USS San Francisco SSN-711 Plank Owner Belt and Buckle… Lost and Found the Backstory

Merry Christmas to all of my readers.

This has been a very busy time of year with so much going on at work. A lot at home too which unfortunately keeps me from writing very much. My apologies for that. Mrs. Mac and I are doing pretty well but like many folks have had to say goodbye to too many friends this year. I just take comfort in knowing that most of them will get to spend their first Christmas in Heaven with their departed loved ones.

A while back, I was involved with a little project that I want to share today.

This is probably the coolest story you will read all year

I served on board a submarine called the USS San Francisco (SSN 711).

If you have ready other 711 related stories, you know that it was very special and my longest single assignment in the Navy. I helped to build her in new construction and got to ride her for the next few years all across the Pacific. Even rode through the Panama Canal and visited many unique places.

Three shipmates on Liberty on that first West Pac. The sailor on the right is MS3 (SS) Ken Koopman (Mark Motley is on the left, Tony Boedecker is in the back)

As was common, we stopped in the Philippines during our first West Pac (Western Pacific Operation).

While we were there, we bought a lot of articles of clothing including belt buckles with the ship’s name on it. They weren’t very expensive but they were special since the ship’s name could be inscribed on it along with the submarine insignia called the dolphins.

But that was a long time ago. Forty years to be exact.

Sometimes, even a cherished memento can become lost in the shuffle. I still have my ball caps and some buckles form that age. Even a little model of the boat that sits in my office. But I am sure I have lost a few things in the twenty moves we have made since that time. So I understand how things can get lost.

This story starts with a very strange message that came to me after Memorial Day about a Plank Owner Buckle and Belt that had surfaced in a Fishing trip in Wisconsin in 2006. I was first contacted on Facebook on one of the USS San Francisco pages on January 3 2021

My response was a series of emails and phone calls

 

 

Now the rest of the story. It took a while but here is the rest of the story

Hello Bob!

It’s been a while since we had contact and I hope all is well.

I had a nice conversation with Ken last weekend.  I was looking at his belt and thought it was time to get it home to him.  As much as I wanted to hand it to him in person, I started to feel that I should get it to him sooner than waiting another year.  Who knows how long it would take for me to get up to his neck of the woods.   Anyway, in our conversation he mentioned letting you know the circumstances surrounding how the belt came back into our possession.  So, I wrote a short-story to the best of my recollection of how it was discovered.  Funny thing is, the more I wrote, the more detail came back to me as to how that day unfolded.  And, I had Kathy’s help on the Facebook side, because while she was proof reading it, she had to set me straight on the whole Facebook messenger conversation.  I had forgotten the detail, but she was still able to go back and find the thread.  

I hope you can open the attachments, because I wrote the story in that funky apple “Pages” app.  You can only open it on a Mac or on an iPhone.  I also converted it to a PDF hoping that allows a better opportunity to open it.  If they don’t open for you, please let me know and I’ll re-write it in the body of an email. 

Take care for now Bob.  Any questions please feel free to contact me any time!

All the best to you!

Kind regards,

Hank

Hank and Kathy Baird

Sunday, October 2, 2022

USS San Francisco SSN-711 Plank Owner Belt and Buckle…

Lost, and Found the Backstory

My name is Hank Baird.  I currently own a trailer at Four Seasons Resort on Crooked Lake, Cascade Wisconsin.  I have since approximately the year 2000.

On Memorial Day weekend, 2006, I was fishing Crooked Lake in front of Hoefts Resort in my 14 foot Alumacraft row boat.  Far North end of the lake.  I had a Chene anchor off the bow facing west, and a small mushroom straight out the stern facing East to keep from spinning, so I could still-fish just off the weeds, facing North.

After some time in my spot, the south wind kicked up.  Bad.  The calm chop turned to whitecaps in a hurry.  I was being blown toward the weeds with both anchors dragging bottom.  Now, its serious go-time.  I had to get the motor going and out of there, before being blown completely into the lily pads.  Which is where I would have stayed pending rescue.  I could never have rowed or motored out of that mess.

With the motor running, I pulled the mushroom in first, then jumped to the bow and started hauling up the Chene anchor.  Which came up, along with two bushels of every kind of lake weed.  I panic stripped weeds with my left hand while holding the rope in my right. During the stripping, I noticed what looked like black fabric in one of my handfuls. Instead of tossing it back in the lake, I threw that handful into the boat, then kept stripping weed until the anchor was clean enough to pull back on board.  Jumped to the back, put the outboard in gear, and got the heck out of Dodge.

When I got back to the resort, I was able to take a closer look at the black fabric piece embedded in the weeds.  There was an additional piece of rope tied to one end of the strip of fabric, on the other end was a metal buckle.  This whole assembly was as black as lake mud.  So I started washing off the mud while laying belly down on the pier. What I thought was emerging was just another piece of lake treasure to add to my collection.  Of which I have many.

What I read on the buckle was, “USS SAN FRANCISCO SSN711”, at the very top. The middle depicted a Conning Tower (which I wasn’t sure of at the time) flanked by two rather large Dolphin-like creatures.  At the bottom, the words, ”PLANK OWNER”.

Back then, to say that my knowledge of Naval History was “weak” would be an understatement.  So when I got back to civilization and internet service, I started looking stuff up.

First, researching the incredible history of SSN-711.  And then, the meaning of, “Plank Owner”.  After looking at everything I had found to that point, I realized I had something of significance here.  I mean, “this thing belongs to somebody!”.

So my only thought then was, how in the world am I going to find the rightful owner of this artifact?  Keep in mind this was 2006.  I’m not a super techie kind of guy.  I didn’t participate in any kind of social media (still don’t) I scanned websites and could not figure a way to get the word out.  I had asked the opinion of a couple of former coworkers who were Naval Veterans, but really didn’t get any solid direction that I thought would bear any fruit.  I just did not want this thing in the wrong hands, to wind up as a Military collectable piece, on a table at a gun show.

Momentarily out of options, the belt and buckle made its way onto my closet shelf, back-burnered, and fell into the realm of, out of sight, out of mind.

Now let’s fast forward more than a few years.  To January 2021.  I had started working for a supplier of UV curing equipment for the print industry.  Jason, one of our technicians was a Navy veteran.  He was field based, but I did see him in the office from time to time.  While he was in the shop working on a project at one point, the belt buckle came to mind and I brought it into conversation.  When I mentioned the vessel, and “Plank Owner”, it did grab his attention.  I told him the whole story of how I found it, and how I thought it was important to find, and return it to its rightful owner.  Jason, matter-of-factly said, “just go on the USS San Francisco Facebook page and put up a post”.  Or, something to that effect.  Sounded too easy.  But since I don’t do Facebook, I never considered that avenue.  I had to have my wife Kathy go on and visit the site.

After writing a description of what I have, I believe we had to visit the page and post on Facebook messenger to the “Admin”, because we weren’t members.  Almost immediately, Bob MacPherson, (the Admin) responded to us.  We had made contact, shared several messages, and a photo of the buckle went back and forth.  Bob had explained that he had several (not many) of the belt buckles commissioned while in the Philippines many years ago.  And, given the location of the find, could only belong to one person, Ken Koopman.  Bob contacted Ken, explained what was going on, and got the OK to share contact info.

Armed with Ken’s information, I called him.  Memory is fuzzy, but I believe we didn’t connect on the first try due to differing work hours.  But needless to say we did finally connect later that day.  Had a great conversation, I told the whole story, and was so happy to have found the right guy!  My biggest hope was to hand over the buckle in person, shake Ken’s hand, and thank him for his service personally.

However, as life would have it, a couple of employment changes for me, and a geographic location change for Ken, put a bit more distance between us.  And with my paid time off now being at a bare minimum, the chances of me getting to where Ken is located any time soon, is getting very slim.  With that, my feeling is that I have had his buckle and belt way, way, too long, and it is again burning a hole in my dresser.  It’s time to get it home.

I spoke with Ken again last night and explained my plan.  We will connect at some point in the future, that’s for certain.  But for now, it’ll be shipping out some day this week.  Fingers crossed that the shipper does its part and gets this irreplaceable gem back to where it needs to be.  I will be happy when this particular box is finally checked.  Then, on to the next one.  As far as how the belt got to the bottom of Crooked Lake?  Ken is going to have to write that story.

All the best,

Hank.

The belt made it home. I still have no clue how it ended up in the lake. Kenny told me at the beginning that he had no idea how the belt ended up in the lake. Might have been a sibling thing. He had not seen the belt since the 80’s. But its home now.

Shipmates for Life: Carl Aldridge on the left and Kenny on the right

It’s taken a while for this story to come together. I want to thank Hank and his wife Kathy for being so diligent about getting it there. And Kenny for being one of the best shipmates a man could have had.

Have a great new year!

Mister Mac

 

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