BENNINGTON TWP. — Larry Thayer served in the Navy for six years — spending most of that time as a nuclear technician on a submarine — before happily returning to civilian life.
But his military career wasn’t over. Joining the Michigan Army National Guard in 1988, Thayer found himself being deployed to Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm, where he guarded prisoners of war.
“I don’t regret one minute of it,” said Thayer, 58, who lives in Bennington Township and works as an electrician in Lansing. “I gained a valuable trade and saw parts of the world I would never have seen without being in the military.”
It all started with John Sowash, an electronics teacher at Corunna High School who inspired Thayer.
“‘Big John’ was an electronics technician master chief in World War II,” Thayer said. “My outlook for college wasn’t promising, financial-wise, so I joined the service.”
In Thayer’s senior year, he signed up for delayed entry into the Navy. He went in shortly after graduating, in July 1979, doing his basic training and electrician’s school at Naval Station Great Lakes in Chicago.
Showing an aptitude for electronics, he was encouraged to attend a nuclear power school in Orlando, Florida. Then he went to Saratoga, New York, for six months of hands-on training on four nuclear reactors. By the time Thayer finished his specialized education, he knew how to run a nuclear power plant.
He was assigned to work on a nuclear-powered submarine, home-ported in South Carolina, called the USS Tecumseh. At 435 feet long, it was one of the largest subs in existence at the time.
With the Cold War still underway, Thayer participated in four “deterrent patrols” in the North Atlantic on the submarine. His job was to work on electrical equipment in the boat’s nuclear propulsion plant.
“It was a job,” he said. “At certain times, it got exciting.”
One exciting activity was testing 64,000-pound missiles. From 150 feet below the surface of the ocean, his sub would launch intercontinental ballistic missiles at targets located 2,000 miles away. The missiles would land within 10 yards of the target, Thayer said.
Later, he was reassigned to a different sub, the USS Batfish, a fast attack boat. After two truck bombs struck buildings in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983, he joined a defensive submarine mission to keep Soviet subs from getting too close to Beirut.
Next, Thayer was tapped for a mission under the polar ice in the Arctic Circle. The research sub cruised there to investigate what Soviet subs in the Arctic Circle were up to.
Living on a submarine is not for the claustrophobic, Thayer said. They simply wouldn’t survive. Sailors sleep on a bed that’s 2 feet wide and 2 feet high. Underneath the bed, there was a small area for storing everything a submariner took with them.
The crew could make drinking water from salt water, and oxygen from water.
Food lasted only three months, imposing a time limit on missions. But for the trip to the Arctic Circle, the crew loaded 180 days’ worth of food, leaving them with even less space on board than usual.
Thayer himself adapted pretty easily.
“I grew up with six brothers and sisters,” he said, “so room was never spacious.”
The most difficult part, Thayer said, was getting through the hours upon hours the crew would be ordered to be silent, as the lowest-volume sounds might be picked up by nearby Soviet submarines.
When his enlistment was up, in 1985, Thayer decided he had gotten “tired of going out to sea” and returned home to Corunna with a plan to attend college. He enrolled at Lansing Community College, but hired on with General Motors as an electrician.
Thayer transferred to a Lansing plant it was torn down.
He later went to work for Johnson Controls in Owosso, putting in 12 hour days, seven days a week.
On the advice of a buddy, he joined the 144th Military Police unit based at the Michigan Army National Guard armory in Owosso. There seemed little risk of deployment, and he would be able to avoid working at the factory at least one weekend a month, when he had National Guard duty.
Three years later, just as Thayer’s contract with the Army was about to expire, the Gulf War — in which the U.S. led a coalition to turn back Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait — began.
“The day I reported to Fort Knox, Kentucky, was the day my contract expired,” Thayer said. “Needless to say, the contract was extended.”
He ended up working as a guard at a prisoner of war camp in Saudi Arabia.
The prisoners, Iraqi soldiers who had been wandering, deprived of essential needs, were “happy campers to be in the prison,” Thayer said. “They were grateful for a shower; for some, it was their first shower in six weeks. They were grateful to get the lice out of their hair.”
Thayer helped process more than 30,000 prisoners through the outdoor prison facility, and guarded them. Some of them spoke English, and so he was able to communicate with them.
He and the other guards slept in tents outside the prison’s fence perimeter. Thayer’s unit was among the first sent home, three months after arriving.
Thayer and his wife of 17 years, Audrey, and their two daughters, Samantha, 15, and Natalie, 14, live in Bennington Township.
Thayer has been a member of Owosso VFW Post 9455 for 32 years, where he is currently the commander.
He has held many positions at the post over the years, including commander (six times), county council commissioner and district commander. He also belongs to the Owosso American Legion Post 57.
Last year, under Thayer’s leadership, the Owosso VFW was presented with the prestigious All American Post status. The post qualified for participating in various VFW programs, including Voice of Democracy and Patriots Pen.
“It’s just helping fellow veterans,” Thayer said.