By Paul Tennant
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — As a U.S. Navy submariner during the Cold War, Frederick Pietrowski encountered three Soviet subs in New York Harbor, stared into the mouth of a 35-foot Great White shark and survived a collision with a huge oil tanker.
He also worked in temperatures as hot as 140 degrees and cold enough to freeze his clothing solid.
Pietrowski, of Lawrence, has written a book about his experiences in the submarine service. Titled “De Profundis,” Latin for “From the Depths,” he said he expects his story to be published within the next few months.
Pietrowski shared some of his adventures recently with members of the Merrimack Valley Tea Party at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2104. At such a venue and among such a group, accounts of putting one’s life on the line for the United States are very well received.
“I’ve always loved to swim underwater,” Pietrowski told his audience — so after graduating from Central Catholic High School in 1959, he enlisted in the Navy and volunteered for submarine service. After taking several psychological tests and enduring rigorous physical ordeals, he was accepted, he said.
The diesel-powered subs on which he served were 16 feet wide and 305 feet long, with a crew of 125 sailors — and 66 bunks. A military submarine works 24-7 so the crew works in shifts.
When a sailor stands watch in the colder climates, “the ice burns through your face,” Pietrowski said.
Often a sub goes on secret missions and “not even the captain knows where we’re going,” he said.
It was during a goodwill tour that Pietrowski had his close encounter with the Soviet Navy. He was blessed with keen eyesight, he said, and while observing the Statue of Liberty, “I see a Russian periscope pop up.”
He passed this on to the captain, who contacted the high command. The order came back: “Chase him out of there!” Pietrowski’s shipmates then spotted a second Soviet sub, this one armed with two missiles, he said.
It could easily have leveled Manhattan, he said. When the Americans discovered a nuclear submarine in their vicinity, they radioed the high command to see if it was a U.S. vessel that had been sent to help them evict the intruders.
No, the high command radioed back, all U.S. nuclear subs were accounted for — so they had a third Soviet sub menacing New York.
Pietrowski’s sub and several others chased the Soviets down the East Coast to Virginia, he recalled. At that point, the visitors left American waters and headed back across the Atlantic.
Pietrowski joked that this was a “nonevent that never happened.” Fifty years ago, it didn’t make the newspapers, but now the story is being told. Many in the audience probably got chills when Pietrowski said that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, four Soviet subs were prowling under the American warships — undetected.
“They could have blown up the whole fleet,” he said.
After leaving the Navy in 1964, Pietrowski helped build the lunar excursion module (LEM) that landed on the moon in 1969 and made computers for Honeywell for 30 years. He has also built and repaired more than 300 wooden boats.
Pietrowski seems to have a knack for finding himself in interesting situations. A little more than five years ago, he bought a file cabinet for $2 at a yard sale. When he looked inside, he found stock and bond certificates worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Working with then-state Treasurer Timothy Cahill, he returned the certificates to their rightful owners.