'The Bell Never Rings of Itself'

'The Bell Never Rings of Itself'

Remembering a military life as Pearl Harbor Day approaches.

Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, lies more than 6,000 miles west of Alexandria. Sixty-two years ago that distant harbor became to the American's of that time what ground zero, New York City, has become to this generation — the epicenter of national unity and resolve.

Yet, six decades-plus later, there is a linkage between this Northern Virginia seaport city and that far off place where the United States came of age on the international stage. That linkage rests silently, as befitting the "Silent Service," in the courtyard of the Francis Hammond Middle School on Seminary Road.

And it also takes on human proportion in the person of Captain Norman Nash USN (Ret), who, as a young U.S. Naval Academy graduate, drew his first sea assignment as a Lieutenant Junior Grade officer aboard the newly commissioned U.S. Submarine Tunny.

Graduating in December 1941, Nash served a short administrative stint at the Academy and then reported to Submarine School in California. There were two graduations that year due to war demands. The second was in June.

The Tunney was launched in June 1942, and commissioned in September that same year. Nash and his first "boat" joined up at Pearl — in the shadow of the Battleship Arizona which still shields it 2,000-plus dead. The Tunny arrived there on December 12, 1942, one year and five days after the Japanese attack that brought the United States into World War II.

"When I went aboard, I had just finished sub school and was the junior officer," Nash explained in his home on Argyle Drive, Alexandria. As fate would have it Nash and the bell from his beloved Tunny now reside in the same jurisdiction.

AT THE FAR END of the courtyard resting high on a pedestal and backed by another ship's wheel is the bell of the original Tunney, SS-282. And what better place than surrounded by a school named for a U.S. Navy Corpsman, as the medical personnel of the Navy are known.

Hammond, Alexandria's only Medal of Honor holder prior to Rocky Versace, was killed on a Korean battlefield in 1953 while giving medical treatment to wounded Marines, according to Kris Clark, the school's present principal. "Although he was wounded himself he refused to leave his men. He then suffered a second fatal wound," she explained.

The school was named in his honor at its dedication in 1956. It was then a high school. The bell was acquired from the Department of the Navy by Mary Alice Fizer, a teacher at Hammond at that time, who served as the faculty sponsor for the Class of 1963. It was rung for the first time at their graduation ceremony.

"When this was a high school it was rung at special occasions and for special honors awarded to students, and at graduations," Clark explained. "There is an inscription behind the bell which reads "The Bell Never Rings of Itself."

THE BELL IS actually on loan from the Curator for the Department of The Navy in Washington, D.C. "We have to take a picture of the bell every year and send it to the Navy to prove we still have it and it is being displayed properly," she said.

The Receipt For Relics Loaned, signed by Fizer, specifically states, "I hereby agree to display with dignity and to maintain it in good physical condition. When it has served its purpose, I will notify the Curator and request disposition instructions from him."

"In 1964, it was stolen by some students from George Washington and dumped in the river. After it was recovered, and identified through Navy records, we placed it in the enclosed courtyard to keep it safe," Clark said.

Following his retirement from the Navy, Nash taught mathematics for 17 years at Alexandria's George Washington School. At that time, beginning in 1969, George Washington was a four-year high school. It, too, is now a middle school.

Nash learned of the bell's location from Mike Stegemiller, manager, Fairlington Sunoco Station, 1639 N. Quaker Lane, where he has been a long-time customer. "The Captain would come in and tell me of his Navy experiences and about the Tunny," Stegemiller said.

"I was taking a trip to Hawaii and Captain Nash gave me some books and told me about things to see at Pearl Harbor. I attended Hammond when it was a high school and was familiar with the bell, which they rang at football games. It was an honor to ring it," he explained.

"Then a friend of mine was on the Hammond website and came in a told me that the Tunny bell was in the courtyard. I told the Captain and he went to check it out. That's how it all came together," Stegemiller said.

BUILT AT THE Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, Calif., the Tunny was launched June 30, 1942. That commenced its three lives and metamorphosis from World War II fleet submarine to one of the first missile subs during the Cold War and, finally, performing reconnaissance missions during Vietnam, carrying underwater demolition teams and landing special forces raiders.

"The Tunny just happened to be short one officer when I got to Hawaii," Nash explained. "I felt very lucky to get assigned to a brand new boat." That relationship lasted throughout most of World War II.

Nash left the Tunny in 1945 to go to another newly constructed submarine. He went on the serve on five different boats and eventually commanded "The Catfish." This was followed by his becoming a Division Commander at Pearl Harbor. Today, Nash is active in the U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II and U.S. Submarine Veterans, Inc.

At their recent convention, Nash and his wife, Mary, were the guests of honor. "I'm the only officer of the Tunny's original crew who still attends the reunions," he said.

But, who ever knew that a submarine had a bell. What happens to it when the order to dive is given?

There was a bracket on the front of the submarines to which the bell was attached when the boat was in port, according to Nash. "When the Tunny left port and went into battle, the bell was put in storage," Nash said. "It was probably in some warehouse somewhere and just happened to end up here by coincidence."

Today, Captain Nash is very much alive, well and active. The bell rests peacefully in the courtyard within the shade of a caring tree. But, for the Tunny it all ended on June 19, 1970 — nearly 28 years to the day after she was launched.

On that day "she was disposed of as a torpedo test target somewhere off the Pacific Coast of California," Nash verified. Among his memorabilia is a picture showing the boat going to its final resting place stern first as if in salute to those that served upon her throughout the years and conflicts.