It was a lazy Saturday in the summer of 1965. I was a seaman apprentice torpedoman striker assigned to the vintage World War II submarine, Tigrone (SS 419). We had recently entered the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for overhaul and modification. I had the duty that day and was probably a mess cook — the Navy’s name for KP duty.
The captain had allowed the ship to have long weekends, with liberty going down Friday after lunch. Although the yard worked Fridays, they did not do much on either Saturday or Sunday. If the yard didn’t work and most of the crew was gone for the weekend, those that had the duty didn’t do much either.
On this particular Saturday the sun was shining and there were few clouds in the sky. Somewhere I had found a box of weather balloons, a remnant from the war. Why they were still on the boat, I do not know. Also discovered was a case of green dye for use by survivors in a life raft to color the water about them so that patrolling aircraft would find them easier to spot.
I had recruited a friend and shipmate who was just as unoccupied and bored as I was to scavenge through the piles of stuff we had removed from the sub prior to her going into dry dock. We decided to see if the green dye was still good after all those years and dumped a number of packets into the water. Neither one of us realized how much area an individual packet could cover. We had dumped many. It was not long before the Delaware River was grotesquely green. We also did not realize the stir it would cause when the US Coast Guard saw it. Green-dyed water, to them, was tantamount to firing red flares into the sky: it meant somebody was in distress. Oops. Big oops. They traced the stain back to its origin and the next thing I know I was face-to-face with the Command Duty Officer.
While all that hysteria was unfolding, my friend and I had unfolded one of the weather balloons. We were amazed at how large it was. My memory, faded over the course of forty-five years, tells me it was at least twelve feet tall. “What can we do with this?” we wondered aloud. A number of ideas popped into our heads, some of which were rejected out-of-hand as being too hair-brained or as leading to more trouble.
What we ended up doing was getting a marking pen and writing in large letters across the widest part, “U.S.S. TIGRONE (SS 419).” In smaller letters near the bottom we told the finder what to do with it. I don’t remember exactly what we said, but I know we had the discretion to not say anything vulgar or indecent. It was smart-alecky, though.
We then set out on a search for an unattended and unlocked helium flask. That we found without much trouble and brought that back to the barge on which we were working. We filled the balloon, tied it off with the line so generously supplied by the manufacturer, and released it into the atmosphere. We watched it rise into the sky and slowly head towards the Atlantic coast. It soon disappeared from view and from our memories.
Months passed. In mid-winter I was summoned to the Captain’s stateroom. The Captain did not look happy and I knew I was in trouble. I did not know why I was in trouble, but I was about to find out.
“Do you know anything about a weather balloon?”
“Do you know anything about a weather balloon with ‘U.S.S. Tigrone’ written on it?”
All of a sudden the events of the previous summer came rushing to mind and I paled. “Yes sir,” I said.
“Did you have anything to do with it?” Why was he asking me these questions for which he obviously had the answers? I again replied in the affirmative.
The Captain then began to relate what had happened since I had launched the balloon. The balloon had floated out to sea and bobbed along wherever the winds would take it, finally arriving over Nova Scotia, Canada. There, interrupting the serenity of an elderly Nova Scotian woman, the balloon made its descent into her yard. As you can imagine, our octogenarian recipient did not know what to think. Was it friend or foe? Was it from outer space? Was it a bomb? The poor thing was beside herself.
Somehow, the Canadian government got involved. After all, “U.S.S. Tigrone” was emblazoned on it. So a search was made by our neighbor to the North for the USS Tigrone. That involved engaging our State Department. It involved calling in the Pentagon. All the twits in Washington, D.C. were now concerned about an errant weather balloon bearing the name of an obsolescent submarine. And at the very core of the imbroglio was yours truly. I, at the lowest echelon of naval service, had caused an international incident while at the same time giving credence to the old adage: “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”