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History and Heritage

The Power of a Single Story

Cadets preserve veterans' history

The date was May 28, 1959, and the Cold War was simmering. Russia boasted of missile superiority over the U.S., and Fidel Castro had risen to power in Cuba. Spies on both sides were everywhere.

The Silent Hunt

In the icy water of the North Sea, the Tench-class diesel submarine USS Grenadier (SS 525) was hunting for Soviet submarines. Captain Ted Davis, commanding officer of the Grenadier, was responsible for his submarine's mission to patrol the "GIUK gap," which stretched from Greenland to Iceland to the United Kingdom.

However, this was not Davis' only mission. Davis had learned earlier, during Grenadier's overhaul, of a proclamation from Adm. Jerauld Wright, then commander-in-chief of the Atlantic Fleet. Wright had challenged his naval units to be the first in the fleet to prove the presence of a "non U.S. or known friendly" submarine. The first to do so would be presented with a one-of-a-kind award: "One case of Jack Daniel Old No. 7 black label Tennessee sour mash whiskey." Davis wanted that whiskey.

Midnight approached. Davis knew a Soviet submarine was near because of previous detection , but the sub had slipped away. However, Davis' gut-feeling was that the sub would soon surface due to lack of air and battery power. Suspension grew. Cigarette smoke filled the spaces of the submarine with a foul stench. Soon enough, 15 minutes past the hour, Davis heard the sonar hollering that a Soviet sub was surfacing. Davis vectored a P-2V aircraft over the Soviet sub, spotlighted the boat and documented the one-in-a-million chance.

As it turned out, this would be the first evidence of a missile-firing Soviet submarine. Grenadier's crew took many photographs and video evidence of the Russian sub, which stayed on the surface for more than 24 hours. After the Grenadier was relieved from the area and headed back to Key West, Florida, Wright presented Davis and the Grenadier crew with the promised case of Jack Daniels.

Davis still has that bottle hanging on his wall.

Preserving the History of Those Who Came Before Us

This intricate story of suspense and reward was almost lost to history. It would have been if Miles Abernathy and his mother, Mary Jo, hadn't met Davis, a neighbor, by chance at a yard sale and heard his story. Realizing that there must be more stories like his, they obligated to find a way to share this history with people across the country.

"You wouldn't know that about neighbors that lived next to you," said Miles . "These people who may or may not have told their story before; they're so important."

Coincidentally, the Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (NJROTC) detachment at First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, was looking for more community service ideas. Miles suggested that he and his fellow cadets interview veterans like Davis and document their stories. An historian herself, Mary Jo was immediately captivated by the idea. She shared the idea with the NJROTC booster club and with Capt. Timothy Richard, a senior naval science instructor. Excited, Richard helped Mary Jo organize the first event.

In spring 2016, the cadets spoke with veterans for the first time, meeting at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach. Mary Jo paid close attention as the young cadets awkwardly went through interviews for the first time, haltingly questioning the brave military heroes of the past.
Photo collage of cadets with veterans.


However, she noticed small differences as the cadets and the veterans became more comfortable. Cadets spoke more confidently and veterans were no longer passive, but enjoyed telling their stories.

"Having these cadets sit down and talk with these vets, it's almost like they're talking to their grandchildren, but something else happens," said Mary Jo. "I see them connect in a way that oftentimes veterans cannot do with their family members."

The event was a success, with generations of veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam telling their stories. Soon after, the cadets did a flag placement ceremony on the eve of Memorial Day at a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post in Virginia Beach. After the ceremony, they ate lunch and spoke with more veterans.
Richard said how proud he was of the cadets. He's especially excited to see them grow through this experience.

"I've seen them all really grow and develop," he commented. "I've seen mostly with Miles. He was a bit shyer and introverted, a quieter speaker, and you can see him through these interviews start talking more clearly, louder and with an air of confidence."

Anyone meeting Miles can see that it is not just his dedication to service that promotes an atmosphere of leadership and enthusiasm, but also his passion for history and how he wants to share that with others.

"Learning through these people helps you learn what it was like during that time, and I just feel like through this, history gains more value from me and my friends and the other cadets," said Miles.

As the Vets and Cadets program collected more and more stories, Mary Jo happened upon a source on social media that she felt like would greatly improve the organization and help distribute these stories to a wider audience.

"We knew we couldn't preserve and protect all of this data on our own, but with StoryCorps, we could use this free app that the cadets could download on Android or iPhone and then begin to record those stories almost immediately," she said.
Photo collage of cadets with veterans.


StoryCorps launched in October 2003 at the opening of a story booth in Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Its mission is to preserve and share humanity's stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. The stories are preserved in the Library of Congress' Folk Life Center. Mary Jo firmly believes in using this technology to help people regain skills that may have been lost or outdated in this era.

She believes it's important "to teach them a sense of history in the way that history is alive with each one of us, and that with this digital age, something is lost in the way people listen and communicate with one another."

Together with her son, his fellow NJROTC cadets and Richard, Mary Jo hopes to expand this program beyond the Virginia Beach area. Many people have reached out via social media, asking how to start the Vets and Cadets program in their area. Miles believes that this program can not only go nationwide, but worldwide as well.

"I feel like it can go through the area, to multiple areas and then probably nationwide, and even to some of the units in Germany and in Sicily," said Miles. "Wherever there is a NJROTC, there's bound to be veterans."