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Cold War sailor tracked Soviet submarine movements with sonar technology

by Jeremy Amick | July 5, 2022 at 3:55 a.m.
George Sommerer appeared in Parade magazine in 1960 after his family was held hostage by escaped convicts. Years later, he experienced a different type of excitement when enlisting in the Navy and learning to track Soviet ballistic submarine activity worldwide. (Courtesy of Jeremy Amick)

George Sommerer has been no stranger to excitement.

As a 10-year-old, he and his family made newspaper headlines after being held hostage on their Honey Creek area farm by convicts who escaped the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Years later, he found a new level of adventure working with technologies that tracked the movement of Soviet submarines during the height of the Cold War.

Attending elementary and middle school at Immanuel Lutheran in Honey Creek, Sommerer went on to graduate from Eugene High School in 1967. Spending two years working at Von Hoffman Press in Jefferson City, he joined many of his contemporaries who enlisted in the military because of the draft.

"So many of us knew we would be drafted, so I decided to enlist in the Navy during the summer of 1969," he recalled.

Arriving at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois, in September 1969, the young volunteer spent the next several weeks in boot camp. After a brief period of leave back home, he then returned to Great Lakes for several additional weeks of basic electronics and electricity school.

"I had chosen the sonar field, so after learning basic electronics, I was sent to Key West, Florida, in January of 1970 for sonar school," he said. "It was 10 below when I left Great Lakes and 80 degrees when I got to Florida, so I knew that I had selected the right training," he chuckled.

During the next several weeks, Sommerer was introduced to a sound search system that plotted locations of Soviet submarines. As he recalled, the Navy placed sonar arrays at various shore stations in oceans around the world, some of which could pick up sounds up to 5,000 nautical miles away.

He explained, "Each station had either one or two arrays and each array had 40 hydrophones on it with each pointed at different bearings. Often, there were certain sounds associated with the Soviet ballistic missile submarines, and we could pinpoint their locations by plotting the readings from ours and other shore stations," he added.

Once he became familiarized with the equipment used in such a task, Sommerer received his initial duty assignment at Pacific Beach, Washington, in May 1970. It was here that he began checking graphs and collecting the information from the sonar readings that were used in observing submarine movements in addition to that of other ocean-going vessels.

Reflecting on this duty assignment, Sommerer noted the Soviet ballistic missile submarines used massive generating motors that operated on a frequency of 50 hertz, making it less challenging for them to calculate their location and track their movements.

"As a plotter, I had more of a direct role in keeping track of Soviet submarines," he said. "We had our own fast-attack submarines operating in the region in case something happened ... like an attack on the United States."

A year into his first shore duty assignment, Sommerer was transferred to Midway Island (Atoll) in the northern Pacific Ocean. He and his fellow sailors continued to their work in using sonar to track Soviet submarines coming through the Unimak Pass off the coast of Alaska.

"Midway was good duty," Sommerer grinned. "Once a month, we went to Hawaii because that was where the command center for the sonar system we used was located."

A moment of unanticipated excitement transpired at Midway when two Soviet submarines and a couple of surface ships passed nearby. His leadership used the event as a training exercise and sent out P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft to drop sonar buoys in the water. These buoys relayed additional information to their shore location and provided more accurate movement data.

A year into his Midway assignment, he was transferred to a sonar station on the Alaskan island of Adak. It was one of the U.S. Navy's forward bases that had the sonar capabilities to look into the Soviet's main base in Petropavlovsk, Russia.

"Again, I spent most of my time plotting and placing contacts on a map of the Pacific Ocean to give us an overall view of Soviet submarine movements," he said. "Not only did we use our own sonar information, but we also had cross-bearings from sonar activity picked up by other stations."

He continued, "I was supposed to be at Adak for a year but the living conditions weren't good and I fell ill," he said. "After three months there, they sent me to Great Lakes, where I recovered."

After receiving a clean bill of health, the sailor was transferred to a naval station in the Turks and Caicos Islands south of the Bahamas, where he completed the remainder of his enlistment tracking Soviet submarine activity in the Atlantic.

Receiving his discharge in September 1973, Sommerer returned to Mid-Missouri and his job at Von Hoffman Press. The company passed through different ownerships in later decades, but he was able to retire after 46 years of employment at the same location. In 1975, he married Pat Veltrop, and the couple together raised three children.

At the point of his discharge, Sommerer said, the Soviets had three ballistic submarines in the East and two in the West on constant rotation, prepared to "rain down death and destruction."

His type of military work, though often receiving minimal recognition for helping avert a major confrontation during the Cold War, resulted in many treasured benefits in later years.

"The greatest enjoyment from my time in the service was making lifelong friendships, such as a close friend from Wisconsin who I traveled many times to visit over the years," he said. "Eventually, our children became friends and now go to see each other.

"And I cannot forget," he added, "that my time tracking Soviet submarines helped me gain a more focused appreciation for all the work involved in maintaining our freedoms."

Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.


George Sommerer, left, receives an award for his work at Pacific Beach, Washington, in 1970. (Courtesy of George Sommerer)

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