Frank Rusch signed up to join the U.S. Navy right after his 17th birthday in 1947 while living in the south side of Chicago. He still had to get his father’s signature to allow him to join.
“That took a couple of weeks but I convinced him I was leaving one way or the other, the Navy or somewhere. So he figured I would be better off in the service than just out getting in trouble somewhere, so I went in the Navy,” Rusch said.
He was sent to Great Lakes Naval Base on the north side of Chicago and his great adventure in the military started 40 miles from home.
The Navy wanted him to be an aviation radioman and he went to school to learn the jot and the codes were not a problem, but when it came to schematics and electronics, that didn’t go well.
“It’s never been my bag and that didn’t work out,” Rusch said.
He was shipped to Jacksonville, Florida and worked in the ammunition part of the Naval base there and then went to an aircraft carrier. When he was docked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, he began talking to a couple of submariners and when he found out how good their food was he decided that was for him.
The next morning he went to the personnel officer and put in a request for submarine duty.
“A couple or three weeks later, I got a postcard saying ‘you’ll be getting your orders for sub school’, so I was off to submarines and I found a new home,” Rusch said. “It was not the Navy I knew at all, it was still the leftovers of the World War II guys and the old diesel boats and everything was laid back, compared to life on a carrier which was by the book, totally.”
That’s just what he had been looking for. Rusch spent 20 years as a torpedoman on submarine.
“We used to kid the rest of the crew that the only reason they exist is to get us to where we’re going to shoot these things. Of course the war (World War II) was over and we didn’t shoot them,” Hhe said.
But they did a lot of practice and during the Cold War their basic job was reconnaissance going out and looking for Russian subs in the North Atlantic coming over from Europe. He felt they were performing an important service for the nation’s security.
Anytime a sub deployed to the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean or the Pacific, they would go out as full wartime patrols with a full load of torpedoes, radio silence and treated it as if there was a war on. Rusch said during the Cold War there were several run-ins between American and Russian subs and probably some Chinese subs where the boat would come back damaged after a collision.
“But it’s all strictly confidential and none of it ever made the papers,” he said.
One frightening incident happened when Rusch was on a sub that had a submerged collision with another Navy sub while doing a practice maneuver. They were making a run on the same target, which was a destroyer, and they would fire exercise torpedoes with no warheads. His sub was at a depth of about 65 feet when it started vibrating violently. After all the departments were checked no flooding was found.
“It turns out we had dropped onto the bow of this other boat so we surfaced and we looked pretty good. They surfaced and their bow looked like an accordion,” Rusch said.
They found out later that his sub’s fuel ballast tanks had been sliced open by the collision.
“And if it had gone any deeper, it would have gotten the pressure hull and then the water’s coming inside. It just didn’t touch the pressure hull,” he said.
Another time, the sub, without warning, went on a steep dive like it had gone off a cliff.
“It just started nose-diving and I don’t know how steep it got but it was steep, and it was chaos. Everything that was loose was moving,” he said. “It was hairy, it really was.”
After some frantic moments, they finally got the nose lifted and back on course.
Rusch said he was about to get out of the Navy on his first hitch when he was in Jacksonville, Florida, and that’s when the Korean War started.
“Harry Truman gave us all an extra year,” Rusch said. “I was about a month from getting out, I had a good job waiting for me in Chicago through a family friend.”
When he got out of the service, he moved back to Chicago and was driving a cab. His wife suggested he reenlist again because the career wasn’t going anywhere.
“I thought about it a few minutes and I said, ’that makes sense,’ so I went back in and ended up being sent to Key West, Florida and I thought, why didn’t I do this before, it was just gorgeous down there,” Rusch said.
Rusch signed up for six more years to get the bonus that was being offered.
While he was stationed in the Northeast and living in Rhode Island, he met and married his first wife Evelyn.
“Her brother was a shipmate and also a torpedoman, and I called him one night to have a beer and he couldn’t go so he put his sister on the phone and she said ‘yeah, I’ll have a beer with you,’ so I ended up marrying her, and that lasted until she died in ’91.”
He stayed on the subs throughout his career with stops in Charleston, South Carolina for three years, two years in Detroit on a reserve training sub, and on his last tour he was assigned to Pearl Harbor until he retired in 1967 at the rank of Torpedoman First Class.
Rusch’s parents had retired and moved from Chicago to Roseburg. His wife’s health was declining at that time, and they decided to also move to Roseburg. They ended up with his late parents’ home in west Roseburg. His wife died in 1991.
A couple of years later, Rusch walked into the Susan Comerford’s art studio art gallery to see if she would put up a poster for an art show. Comerford is a well known artist in the Umpqua Valley and the two talked about their shared interest in art. She agreed to put up the poster and to have lunch with him. A few months later they were married. He not only helps his wife in the art studio, but is also an accomplished musician playing in a pair of bands including The Storyville Jazz Band and a band called Tami and da’ Boys.
Rusch said his time in the Navy was a great experience for him and he felt like the job he was doing was important for the country.
“I wouldn’t trade it.”