Apr 7

Honoring Soviet Submarine Disaster's Victims, Survivors

Sunday, April 7, 2019 12:01 AM

By

On 7 April 1989, the Soviet K-278 Komsomolets—a Project 685 (or in NATO-speak “Mike” class) submarine—sank, claiming the lives of 42 sailors on board. On the 20th anniversary of the loss, as a U.S. naval attache based in Moscow, I traveled by train north to St. Petersburg to represent the U.S. Navy at ceremonies to honor those who died as well as those who survived the disaster.

Mike-class submarine (Royal Norwegian Air Force)

Mike-class submarine (Royal Norwegian Air Force)

A service was first held at Nikolsky Cathedral, better known as the Sailor’s Cathedral, where the echoes of the singing and chants swung back and forth from the Orthodox priests to the choir and back again. Whiffs of incense filled the air, adding to the sights and sounds of the beautifully ornate church. One could not help but be moved at this truly mariners’ cathedral, especially while reflecting on the wall plaques listing sailors lost at sea.

Cathedral Plaque (Courtesy of the Author)

Nikolsky Cathedral plaque (Courtesy of the author)

I met my host, the president of the Submariner’s Club of St. Petersburg, after the church service at the cemetery where some of the Komsomolets’ crew were laid to rest. We first drank some vodka, as is custom in Russia, then walked past paying our respects at the K-141 Kursk submarine memorial and the gravesite where President Vladimir Putin’s parents are buried before moving on to the location of the Komsomolets memorial ceremony.

Introduction outside the cathedral (Courtesy of the Author)

Introduction outside the cathedral (Courtesy of the author)

As a procession lined up along a cemetery road, I joined in behind two Russian Federation Navy sailors carrying the U.S. Navy’s wreath to be placed at the gravesite. I held two carnations to place on the grave, as is the tradition in Russia.

Memorial Procession (Courtesy of the Author)

Memorial procession (Courtesy of the author)

Throngs of people from the procession clustered near the gravesite. I then stood at the grave with my host and saluted. I held my salute on a 42-second count in honor of the 42 Komsomolets sailors who died, most from hypothermia in the freezing waters of the Barents Sea, 100 nautical miles southwest of Bear Island, Norway.

Gravesite Salute (Courtesy of the Author)

Gravesite salute (Courtesy of the author)

Memorial (Courtesy of the Author)

Komsomolets Memorial (Courtesy of the author)

Later at a dinner, surviving members of the Komsomolets’ crew, their families, and the families of those lost joined together to remember. The many poignant stories of this naval and human tragedy were captured best when the children of the dead gathered for a photograph.

Surviving crew members (Courtesy of the Author)

Surviving crew members (Courtesy of the author)

Children of crew members (Courtesy of the Author)

Children of crew members who died in the disaster(Courtesy of the author)

Because I was the only active-duty uniformed naval representative present, I rose and spoke at the dinner. I noted the honor in serving one’s country and that those who died were doing just that.

Dinner remarks (Courtesy of the Author)

Dinner remarks (Courtesy of the author)

An attaché serves many roles in the country to which he or she is accredited to, but representing the United States at memorial events such as those on 7 April 2009 will not be forgotten.

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