Jack Sanzalone of Port Charlotte, Fla. spent almost three decades under the sea in atomic attack submarines keeping an eye on America’s enemies as the boat combed the deep searching for adversaries.
The gold chevron on his left shoulder topped with a white crow, a white star in the center and three gold bars below indicated he was a rare breed. When he retired at 49 in 2011 from the U.S. Navy he was a Command Master Chief. There are slightly more than 700 in the U.S. Navy out of more than 350,000 who serve. He was one of the Navy’s senior enlisted men.
When Sanzalone graduated from high school in 1980 he began working as a diesel mechanic.
“One day while doing a chassis rebuild on a garbage truck I had an epiphany,” he said. “It was the heat of the summer in New Jersey and I was lying underneath the garbage truck. Maggots were coming out of the back of the truck. I decided it was time to pursue another way of life.
“I went down to the Navy recruiter on Monday and shipped out to Great Lakes Naval Training Center (outside Chicago) on Friday. When I signed up I told the recruiter, ‘I wanted to get a little structure in my life.’”
At the conclusion of boot camp Sanzalone was selected to receive “The Navy League Award.” The award honored the sharpest recruit in his training cycle.
“I remember meeting with a female admiral and she put a book in front of me with the various positions opened to a Navy recruit. Because of my test scores, she told me I could pick any job in the book.
“Because I liked numbers, I selected navigation. I became a quartermaster. I went to Quartermaster’s School and graduated tops in the class,” he said. “Shortly after graduating from school I went aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Coonts (DD-240).
“The next thing I knew I had to get the charts aboard the Coonts ready for the invasion of Granada–’Operation Urgent Fury.’”
Sanzalone and the Coonts spent the next five or six months blockading the coast of Granada against Communist insurgents who were trying to infiltrate the country and take control.
Thus began his storied Naval career.
“I made Chief in seven years. It usually takes 12 to 15 years. I made Senior Chief after 16 or 17 years in the Navy. I made Master Chief in 19 years,” he explained. He was 38.
“On a submarine I was ‘Chief of the Boat.’ It was a very intense leadership role. There is a triad of leadership aboard a sub: Commanding Officer, Executive Officer and Chief of the Boat.
“I was the conduit between the crew and the officers. My job was to mentor junior officers and work with the enlisted men,” Sanzalone explained. “Eighty-seven percent of a submarine’s crew is comprised of enlisted men. Without them a mission couldn’t be completed.”
Most of his Naval career was spent at sea aboard atomic submarines. Most of these subs were attack submarines.
“An attack sub is smaller than a ballistic missile submarine. An attack sub is charged with doing surveillance. A Trident Missile sub is primarily used for deterrence. It carries up to 24 nuclear missiles, each with multiple warheads,” he said.
All of Sanzalone’s adventures aboard these subs are classified.
What he can say is that while serving aboard the destroyer Coonts he got in a discussion with his skipper about his Naval career.
“My captain asked me, ‘What do you want to do with your Naval career?’ I told him I wanted to be part of the submarine fleet. He said I was a natural born submariner.
“A short time later I received a telegram from the Navy. It said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been selected for the Submarine Service.’
“My captain had gotten me into the Submarine Service. After sub school in New London, Conn. I went aboard the attack submarine USS Gato (SSN-615).
“I was a 2nd class petty officer and a navigator when I went aboard. It was my job to plan the mission and work out the details for the the captain. The most difficult part of the job was preparing for deployment,” he said.
It wasn’t too long after making Master Chief, Sanzalone went aboard the attack sub USS Panche (SSD-683).
“I was sitting in my office and a voice said, ‘Would you be interested in serving aboard the Panche?’
“I didn’t hesitate because I loved sea duty. Before I knew it I had a set of orders sending me to the Panche as Chief of the Boat. She was one of the top submarines in the fleet.”
What was his mission aboard the Panche?
“I can’t talk about it. Just say it was undersea research and development.
“What I can tell you: Of all the submarines I served on, the crew of the Panche was the the most talented group of men I ever served with. Commodore Chas Richards was the commander of the boat when I was aboard. He later became an admiral and was the guy in charge of the Trident missile sub base in Kings Bay, Ga. He was the commander of Submarine Group 10.
“I went from there to Submarine Development Squadron 5. It was a broad leadership role that controlled a number of Navy operations around the country.
“After that I became the Chief of Boat aboard the newly-commissioned attack submarine USS Jimmy Carter. I got to work with a spectacular crew skippered by Capt. Dave Honabach.
“During the commissioning we got the opportunity to have dinner with former President Carter and Mrs. Hyman Rickover. At one point Jimmy had worked as a young naval lieutenant for Admiral Rickover.
“My last duty station was unique. I became a member of Special Submarine Support Detachment out of Washington, D.C. We were headhunters who interviewed people for special Naval operations. We went all over the country interviewing potential candidates. We’d interview 15 people and maybe select one person.
Sanzalone finished by noting, “The most difficult job in the Navy was being the wife of a sailor.
“I remember all too often standing topside on a submarines looking down at an open hatch as we were getting ready to go out on an operation for six or seven months.
“I’m watching my family standing on the pier with tears in their eyes. My wife was about to become the mechanic, cook, cleaner, you name it she did it. My hat’s off to her.
“I would have to climb down that hatch and say, ‘Let’s go to work for America!’
When he and his wife, Dawn, retired from the Navy they were living in Washington near Bremerton.
“Being a California girl she said she wanted to go some place where it was warm. We found beautiful Charlotte County,” he said. “After six months of retirement I realized I had to find something to do or my wife was going to kill me.
Sanzalone ended up working as a member of the Charlotte County Neighborhood Accountability Board.
“It’s a program for first offenders under 18 who have committed minor crimes. Our job is to work with these youths from 90 days to a year and get them back on track. Needless to say I talk up a career in the Navy for some of them.
“They couldn’t have written a better position for a guy like me. I get the opportunity to mentor and help these youths. There are about 18 of these programs in counties throughout the state.
“The Navy was a great job, but this is where I work now. It’s a spectacular job helping the youth of Charlotte County.”
The Sanzalones have three children: Angeline, 23; Stephanie, 20; and Antonio, 15.
“It sounds to me like Tony may become a submariner. He’s in Navy ROTC in school right now and doing well,” his old man said.
Command Master Chief Jack Sanzalone’s duty stations during his 30-year career in the U.S. Navy:
RECRUIT TRAINING COMMAND GREAT LAKE
USS COONTZ (DDG-40)
USS CONYNIGHAM (DDG-17)
USS H.J. ELLISON (DD-864)
USS GATO (SSN-615)
USS GEORGE C. MARSHALL (SSBN 654)
NAVAL SUBMARINE SCHOOL INSTRUCTOR
USS HONOLULU (SSN-718)
SUBMARINE SQUADRON 17
USS GEORGIA (SSBN-729)
SENIOR ENLISTED ACADEMY CLASS 81
USS PITTSBURG (SSN-720)
SUBMARINE SQUADRON 2
USS PARCHE (SSN-683)
SUBMARINE DEVELOPMENT SQUADRON 5
USS JIMMY CARTER (SSN-23)
SPECIAL PROJECTS PERSONNEL SUPPORT DETACHMENT
Name: Jack Robert Sanzalone, Jr.
D.O.B: 2 March 1962
Hometown: Kearny, NJ
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: February 1982
Discharged: October 2011
Rank: Command Master Chief
Unit: Nuclear submarines
Commendations: Specialist Breast Insignia, Enlisted Submarine Warfare Breast Insignia, Silver Deep Submergence Insignia, Meritorious Service Medal (2), Navy Commendation Medal (6), Navy Achievement Medal (3), Good Conduct Award, Meritorious Unit Commendation (7), Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Commendation, Sea Service Ribbon (4), Navy “E” Ribbon (5), National Defense Service Medal (2), Navy Expeditionary Medal, Coast Guard Special Ops Service Ribbon, Kosovo Campaign Medal (24 March 99 – 10 Jun 99), NATO Medal “Operation Allied Force (24 March 99 – 20 July 99), Armed Forces Service Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Oct. 28, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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