USS Idaho Crew Visits Weiser High School

Thu Feb 2nd, 2023

WWII submariner and local resident Clarke Syme honored posthumously.

He looked barely old enough to shave.

Yet Lt. Beckett Lemley, who is actually 26, will serve a critical role as navigator and operations officer aboard the $2.7 billion USS Idaho, a fast attack submarine currently under construction in Groten, Conn.

Lemley, who graduated from Villanova University’s electrical engineering program, was at Weiser High School on Thursday, Jan. 26 with a small contingency of young men representing the planned 132-man crew. 

The average age, incredibly, is 22.

Each individual will play his own critical role aboard the nuclear-powered, Virginia-class submarine, which is scheduled to be christened in 2024 and commissioned into U.S. Navy active duty in 2025.

“We want them to know about Idaho, about the people, culture, spirit and beauty of this land that was here before we ever became a state,” said USS Idaho SSN 799 Commissioning Committee Chairman Richard Colburn.

Colburn, who is originally from Parma, is a retired submarine Captain who served eight years active duty in the U.S. Navy and 23 years reserve duty. He served aboard the USS Ohio, an Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. 

Last week, it was his job to accompany the small group of six sailors on a tour of Idaho aimed at giving them context against the backdrop of their submarine’s namesake. 

Last week’s visit marked the sixth time various crewmembers have come to the Gem State.

“One of the greatest responsibilities we have bringing them here is to make connections with people who are real Idahoans, who understand and love the state, so they can take that back with them to the boat and share that connection with the folks who didn’t have a chance to come here,” Colburn said.

Crewmembers had a busy week, meeting with Gov. Brad Little, Lt. Gov. Scott Bedke, House Speaker Mike Moyle, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder. They also visited the Idaho Legislature, participated in the McCall Winter Carnival parade, attended public receptions with civic organizations, visited the Baum Shelter in Warren, a backcountry eatery and pub about 45 miles north of McCall, and even took a snowmobile trip to Burgdorf Hot Springs.

Former governor and committee advisory board chairman Dirk Kempthorne took part in a number of the events.

Clarke Syme

The visit to Weiser was, in large part, a tribute to Clarke Syme, a long-time businessman and community leader who served aboard the USS Dace, a Gato-class submarine commissioned in the U.S. Navy in 1943.

Syme, who was forced to leave school when he was 12 following the death of his mother, enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1943 during World War II. He was initially sent to Farragut Naval Training Center at Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho, a major training base during the war.

Syme wouldn’t be there long, however, contracting pneumonia and was sent to a warmer climate at the Naval Training Center at Balboa Park in San Diego where he completed his basic training.

He then shipped out to Pearl Harbor where he trained to be a gunner’s mate and was given the opportunity to serve aboard the USS Franklin but declined, which turned out to be a good decision.

The aircraft carrier was hit by a Japanese “Kamikaze” attack and was badly damaged during a battle in the Pacific. More than 800 crew members lost their lives.

Syme then volunteered to serve aboard a Naval submarine but learned a high school diploma was required.

“I never graduated from high school, but you could take a test, so that’s what I did, and I passed,” Syme said in June 2022 during a celebration marking his 99th birthday.

He went through another month of training and was assigned to the USS Dace (SS 247). Three weeks after its arrival in Pearl Harbor, the submarine and its crew of approximately 60 set out on patrol in the waters of the Pacific.  

It didn’t take long to find action, Syme sustaining an injury during a surface-level firefight. “I was on a .50-caliber machine gun and we were shooting at two fishing boats because they armed their fishing boats,” he explained. “There was also a five-inch [gun] firing just ahead of me and it blew my earplugs out and broke my eardrum, so I have 35 percent hearing in my one ear.” 

On another occasion, the Dace was forced to run deep after missing a Japanese ship with its torpedoes. The Dace stayed submerged for almost 22 hours until the enemy ship was taken out by another U.S. Navy vessel. 

Syme married his childhood sweetheart, Elaine, during a subsequent leave in 1945.  

He went on to found McKnight and Syme Electric in Weiser – the sign can still be seen on Main Street, west of State – served multiple terms on the city council and one term as Weiser’s mayor. He also served on the hospital board.

Weiser High School

On Thursday, U.S. Submarine Veterans, Inc. Commander Doug Brinkman planned to honor Syme with a plaque recognizing his 78 years since qualifying as a submariner but, sadly, Syme passed away on Tuesday, just two days before the assembly that took place at Weiser High School. 

The assembly, however, went on as planned. 

“We are a brotherhood of sailors that have a common bond,” Brinkman said, addressing the student body, staff, Syme family members, and others who gathered in the school’s auditorium. “We wear dolphins; that’s our mark, but those dolphins are not given away, they are earned. Clarke Syme earned his dolphins. He was a submariner. The bond is different: it’s strong and it lasts forever.” 

Brinkman presented the plaque to Syme’s son and Weiser resident, Greg Syme, who received it with gratitude and a heavy heart.

Crew members

USS Idaho Lt. Cmdr. Darrell Smith, who is second in command behind Cmdr. Randall Leslie, added some kind words about Syme. 

“I’d like to say we should all strive to live a life of service like Clarke Syme did and that does not necessarily mean joining the military,” specifically addressing the students. “It could mean being a teacher, a mentor, being involved in your church. When I was sitting in your seat, I had a teacher who helped serve me by cultivating a love for math and science and because of that, I am now able to serve all of you by being in the military.” 

The other USS Idaho crewmembers were then introduced and answered questions from students, including an inquiry about the specific duty of a Virginia-class submarine. 

“There are two types of submarines. The USS Idaho is a fast attack submarine. Its job is to go out there and find other ships and potentially attack them,” Lt. Lemley explained. “There are about 50 attack submarines. Then there are ballistic missile submarines, which are strategic deterrence. That means they have nuclear missiles on board and they go and hide, so we can launch back if we ever had to and there are about 20 of those.” 

Other questions focused on height and weight requirements for sailors, size of crew, what happens if the submarine is damaged by an enemy, and whether they ever get bored. 

Petty Officer Peyton Freck, who stands 6’ 3” and weighs 245 pounds, tackled the physical requirement question. 

“To the extent of my knowledge, I don’t believe there is a height restriction,” he said in a deep, baritone voice. “I’ve seen people as tall as six-foot-seven on board the submarine, which is ridiculous because I already have to kind of walk [crouched] in some parts of it. The weight limit ties in with your height.”  

Master Chief Travis Skipper spoke about family relations with a job that takes him away from home for months at a time to destinations across the globe.

“You have to have a very understanding family and as often as I am gone and as busy as boat life is for me, when I’m home, even if I’m tired, I’ve got to be 100 percent at home, too,” he said. “It is mentally and physically exhausting (on the boat). I’ve been married to the same woman for a long time. My three kids are 21 and older now and they are out of the house. You miss a lot of birthdays and I’ve missed a lot of Christmases, so when you are home, you have to be 100 percent there.”

Petty Officer Justin Teal, from Maryland, said he had never been to Idaho and has been amazed with various things he’s seen thus far, especially the mountains.

“I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life,” he said. “In the Appalachians, when you’re driving in the mountains, it’s like driving through a tunnel, but here you can see the mountains and it’s absolutely beautiful.”

Lt. Comdr. Smith spoke of the importance of military assets that are crucial to ensuring the safety and security of all Americans, so that we can continue to enjoy that scenery in freedom.

“The submarine force is crucial to our safety. Strategic deterrence is the No. 1 Department of Defense item,” he told the Weiser Signal American. “We have to have boats that can go anywhere in the world, undetected, to provide all that is required, dovetailed with intel, to assure we maintain dominance at sea. Right now, we control both oceans, but China and other countries are quickly outpacing us in terms of ship construction, and we need to be able to hold them at bay.”

The key to maintaining the advantage, he said, is quality.

“The goal is to have the best ships and the best sailors and that’s how we attack it, by having the most advanced platform, the Virginia class submarine and the best trained sailors in the world.”

In regard to the cost of constructing the USS Idaho, he said that it’s more than just an investment.

“Yes, it’s a lot of money, but it’s well spent to build the single most advanced submarine on the planet, the apex predator of the sea.”

USS Idaho Crew Visits Weiser High School

U.S. Navy veteran and former Nampa Mayor Tom Dale was on hand Thursday to help introduce crewmen of the USS Idaho, a nuclear submarine currently under construction in Groten, Conn. From left, Petty Officer Gianni Luzzetti, Petty Officer Peyton Freck, Petty Officer Justin Teal, Lt. Cmdr. Darrell Smith, Master Chief Travis Skipper, and Lt. Beckett Lemley. Photo by Philip A. Janquart