down. Gibbs was survived by his wife and the couple had no children. His body was returned to Lexington and he was buried at St. Stephens Lutheran Church just off Main Street. There, his unique headstone with a carved granite submarine atop it makes it clear that he was a proud submariner when he died.
Each year, the members of the Palmetto Base of the Submarine Veterans gather at Gibbs’ gravesite to honor all the brothers they've lost throughout the years. The boats lost and the men are many. For each that has gone down, a bell is rung an the name of the boat and the number of men lost is read aloud. Each submariner there knows he is blessed that through good engineering, great training, good leadership, and teamwork he was one that returned to the surface of the ocean to be reunited with his loved ones. So many others were not so blessed.
The men of the Palmetto Base care for Gibbs‘ grave and marker to honor his memory and service every year. Atop it are coins. This is a military tradition with each coin representing a different thing. According to Wikipedia, a coin left on a headstone lets the deceased soldier's family know that somebody stopped by to pay their respects.
If you leave a penny, it means you visited. A nickel means that you and the deceased soldier or sailor trained at boot camp together. If you served with the service member, you leave a dime. A quarter is very significant because it means that you were there when that soldier or sailor was killed. Many coins are atop Gibbs’s headstone including one quarter left by someone who was so close, but made it through.
Muniz said that the Palmetto Base’s members are growing older now. One just recently passed. Still, the men that remain have a unique bond. They all served on a boat that was built to sink and then resurface again.
If you get the opportunity, stop by the cemetery at St. Stephen’s Church on North Main Street in Lexington. Gibbs’ grave is hard to miss. It’s the only one with a submarine on top. If you’re a veteran, leave a penny or perhaps another coin. If not, say a prayer for all those men that are currently somewhere around the globe deep beneath the sea. They are waiting and watching. They are listening for a noise, a ping, the sound of an engine or the propellers of a ship or another sub. They are there hidden deep below the waves to ensure that each day, Americans can still live free and are safe to exercise their freedoms as they wish.