Beneath the Surface: The Story of an American Military Watch

Walter Schaub’s Caravelle watch was purchased during his service aboard a ballistic missile submarine in the midst of the Cold War.

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Justin Couture

For many, myself included, there is an inherent fascination with modes of transportation. From airplanes to automobiles, machinery designed to navigate land, air, and sea generates a certain intangible allure. Nothing revs up the imagination more than the vehicles built for the most unrelenting environments, be it space travel, military operations, mountaineering, or ocean exploration.

Although watches often accompanied daring individuals on these adventures, more often than not this provenance is lost to time. Occasionally, the watch world gets lucky with a case back inscription or historical photograph shedding some light upon a hidden past. In the case of an unassuming Caravelle watch, a clue to the history was printed right on the dial.

The Caravelle brand, introduced in the early 1960’s by Bulova Watch Company, represented a price-conscious option for the general public. Typical of the time period, this chrome-plated case measures a mere 34 millimeters in diameter. Though the basic seven-jewel movement has been overwound and the acrylic crystal bears the scars of time, the watch was clearly cared for and remains in admirable condition despite its half-century of existence.

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Bulova Watch Company’s old headquarters building in Queens.

Although unremarkable in most regards, it’s the watch’s dial that serves as a point of intrigue. Just below twelve o’clock is the Silent Service insignia depicting an O-class submarine between two stylized dolphins, while opposite this emblem is an illustration of a Polaris submarine — two not-so-subtle hints about where this watch came from.

While serving in the United States Navy from 1964 through 1974, Walter Schaub became submarine-qualified aboard the USS Menhaden (SS 377) in 1965. He described the seven-month submarine qualification process as grueling, requiring knowledge of all electrical systems, valves, and operations before being subjected to examination by a Chief’s Board. After proudly besting the gauntlet of submariner qualification, he was assigned to the USS George C. Marshall (SSBN-654) out of Holy Loch, Scotland.

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The USS George C. Marshall (SSBN-664).

It was typical for fleet ballistic missile (FBM) submarines to be operated by two full crews — in this case, a “blue” and a “gold” crew. Schaub functioned as a Machinist’s Mate on the blue crew, and was flown to Holy Loch for a thirty-day refit of the USS George C. Marshall followed by two months submerged at sea.

The mission of the USS George C. Marshall was to serve as a strategic deterrent to Russia during the Cold War. Equipped with 16 ballistic Polaris missiles, this 425ft.-long boomer displaced over 8,000 tons of water and was capable of speeds in excess of 20 knots. While serving aboard the Marshall in December of ’67, Schaub and the crew were picked up by a Russian sub’s sonar and tracked for three days despite their best efforts to evade the enemy.

This pursuit resulted in a collision between the two submarines, inflicting damage to the starboard ballast tanks and ballistic steel bulkhead of the George C. Marshall. This encounter signaled the end of the mission for Schaub and his sub, as it was sent to Rota, Spain for repairs and he returned home.

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Walter Schaub’s Caravelle watch with the Silent Service insignia.

After arriving back in the States in late 1967, Schaub purchased four watches from the Navy exchange while on base in New London, Connecticut. He bought two Caravelles depicting the aforementioned dial markings, as well as two ladies pin watches with similar markings. He kept one of the two Caravelles for himself and gifted one to his father-in-law. The pin watches were given to his wife and mother.

Although Schaub’s watch was eventually misplaced, his father-in-law wore the counterpart proudly from 1967 until his passing in the mid-1990s. According to Schaub, he adored the watch and showed it off in pubs throughout Scotland. This Caravelle is a reminder that, whether used aboard a submarine, on pub crawls throughout Scotland, or received as a heartfelt gift from a loved one, often the most enthralling aspects of a vintage watch dwell deep beneath the surface, potent reminders of their history and significance.

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