International tribute to the Hunley
By Brian Hicks - Charleston Post & Courier
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
The wreath comes every winter, along with detailed instructions that are no longer necessary.
The folks at Friends of the Hunley know what to do with it.
Every year on Feb. 17, Kellen Correia, the Friends' executive director, takes the poppy wreath to a quiet, tree-shaded corner of Magnolia Cemetery and lays it atop the graves of the Hunley's third crew.
The wreath has come every year since Lt. George Dixon and the other seven men in his crew were buried there in April 2004.
The date of this modest ceremony marks the anniversary of the first successful submarine attack in history, when the Hunley sank the USS Housatonic off Sullivan's Island in the darkest days of the Civil War. Many locals know the story by heart, but few probably realize what an international story the Hunley has become.
The poppy wreath, for instance, is a tip of the hat by a group of submariners from across the pond.
These men consider the crew of the Confederate submarine to be the pioneers of their field, their professional ancestors.
Brilliant by any stretch
The man who sends the wreath is Les Hanks, a World War II submarine veteran and chairman of the Portsmouth U.K. branch of the Submariners Association.
The guys in his branch call him the "Ancient Mariner" -- a nickname he wears proudly, noting that he's in his 87th year. Hanks says he's not alone in his enthusiasm for the first chapter in Charleston's storied submarine history.
"All the lads here took a very special interest in the recovery of the Hunley and the history of it," Hanks said earlier this week. "They were the original eight men who were responsible for the concept of submarine warfare. What they did was brilliant by any stretch of the imagination."
Hanks knows a bit about heroism in war himself. He served on battleships, sub escorts and a number of submarines during WWII. In 1942, he and six other teenage troops escaped from the Japanese in the Pacific.
When he uses words like "valor" and "bravery," he knows what he's talking about.
Hanks was in Charleston for the burial in 2004 and notes that he and his wife have visited each of the 50 states in this country (they saved the 50th, Hawaii, for their 50th wedding anniversary). Hanks says he was once talking to a fellow in a U.S. bar and the guy said to him, "You know more about American history than I do -- and I live here."
That guy was absolutely right.
A true tribute
Hanks and the Submariners Association take this yearly honor for the Hunley very seriously.
Sending a poppy wreath is a significant bit of symbolism -- the Portsmouth branch puts an identical wreath on the National Submarine War Memorial in London every year.
To this day, they begin each of their meetings with one minute of silence in memory of absent friends and submarines still on patrol, and Hanks says he always includes the Hunley crew among them.
It's a fine tribute. And it's refreshing to see the accomplishments of this group of 19th century sailors acknowledged separately from the politics that all too often pervades the story in this country.