The Sarasota-based company began placing the memorial in the Gulf of Mexico in May.
The waves were choppy, but the sky was clear as the U.S. Coast Guard submerged 61 reef balls in the Gulf of Mexico, 9 miles off Longboat Key. But the concrete structures aren’t simply meant to help marine life.
Far enough from the shoreline to be in federal waters, the reef also serves as an underwater memorial to lost submariners.
The On Eternal Patrol memorial, created by Sarasota-based Eternal Reefs, honors the 65 American submarines lost since 1900 and their 4,000 crewmen.
The now-finished memorial comprises 67 reef balls. Sixty-five represent lost boats, one represents nonsinking events and another is what CEO George Frankel called the pinnacle reef, which recognizes the overall contributions of submarine service.
Frankel began his journey with the memorial nearly 10 years ago after traveling to Georgia for a Veterans Day ceremony in which bells are rung to honor lost ships.
After hearing from various former submariners, Frankel, who as a kid was fascinated with the Pacific naval efforts in World War II, wanted to make a memorial.
“You just hear about what these guys were asked to do,” Frankel said. “Some of them had to take 175 depth charges in one-and-a-half hours; that’s two a minute. It’s just incredible, and you want to give back.”
So for the next few years, Frankel set to work. He researched the submarines, compiled a binder full of information and got the necessary permits.
Finally, it was time to place the memorials in the water. With each reef ball weighing 1,300 pounds, he needed some help. So he turned to his former employer, the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard assigned the Joshua Appleby, a buoy tender with geo-positioning thrusters. The ship allowed the reef balls to be placed precisely.
Frankel watched from a smaller boat some 100 yards away.
“It’s incredible,” he said, a grin spreading across his face. “Finally finishing it, it just brings a real sense of pride, especially considering what this will continually bring to the community.”
In another boat, three former submariners watched and dropped dolphin pins — worn by all qualified submariners — to honor those who were lost.
James Jordan, who served aboard two vessels from 1987 to 1995, also came to a dedication ceremony Eternal Reefs hosted May 22, the 51st anniversary of the sinking of the USS Scorpion, the last submarine to sink. He said he wanted to watch the full memorial be completed.
“It’s just so incredible to see these guys being honored where they lived and worked,” he said.
The other two submariners, Paul Lair and Bill Pretty, said it was nice to be honored in this way and that they were considering being buried at the site.
Frankel said the next step is to persuade the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to adopt the memorial reef.
“I’ve gotten calls from a number of vets who want to be placed in the ocean when they die,” Frankel said. “It’s where they lived and worked. It’s who they are.”
Within the next couple weeks, Frankel will send divers with special equipment to rotate the reef balls, so the plaque on each — which tells the name of the submarine, its last-known location and how many were lost — will face west. Then the site will be complete.