There were a lot of people in Norfolk, Va., Saturday for the commissioning of the new submarine, the USS Minnesota.
But only one knew what it was like to serve on a war submarine back in the day, back when submarines were king.
"One guy told me, 'You’re the oldest guy who has crawled up and down these ladders,'" said 90-year-old Martin Menk of St. Peter, who was on hand for the christening ceremony of the United States' newest submarine, the USS Minnesota. "He said, 'My mother came down here but she’s only 84.'"
Menk, the founder of the venerable Bolton & Menk engineering firm in Mankato, was invited to the ceremony by the captain of the new submarine.
This new sub is a far cry from the subs of Menk's era.
The new sub, a nuclear sub, will be the third naval vessel named after the north star state.
USS Minnesota is a large submarine, 377 feet long to be exact. It weighs nearly 8,000 tons, and can swim along at a clip of about 25 knots. Being a nuclear sub, it will produce its own fuel from the reactor on board.
Menk says he was in awe of the sub, and when asked to compare it to the ones he served on, he that wasn't even possible. In his day, he said, they couldn't stay under water for more than a day, and they used shower stalls to store potatoes.
"I was talking to a guy last night in charge of purifying the air," Menk said. "They stay down 89 days. When we stayed down 20 hours, we were near the panic point.
He was also impressed with the reverse osmosis system that generates fresh water from sea water, and the sub's technology.
"You just can't even compare it," he said of the new ship and the ships that he served on.
Virginia class submarines like the Minnesota are especially maneuverable in shallow waters, and were designed with plenty of room for special forces and their equipment to come aboard. Like other classes of attack submarines, the Minnesota is designed to fight enemy submarines and surface ships and can also fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets on shore.
The U.S. is building two Virginia-class submarines a year, at a cost of about $2.6 billion each. So far, those submarines have been delivered ahead of schedule. The Minnesota was delivered to the Navy in June, 11 months earlier than the original contract called for.
The ship will spend several months in Norfolk before moving to its designated home port of Groton, Conn. The submarine is the third Navy ship to bear the name Minnesota, with the first being a steam frigate during the Civil War and the second a battleship that was part of the "Great White Fleet" President Theodore Roosevelt ordered to sail around the world.
Menk says he got involved in the ceremony after a flurry of activity this summer. They sent a letter saying the American Legion in Minnesota wanted to be included in some way when the vessel was commissioned. One thing led another and along the way it was mentioned by someone that Menk had served on a WWII sub and, well, long story short, Menk received his invitation just a few weeks ago.
During WWII, Menk served on war patrols on two different subs. He said he spent his share of time in enemy territory, doing work that pretty much amounted to spying.
"We operated mostly out of Pearl Harbor and Midway," he said. "My last patrol was just off of Korea in the Yellow Sea at the time, and we were there when they dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. After that, the war ended quickly, and we went back to the base at Guam."
He came back to Minnesota in 1946 and attended Gustavus Adolphus College briefly. In 1949 he started the engineering firm that would grow to become powerful enough to be listed among the top 500 firms in the country by the trade publication Engineering News-Record.
He started the business in St. Peter but moved it to Mankato after his partner retired in 1966. He's been retired for about 20 years.
Menk says he was particularly proud during the ceremony Saturday when Sen. Amy Klobuchar, one of the driving forces behind getting the sub to bear the state's name, mentioned he was in attendance. And he's proud to have been a Navy sailor on a submarine.
"It was really great," he said of the event. "When I talked to one of those guys, we talked about subs being a defense weapon. They’re really kind of the watch dogs of the country. Watchdogs of the world. They went under the ice caps, fought the cold war. They really did a lot for us."
This report contains information from The Associated Press.