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New Submarine Force Museum director and Nautilus OIC settles into role in unusual times

Groton — With a background in engineering and a fascination with naval nuclear propulsion, Lt. Cmdr. Derek Sutton said starting as director of the Submarine Force Museum and officer-in-charge of the USS Nautilus gave him "the opportunity to do something completely different."

But the timing has made the experience even more unique: He took over while the museum was closed due to a global pandemic and also is planning for the Nautilus going to dry dock later this year. The museum reopened May 26.

Sutton came to Groton in February to learn from his predecessor, Cmdr. Bradley Boyd, in a turnover period before taking over April 14, when the change of charge occurred.

Sutton said as the OIC, he has about 30 sailors working for him. As museum director, he has eight civilian staff, including a curator, visual information specialist and education specialist. The visual information specialist, Larnell Anthony, has been working on the museum's new augmented reality feature.

With the Zappar app, visitors can use their phone to scan QR codes found around the museum and project images onto their surroundings. For example, on Wednesday, Anthony talked to a visitor viewing a video of USS Holland trials, which was projected onto a wall. Sutton said one of his favorites is a spot where one can virtually "try on" a World War II-era scuba helmet.

Retired Adm. John Padgett, president of the Submarine Force Library and Museum Association, in April credited Boyd and his team for taking advantage of "the opportunity to improve the museum dramatically during the shutdown period," citing the augmented reality program.

Another change is a new wall for the submarine models, which the association sponsored.

Sutton said since homeschooling grew exponentially during the pandemic, the museum is looking into doing homeschooling outreach. The museum also is bringing back its docent program.

As for the Nautilus: In the fall, the historic submarine will be taken to a dry dock for maintenance. At the change of charge, Boyd said that means the Nautilus "will exit in 2022 certified for another 30 years, which means the next time dry dock is due, the hull will turn 100 years old."

Sutton said this week a lot of the maintenance is paint preservation, and even though the Nautilus isn't operational, sitting in the Thames River takes its toll. He said the Nautilus should be coming out of dry dock in the first quarter of next year.

A native of upstate New York, Sutton, 37, enlisted in the U.S. Navy out of high school in 2002, going through the nuclear propulsion training pipeline. After a year and a half, he entered the Naval Academy, getting his commission in 2007.

He then served on the USS Louisiana in Bangor, Wash.; at the Nuclear Power Training Unit in South Carolina; on the USS Florida in Kings Bay, Ga.; and as Submarine Squadron 6 engineer in Norfolk, Va.

He lives in Groton now with his two dogs, while his wife and four young kids are still in Virginia. But he said they video chat every night — so the communication is better than being on a submarine.

Boyd, who served as OIC from January 2018 to this year, was humble in his remarks at the change of charge: Boyd noted he is the only active-duty museum director in the Navy, and thanked his staff for taking his "museum and archive ignorance in stride."

"To say that this tour is humbling does not do the feeling justice," he said. "Nothing compares to going to a museum, especially one that shows what a ship — and in my thankful case, a submarine — means to its crew."

Retired Capt. Patrick Burns, deputy director of Naval History and Heritage Command, talked about the importance of the museum director.

"We lived through the great achievements and amazing sacrifices of our times, and we say we will never forget, but time marches on and we do start to forget," he said. "What Cmdr. Boyd has done, and Lt. Cmdr. Sutton will do, is help us remember. We have a moral and ethical obligation to remember and honor the achievements and sacrifices of those who came before us."

e.moser@theday.com

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