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News >  Military

Ears to the sea: Cold War veteran honored by city of Hayden retells experience hunting submarines

Nov. 10, 2022 Updated Thu., Nov. 10, 2022 at 10:02 p.m.

The ocean isn’t as peaceful as it’s made out to be, according to Harold “Hal” Donahue.

“Everyone thinks the ocean is nice and quiet and deep,” the 89-year-old Coeur d’Alene resident said. “But it’s very noisy. You pass through a bed of shrimp and you can hear them. It sounds like a forest fire crackling.”

Porpoises, whales and all manner of creatures, including humans hiding in submersibles, fill the ocean with sounds, according to Donahue.

He should know. Donahue spent four years listening to those sounds, including the echoes of Russian submarines below the ocean’s surface, as a sonar operator on a Fletcher-class destroyer in the U.S. Navy in the 1950s.

Donahue, who serves as an honor guard with the American Legion Post 154, was named the city of Hayden’s distinguished veteran of the year.

The honor guard is responsible for honoring U.S. military veterans at their funerals.

“Mr. Donahue is well-deserving of this award and was chosen because of his many accomplishments while enlisted in the U.S. Navy and reserves, as well volunteering with American Legion Post 154 since moving to North Idaho,” Hayden’s recreation and events director Suzanne Cano said of Donahue’s recent recognition at the city. “We thank him for his selfless service to our community and country.”

Donahue’s travels in the Navy took him around the world, including the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the South China Sea. His and his shipmate’s job: Keep Russian submarines out of restricted areas.

Without modern technology, detecting submarines was a complicated operation aboard the destroyer that required multiple phone lines to communicate time, range and depth, Donahue said. Acoustics, ocean currents, even water temperature, come into play, he said.

It all starts in the “sonar shack,” a secretive work station where only Donahue, his team and certain officers were allowed. The sonar team used the pitch of echoes to determine the location and direction of potential submarines. Sonar operators like Donahue were able to determine this the same way an oncoming car’s pitch changes as it gets closer to the listener.

That’s where things get tricky. Those echoes can also come from a thick school of fish, seaweed, the ocean floor or other large objects in the water, he said.

When a submarine was detected, there was a shipwide call to battle stations.

“One on one, the odds are 7-10 in favor of the submarine,” Donahue said.

Submarines back then could detect ships much farther away than ships could detect them, he said. The submarines’ goal was to stay hidden underwater.

“If it can help it, the submarine won’t waste a torpedo on a destroyer,” Donahue said. “They’re after bigger targets. Carriers. Tankers. Ammunition ships. Troop ships. The carrier is probably the prime target.”

Destroyers were expendable in anti-submarine warfare. If a torpedo was traveling toward a carrier, nearby destroyers were expected to act as a shield and take the hit instead.

Destroyers used depth charges, equipped with about 300 pounds of TNT, set to detonate at the approximate depth of the submarine.

“You almost have to get a direct hit to destroy a submarine,” Donahue said. More often, crews would disable the submarines “to bring it to the surface and then you can use the 5-inch guns to destroy it. Or you ram it.”

Donahue trained regularly for naval warfare aboard his ship, but said he never came into direct contact with enemy vessels. Instead, he was sent to patrol the Taiwan Straits to help provide safe passage for Chinese nationalists fleeing communist China for Taiwan in 1955.

“We were standing wartime watches, four hours on, four hours off,” he recalled. “There were sometimes a week when I didn’t make it to my rack, I would just sleep on the deck.”

Originally, Donahue had planned to pursue a career as a doctor and began working full time in high school as an orderly at a hospital in his hometown of Glendive, Montana. After his mother died from cancer when he was still a teenager, he decided against the profession.

Instead, he took a job on an oil seismograph crew, which got his foot in the door as an “electronic seaman recruit” in the Navy.

Donahue took on a number of other jobs after the Navy, including roughneck on oil rigs in Montana and Wyoming, and as a steel mill worker in Chicago, before ultimately finishing school at the University of Montana and moving to Southern California to work as an auditor.

Donahue also took up a hobby as a race car driver with the Shelby Motorsports team until he was 66. He even took up a career later in life as an actor, doing voice work, commercials and appearing in more than a dozen episodes of “Star Trek” as an extra.

After more than 50 years of marriage, Donahue’s wife, Patricia, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2014. The two moved to North Idaho that year. Donahue said he was living in his apartment by himself and visiting Patricia at her home three times a day, but he needed something more to do with his day.

That same year, Donahue joined the American Legion Post 154 in Rathdrum, where he continues to serve as an honor guard.

“It gave me a little purpose,” he said. “It’s an honor, it really is. People are so thankful. It’s very gratifying.”

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