CORONAVIRUS

Navy vet: Think staying home is hard? Try submarine life

Kevin Kilkenny is shown in the galley of the submarine where he served as a Navy yeoman during the Vietnam War. If you t
Kevin Kilkenny is shown in the galley of the submarine where he served as a Navy yeoman during the Vietnam War. If you think sheltering at home is tough, try living on a submarine, says Kilkenny, now 71. (Submitted)

Vietnam veteran Kevin Kilkenny, 71, chuckles when he hears folks talk about the challenge of staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Kilkenny, 71, knows isolation: He served on a submarine during the Vietnam War.

He remembers having no personal space, no windows and sleeping in one of 36 bunks stacked four high.

And that was for 64 days under water in the USS Haddock, where there was no such thing as social distancing.

A California native, Kilkenny moved to Illinois City, Ill., an unincorporated community across the Mississippi River from Muscatine, because his wife, Doris, has family in Illinois.

After two years of junior college, Kilkenny joined a Navy Reserve Unit in the early 1970s and spent two years of active duty.

“I figured I had a choice. I could serve in Vietnam and get shot at, or serve on a submarine and not let anybody know where I was,” he said.

“The hard part is because I was on a nuclear sub” — 275 feet long, full of equipment and people. “There was no isolating yourself from people. Everywhere you went, there was someone next to you.”

There was no TV on the submarine and, of course, no internet.

“There wasn’t much of anything to do except do your job and sleep.”

Quarters were very tight, he said.

“You walked down a passageway, and you’d go stomach to stomach as you walked by each other. You couldn’t do a shoulder-to-shoulder.”

He only looked out a periscope to view the world once during his 64-day mission.

“We were on anti-submarine and anti-ship missions,” he said. “We followed Russian nuclear-missile submarines to be behind them in case they were ever in a position to fire weapons.

“We saw other ships and followed them. We were sufficiently far ahead in technology, for the most part, they never knew we were there. They had noisy submarines that were easy to follow, while ours were very quiet and hard to find.”

The first year he was on board he spent his time learning every system on the boat so he could quality for his “dolphins” — a pin indicating a sailor is qualified in submarines.

Those who qualified could enjoy movie night.

The primary way to pass the time, he said, was sleeping. “If you were up, you were working.”

After being out of sea, Kilkenny could look at his watch and see it was 12 o’clock. “But I didn’t know whether it was day or night,” he said.

“The monotony and the boredom just droned on and on,” he said.

The food was adequate, he said, though “you didn’t have anything fresh after a month … actually, after three weeks. Everything was dried, powdered, canned, frozen.”

At the end of his 64 days, he remembers cracking the hatch, emerging from the highly filtered air inside and finding “the outside world really stinks. ... It’s amazing how much odor there is, especially in a shipyard.”

His skin was about the color of a sheet of paper and he got a sunburn after a topside watch.

He’s been looking back on his experience during the COVID-19 restrictions.

“It’s not a matter of is it hard or not, he said. “It’s simply part of the job.

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“It makes me laugh that people have a hard time staying inside. You have windows to look out. You have books. You have TV and the internet. ... It’s not a great sacrifice.”

His advice during coronavirus?

“Keep busy. Find a book to read,” he said. “If you have to go out and do something, maintain your six feet from people.

“And live your life. We’ll get through this. That was pretty much the attitude of being out at sea.”

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.