By Judith Munson —
In 1959, Dick Cagle returned home after a few years in the Navy to an apartment above a grocery store on the north side of La Crosse where he lived with his wife, Darlene. He worked second shift as a machinist at Trane with his dad and often stopped by Red Lantern for a couple beers after work.
“One night after a hot August day—just miserable—I told my dad I was thinking of going back in the Navy,” recalls Cagle. “And I asked him to talk me out of it.”
His dad proceeded to tell him it was time to settle down and be more responsible. “You need to be more like me,” his dad said. “I have a mortgage. I have a car payment. I owe ‘Monkey Wards’ and Sears; I have responsibilities.”
Cagle’s response? “I thought about it, and the next day I told Dad I was re-enlisting.”
After a visit to the local recruiter’s office, Dick, Darlene and their beagle puppy headed to New London, Connecticut, where he would begin training. Cagle had worked on surface ships during his first tour of duty. He told the recruiters he now wanted to work on submarines, and the New London base is known as the “Home of the Submarine Force.”
What followed is a long career that introduced Cagle to several parts of the world—including Bermuda, Portugal and Puerto Rico—giving him a front-row seat to the dawn of the nuclear age and a life of learning.
Cagle’s first mission was to the Mediterranean, and he left 10 days after the birth of his first child. “I went to Mount Vesuvius, an active volcano, while on leave for a few days,” says Cagle. “It was interesting, because the farther I walked, I could feel my feet getting hotter.”
His months in the Mediterranean introduced him to the Spanish Riviera and Monaco in the French Riviera, where they could watch Formula 1 races from offshore.
Cagle’s career started on the smaller diesel subs, where, as one can imagine, space was in short supply. “To roll over in a bunk, you had to get out and get back in again. We worked in three shifts, every day, 365 days a year, so three guys would share two bunks.”
Some guys would quit due to the confined life and months spent submersed, but Cagle served on eight subs, including some of the first nuclear ones. “It was like going from a VW bug to a Cadillac, there was so much room.”
Atmospheric conditions can play a frightening role in a sailor’s life, as Cagle learned firsthand when attempting to open the hatch after a storm to get up on deck. The air pressure outside was so low, and the air pressure under him was so high, he shot out like a canon.
“I pirouetted a few times airborne, then was blown into the ship’s superstructure,” says Cagle. “I ended up in water up to my chest until the deck drained, and then the corpsman checked me out. There wasn’t much of a medical facility on subs back then, so he patched me up with basically a Band-Aid, and I still have a wound that opens to this day when my head is in water.”
Cagle served as a navigator and reached the rank of chief quartermaster by the time he retired. His subs served a variety of missions. He spent time on a fast-attack sub that tracked Russian submarines during the Cold War. He also spent a few years on solid ground as an associate professor at Villanova University, assigned to teach new Naval Reserve officer recruits.
Cagle retired from the Navy in 1978. His family moved several times with children Jean, Rick, Alan and Tommy, born at four different hospitals. Alan and Tommy are also retired from the Navy’s submarine force.
It’s a safe bet to call his decision to forgo civilian life as a young man and re-enlist a wise one. His education in the Navy included fire and law enforcement training, so back in La Crosse, Cagle worked for years at the airport in fire suppression and later as a sheriff’s deputy.
“I wouldn’t have had the chance to learn the things I did, make the friends I did, or see the places I saw without the Navy. It was good to me, and I still miss it.”