BREMERTON, Wash. — What happens to the things they carried?
The memories, the stories, the mementoes that submariners collect during their long months under the sea? Things only fellow shipmates would consider priceless?
For retired Torpedoman 1st Class Larry Timby, the personal and unit items shared — and sometimes pocketed along the way — follow a certain theme.
“When you first get out of the military, you have your plaques and your awards, and you hang them in your house,” Timby said. “They call it their ‘I Love Me’ wall.”
But over the years, he said, things change.
“The wife or the girlfriend doesn’t want to see it on the wall anymore,” he said. “And when you downsize or move, what do you do with it?”
Sure, some stuff gets packed in a box and forgotten. But over the years, many submariners have opted to send their stuff to the Horse & Cow, perhaps the most legendary submariner bar on the planet.
Part cozy dive, part museum, the Horse & Cow’s location in downtown Bremerton stands as an homage to the silent service, a monument that you can drink in.
On the bar’s bulkheads swim the history of the American submariner, through items meaningful not only to the sailors who donated them but also the crews that recognize the artifacts when they spot them.
On one wall hangs what’s believed to be the original canvas banner from the Nautilus, America’s first nuclear-powered submarine launched in 1954, four years before she dove under the North Pole.
Another wall features a box of three military-issue knives, given to the tavern by a retired Navy SEAL who’d rather have them displayed here than languish in an attic trunk.
Overhead, attached to a USS Horse & Cow (SSN 333 1/3) sail, the eyes find a pair of Texas longhorns. They went underway aboard the now-decommissioned submarine Houston.
The tattered American flag that flew on the sub’s final tour is framed on another wall, a present from the boat’s last commander.
Walls are pocked in plaques and original World War II Walt Disney drawings of submarine insignia. Everywhere are banners and sideboards and probes and engine room throttle wheels, gadgets and gear looted by submariners over the years that ended up here.
When Navy Times visited, Timby proudly showed off their latest trophy: a sideboard from the submarine Bremerton, a boat on its way to being decommissioned after 37 years of service.
And then there’s a plaque from the Scorpion, a sub that sank under mysterious circumstances in 1968, killing 99 crewmen. A POW-MIA flag is draped nearby to remember them.
“I think it was a Cold War incident,” said Timby, disputing the semi-official explanation that an accidental torpedo explosion crushed the boat’s hull.
He thinks the Soviets sank her.
A yellowing bar biography on the wall explains that the name “Horse & Cow” stems from Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, who’s often portrayed accompanied by a small horse and a small cow, or bull.
During the world wars, “merchant sailors, terrified of being sunk by submarines, tattooed a horse on one ankle, a cow on the other, in hopes of ensuring safe passage,” the bio states.
It might be an architectural homage to the silent service, but the bar and restaurant also brims with sailors, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard hands, military veterans of all stripes and assorted Bremerton regulars.
One recent Friday night, waitresses passed out shots of “Nuke Waste,” a schnapps-like drink invented by Mike Looby, the founder and owner of the Horse & Cow’s Bremerton outpost.
When everyone has a shot of the bright green victual in front of them, the girls sound a klaxon behind the bar and everyone drinks.
Earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions gingerly sipped a shot while visiting the Horse & Cow with his son-in-law, a Navy submariner.
Looby said he had to gently goad the Alabama Republican into taking a sip.
“A lot of these old guys come in off the old boats, the diesel boats,” said Timby, who became co-owner of the bar a few years ago after spending years as one of Looby’s most loyal customers. “They have their reunions here. They see stuff and they light up.”
That’s because at the Horse & Cow, submariners, their boats and their buddies are never forgotten.
“There’s a lot of things that just fade away,” Timby said. “But as long as we’re here, we’ll always be remembered.”
“It wasn’t about the money”
Sipping a cocktail, Looby is decidedly coy about how his watering hole came to hold so many submarine treasures.
“How we acquired everything is a mystery,” Looby said.
But he’s acquired a lot. His 5,000-square-foot Horse & Cow in Guam, another U.S. submarine hub, displays other keepsakes. Spillover collectibles are stored away, perhaps destined one day for outlets in Groton, Connecticut, and Pearl Harbor.
“Everything’s original, we never paid for anything,” he said. “Some of the stuff came under the cuff, some of the stuff by captains.”
Some of it first landed in the hands of his father, the late Jimmy “The Godfather” Looby. An Army vet, he founded the first Horse & Cow in 1953 with his brothers in San Francisco.
Back then, surface warfare guys or civilians risked their butts daring to enter a submariner bar, but times have changed.
“If you brought something of value from the submarine and we put it up in the bar, it was open tap,” Looby recalled. “Beer, booze, food, whatever was available, and it was just given to the guys, and it wasn’t just a onetime thing.”
Pier 39 actually had boats tied up there. After a Defense Department round of base closures shuttered the waterfront, Jimmy Looby moved his operation to an area near Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco.
When another round of consolidations scuppered that location, The Godfather relocated to Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, northeast of San Francisco.
“You’re there to make money, but it wasn’t about the money,” Looby said. “In Vallejo, when I was working for my father, I know for a fact we gave away more booze than most bars in that town sold.”
When that base shut down, the Looby operation again shifted, this time to Bremerton, but The Godfather was done by then and his son had taken the helm, launching the Puget Sound outpost in 2000.
“Things I shouldn’t have”
Timby and Looby have an obvious affection for the submariner artifacts sailors have entrusted to them over the years. And some of the items submariners have smuggled to them are borderline bonkers.
Once while working with his dad in Vallejo, “we had non-charged reactor rods,” Looby said.
They also have an undisclosed number of primary valve cap covers from submarines, known in their post-service lives as the “Horse & Cow chalice.”
If you don’t know what a primary valve cap cover is, you’re probably not a submariner.
But after a primary valve cap cover’s retirement, barkeeps will pour a bottle of Nuke Waste into one of the caps and pass it around.
“Back in the nuke room, somewhere back aft, near the nuke room, they have this in the engine room,” Timby said. “That’s all I’m gonna say about it.”
“Those are highly controlled,” Looby added. “I’ve got quite a few of those, and when those come to me…I don’t know where it came from. I don’t ask questions. I don’t care.”
Sometimes, buttoned-up officers come into the bar, demanding to know who gave Looby his latest memento, but he said he’ll always protect his sources from the squares.
“There’s some officers out there that everything is by the book,” he said. “Things show up and they’re out of their mind when they see it here.”
Sometimes they raise hell, Looby said, but nothing comes of it.
“If it ends up at the Horse & Cow, it’s at the Horse & Cow,” he said. “You can come look at it anytime, but it’s at the Horse & Cow.”
Sometimes things even move through official channels. The guys recently acquired two seats off the fast-attack submarine Albuquerque, which was decommissioned last year.
“Official paperwork and everything,” Timby said.
“For the most part, it’s drama free, but there are some things I get that I don’t want to boast about,” Looby said.
“You’re one beer away from Navy Times!”
Looby is sometimes wistful for the old Navy days, when everything wasn’t so sanitized and politically correct. At the same time, he doesn’t swab up as much puke or stop as many fights as he did back in the day. In fact, today’s junior enlisted kids look out for each other.
“There’s always at least one designated driver and they’re always making sure everybody has a ride home,” Timby said.
If some of the younger guys are really putting them back, Looby asks how they’re getting home, and the designated driver always raises his hand.
“He’s the one sitting there going, ‘I gotta sit here with all these drunk bastards and deal with them?’” Looby said.
From Guam to Bremerton and at several points in between, Looby has tipped back too many drinks to count, sipping with every rank from seaman to admiral.
He’s even gotten straight twisted with some flag officers, and recounted stories not fit for print.
“I always remind them, 'Hey man, you’re one beer away from Navy Times!” Looby said.
One sea story starts “in a land far, far away, in an undisclosed location” outside the United States.
“There was this admiral friend of mine,” Looby recalled. “We were hosting a boat from another country. It becomes a challenge to get them drunk. The foreign dignitary’s going to drink us under the table, or we’re going to drink them under the table.”
The battle commenced at about 4 p.m., and by 2 a.m., everyone was legless.
“I don’t want to hang anybody, but by that time, he was speaking ‘drunkanese,’” Looby said of the anonymous admiral. “I don’t think he even knew his own name, snot running from his nose.”
Eventually, the duty drivers for the foreign commanders arrived.
“Their captain and their commodore finally staggered out the door and that’s how it ended,” Looby said. “And we staggered out ourselves.”
Looby knows all the boats, and all the crews, even submariners who arrive in Bremerton years after they got out, just to belly up again at the bar.
“We picked up where we left off, like we haven’t missed a single day or a single story,” Looby said. “The rumors. He thought I was dead, I thought he was dead. But we’re sitting here, drinking beer.”
Geoff is the editor of Navy Times, but he still loves writing stories. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at email@example.com.