For 'Big Al,' second time was a charm

Command Master Chief Alexander "Big Al" Atkinson tips his hat during his retirement ceremony aboard the USS Providence at the sub base in Groton on Friday.
Command Master Chief Alexander "Big Al" Atkinson tips his hat during his retirement ceremony aboard the USS Providence at the sub base in Groton on Friday. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

Groton - Early in his Navy career, Alexander Atkinson was on the verge of getting kicked out of the service.

"The world stopped for a second," Atkinson said of the disciplinary hearing held in the early 1980s. "And I thought, 'Hmm, maybe I haven't thought this out.' "

But his boss at the time, now retired Senior Chief James Mitchell, had no intentions of letting that happen. Atkinson was a new corpsman, working in the medical facility at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

"He was being a little too rambunctious," Mitchell said.

"That's putting it mildly," said Atkinson, who lives in Groton.

Atkinson was given a second chance. He decided to apply himself.

Mitchell, who lives in North Carolina, was there Friday when Atkinson, 49, retired from a 30-year Navy career as a command master chief.

"I had all daughters, so I had to adopt a son," Mitchell said. "I got a good one. I'm so proud of him."

Known as "Big Al," Atkinson spent more than half of his career at the Naval Submarine Base, including tours as the command master chief of the base and the chief of the boat on the USS Toledo (SSN 769) and the USS Memphis (SSN 691). He most recently served as the command master chief for the Naval Submarine Support Center.

"When people say they're Big Al-trained, or they knew Big Al, or Big Al was my mentor, Jim Mitchell was your mentor, the captains I've worked for were your mentors," Atkinson said. "They instilled in me what you see as Big Al."

Atkinson, at 6 feet 4 inches, was well known for his stature and for the way he watched out for the sailors.

"He would aggressively ensure that each crew member's family was well taken care of, and then he would reach out to the extended family and ensure that they knew that Big Al had their boy," said Capt. William R. Merz, the guest speaker at Friday's retirement ceremony. "Any concerns, they would call him."

Merz called Atkinson "Big Al the sailors' pal." They served together on the Memphis and the USS Boise (SSN 764).

Atkinson's techniques were so powerful, Merz said, that they were incorporated into the training for prospective commanding officers and senior enlisted personnel.

On Friday the speakers sat on a platform on the USS Providence (SSN 719) while the many guests sat underneath tents on the pier.

Atkinson "is the Navy," Cmdr. Raymond Gabriel said.

"He is what the Navy was, is, and will be," said Gabriel, commanding officer of the Providence. "He has touched the lives of so many people, sailors and civilians alike. Just look around and you can see his reach."

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Rick D. West, the senior enlisted person in the Navy, attended the ceremony and congratulated Atkinson on a successful career and expressed the Navy's appreciation for his service.

"You have been instrumental in shaping young submarine warriors, past, present and into the future," he said.

Atkinson also received congratulatory letters from President Barack Obama and former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as from the governors of Connecticut and his home state of Pennsylvania. He was awarded the meritorious service medal.

Atkinson thanked the many people who supported him, especially his family. Atkinson and his wife, Kate, also celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary Friday.

Atkinson asked the audience to keep in mind the soldiers, sailors and Marines currently guarding the nation.

"May they all come home safely," he said. "Big Al is out."

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