Lost Boats Ceremony - Tolling of the Boats 2024

Memorial Day is special to me as a former submariner. Many have sacrificed for our freedoms, but the US Submarine Force more than many. Memorial Day is when I honor that.

For many years I’ve been attending the “Tolling of the Boats” ceremony - with my kids - at the USS Pampanito in San Francisco. I’ll be there again this year too! Here’s a link to this year’s details.

Luca and Ella at the USS Pampanito (pre-COVID)

They are both home and will be attending again with me this year. It’s important to me that they understand where I came from, and that they honor our history as well.


You may not know this, but the US Submarine force had the highest casualty rate of any service in WWII: nearly 20%. One in five boats never came back. Yet they accounted for over 55% of all enemy ships destroyed.

Think about that. Two percent (2%) of all US forces accounted for 55% of all Axis shipping losses in the whole war. But the cost was high: 20% of all US boats sank, often with all hands.

And you wonder why submariners have a reputation for being a little crazy.


The ceremony simple: the names of all lost boats are read, one at a time. The date of the loss and number of crew lost is also stated. The bell of the USS Pampanito is rung. A flower is thrown into the water by the sub. In much prior years the flowers would be thrown by family members of those lost. Today everyone is welcome to line up and participate.

This ceremony happens all over the US, anywhere with a history that was touched by US Submarines. So many boats were built just north of SF at Mare Island Navy Shipyard (no longer a base) and of course, Hunters Point and Alameda were instrumental too.

52 US submarines were lost. 52 times the bell is rung, remembering the boats now on “Eternal Patrol.”

I am getting goosebumps as I write this. Maybe it’s because I lived underwater too, facing a fraction of the danger, but it’s all very real to me. I’m proud of what I did and the role my boat played, but the WW2 Veterans are true heroes. To know that if you left on your 5th mission that your number was probably up… and do it anyway… the courage is astonishing.

I’ve written about the culture of excellence before. It’s not just the Nuclear fleet - it’s submarines in general. Extreme Operational Excellence: Applying the US Nuclear Submarine Culture to Your Organization is one of the best books I have ever read. I blogged about recently.

If you want to know the crucible that forged those lessons, you can’t go wrong by attending the Tolling of the Boats. It’s an opportunity to do something and take some time to reflect on the real meaning of Memorial Day.

So why not pop on down the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco? Don’t beleive the press saying how the City is full of crap and needles. It’s still the most beautiful City in the world and the negative hype is mostly just jealousy.

Personally, I’ll be going. Wearing the same ship’s ballcap I wore in the 80’s and saluting my flag and shedding a few tears for bothers I never met. But they ARE my brothers, and I may be here because of their sacrifices and certainly their teachings.

Fair winds and following seas to them all. We have the watch.