Submarine veterans and the city on Wednesday unveiled a memorial to a little known slice of history from World War II.
The memorial in Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park tells of 28 submarines that passed through Joliet on their way from the Manitowoc Ship Building Co. in Wisconsin to the Pacific Theater of the war.
The movement of submarines down the Des Plaines River and other segments of the Illinois River System is not widely known now. It was not commonly known then either, said John Connon, a Morris resident who is commander of United States Submarine Veterans Chicago Base 2023.
“Most of it was at night,” Connon said, noting that the U.S. Navy did not want potential spies along the long submarine route to know they were headed for battle. “They wanted it as low key as possible. That’s why a lot of people don’t remember them.”
Submarine veterans want their unique contribution to the war effort remembered now. And, that’s why the monuments are being erected along the Illinois river route.
Our nation’s naval submarine service in World War II made up only 2% of the United States Navy fleet operating in the Pacific. However, they sank over 50% of Japanese shipping. This great accomplishment was overshadowed by the loss of 52 submarines and 3,000 officers and men.”— John Connon, commander of United States Submarine Veterans Chicago Base
Two memorials were previously erected in Morris and Chicago. Joliet is the third. And the submarine veterans would like to see more in Illinois river towns.
Speakers at the unveiling ceremony remarked on the importance of remembering not only the role of submarines but the contributions made by soldiers, sailors and other Americans during World War II.
Those willing to risk their lives to save the world from fascism and imperialism were honored.
Connon said four of the submarines that came through Joliet were sunk, which cost the lives of 330 officers and enlisted men.
But the passage of the Manitowoc submarines also tells the story of the American worker’s role in winning the war, said State Rep. Larry Walsh Jr., D-Elwood, who noted his membership in the International Association of Machinists union.
“Monuments like this remind us of a truth that we sometimes forget: that the war was not just won on the battlefield but in factories across America,” Walsh said.
He described the World War II workers at the Manitowoc Ship Building Co. as “craftsmen, each contributing to a vital piece of history.”
Speakers at the ceremony included Mayor Terry D’Arcy, who noted that that former Mayor Arthur Schultz, now deceased, was a Navy veteran who served on submarines.
“The addition of this memorial to our existing memorial in Joliet will continue to honor and show our appreciation for veterans,” D’Arcy said.
The submarine memorial is located in the section of the park south of Jefferson Street where a war memorial already exists.
The location just off the Des Plaines River will allow visitors to imagine what it might have looked like as the submarines moved through the city in the dark of night.
To imagine the scene accurately, Connon said, people should also know that the submarines moved down the river without the familiar periscopes that are a prominent feature of any submarine. Periscopes and antennas were not attached until the submarines reached New Orleans, so they could pass undamaged under any bridges on rivers along the way, Connon said.
The submarines after moving through Joliet went on to the Illinois River and then the Mississippi River. New Orleans was the entry point to the Gulf of Mexico as they continued through the Panama Canal and into the Pacific Ocean on their way to war.
“It was amazing the ingenuity our country had in World War II,” Connon said, noting another contribution the memorial could have to those who visit and ponder the what transpired back then.
The memorial unveiling was attended by about 20 submarine veterans, who weren’t in the naval battles of World War II but had their own stories to tell about serving underwater in the Navy.
“There isn’t an aircraft carrier that goes anywhere without a submarine underneath it, behind it, or in front of it to this day,” said Tom Ramsay, who came from Pearl City, which is west of Galena, to see the unveiling of the memorial.
Ramsay served on submarines from 1966 to 1985.
Raymond Sharer, a Navy veteran from 1964 to 1983, served on submarines used for surveillance and others equipped with nuclear missiles if needed to defend the United States.
“We called them ‘41 for Freedom,” Sharer said of the nuclear ballistic submarines that have since been reduced to a fleet of 14.
Fortunately for Sharer and the world, he never saw any action. But Sharer said much of his experience was drilling so the submarines would be ready if needed.
Connon in his remarks at the ceremony pointed to the impact of submarines in World War II and the sacrifice of those who served.
“Our nation’s naval submarine service in World War II made up only 2% of the United States Navy fleet operating in the Pacific,” Connan said. “However, they sank over 50% of Japanese shipping. This great accomplishment was overshadowed by the loss of 52 submarines and 3,000 officers and men.”