San Juan home for the holidays

Groton - After he stepped off the USS San Juan Tuesday, Chief Electrician's Mate Michael McCoy told his wife how much he missed her during the past six months.

Then he said something a bit more unexpected - he wanted to take the family on vacation to South Africa.

"I never thought I'd say that," McCoy said. "But I'd go back there anytime."

The San Juan returned to the Naval Submarine Base Tuesday after a six-month deployment during which the crew visited South Africa for the first-ever submarine exercises between the U.S. and South African navies.

"It's good to be part of the first experience, and hopefully a lot more ships will be able to pull in there," McCoy said. "It's an outstanding port."

Cmdr. Oliver "Ollie" Lewis, commanding officer of the San Juan, called it an opportunity for the crew to participate in "ground-breaking diplomacy with the South African navy" that could lead to combined operations in the future.

South Africa has three submarines.

The San Juan, a Los Angeles-class submarine homeported in Groton, arrived in South Africa on Nov. 4. Members of the South African navy took tours and then both went out to sea for a series of submarine-tracking exercises. Several submariners from both navies swapped ships, marking the first time U.S. sailors have gone underway on a South African submarine.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Lt. j.g. Jason Patton. "I feel very lucky and blessed to be one of the few that experienced that."

The crew helped renovate a local school and competed against the South African navy in a soccer match.

"We lost 8-3," Lewis said. "I think they took it easy on us."

Lt. j.g. Jim Colley finished all the necessary training to wear gold dolphins, a pin that officers qualified in submarines wear on their uniforms, shortly before arriving in South Africa. He was told that it is tradition in the South African navy to drink a "yard of beer" to mark such an occasion.

"I'm not one to break tradition," he said, laughing about his experience in the South African officers club.

Colley said the visit to South Africa was "eye-opening."

"They have become a pretty capable submarine force in a short time," he said.

The San Juan also made stops in Souda Bay, Crete; Diego Garcia; and the Seychelles islands during this deployment. Many of the crew members said they were excited to be back in Groton to start celebrating the holiday season with their families.

"It was a great deployment with a great crew," Patton said, "and that made it bearable to be away from the family."

j.grogan@theday.com

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