Submariners keep vet organization numbers high

Fred Borgmann shows off clipping of the sub vets activities.  - Jessica Swanson/Staff Photo
Fred Borgmann shows off clipping of the sub vets activities.
— image credit: Jessica Swanson/Staff Photo

While veterans associations are shuttering doors becuase of low membership rates and aging members, the U.S. Submarine Veterans of Bremerton’s numbers are stable and its members are actually getting younger.

As the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor passed Wednesday, it was marked by the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association announcment that it was closing shop due to low membership.

In addition, the Submarine Veterans of World War II, from which the U.S. Submarine Veterans later sprang, announced that it will disband in Sept. 2012 for similar reasons.

Veterans’ association groups across the nation struggle with retention rates and inevitable aging of members, according to Fred Borgmann, national office Manager for U.S. Submarine Veterans.

“The Pearl Harbor disbanding was inevitable. You can’t keep having meetings without people,” said Borgmann.

Much like Pearl Harbor survivors, other World War II veterans are a “dying breed,” according to Don Bassler,webmaster and former commander of the Bremerton chapter.

The war-specific veterans organizations are made up of members in their upper 80s who don’t have the energy to continue the work, according to Borgmann. And then there is no one to take the torch, he said.

“I see their point of view, wanting to only have members to represent a specific part of history that they are trying to preserve,” said Borgmann.

However, Borgmann explained that too narrow a focus can kill an organization. For example, in the 1960s, the World War II submariners considered changing their bylaws to include more of the submarine community. After several rejections, non World War II submariners formed their own group in 1964.

“We gave up trying to get them to let us in,” said Borgmann.

Decades later, U.S. Submarine Veterans is absorbing what is left of the World War II organization, taking in its remaining members along with it’s much loved parade float.

The Submarine Veterans national roster is 13,610 members, with 288 active members in Kitsap County. Those numbers have remained stable for the last three years and attendance remains high at all local events, according to Borgmann.

“Our retention is above average,” said Bassler.

In the past, the veterans have lent their numbers to support World War II vets and Pearl Harbor survivors groups.

“We encourage our members to show up in attendance to support those guys in whatever they’re doing,” said Bassler.

And the submariners do show up, en masse.

Borgmann believes that one big reason for the group’s success is its business-like approach to running the chapter. Financial stability, city connections, marketing, keeping an online presence,and recruiting new blood are all key, he said.

“We don’t have a lot of expenses, no clubs, no hall. I think we’ve done better on maintaining financial stability,” said Borgmann.

Adding to the overall activity, Bassler updates the organization’s website every day with news, events, death announcements and resources. As of Wednesday, 1,468,989 visits have been logged there.

“Being a submariner is like being from the same small town. We make up something like 5 percent of the Navy. In the 70s and 80s the submarine force peaked out and now it’s even less, so we care about what’s going on with each other and stay connected,” said Bassler.

Borgmann is also a master planner. He recalled a cruise in 2007 for 1,800 members which the Bremerton group sponsored with the help of registration fees, the city convention bureau and private organizations.

“We took four years to prepare for that one,” said Borgmann.

“You have to be good at planning to survive,” added Bassler.

As far as recruiting younger submariners, this is the group’s greatest challenge.

“Not that many young guys here. Young submariners have too much else going on with their careers and their lives to come out much,” said Borgmann.

However, the group does go out once a month to Trident training facility on Bangor base to share lunch with young sailors. They “talk shop” and sometimes give advice.

At the Army-Navy football game Dec. 3, the submariners used their networking skills to gain one young recruit.

“We’re going from 70 down to 50. So we’re getting younger,” said Bassler. “As long as there are submarines, we’ll go on forever.”

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