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Artificial Reef Near Sarasota Honors Lost Submarines And Those Who Served On Them

Oct 4, 2019

Sixty-five submarines have been lost since the U.S. Navy created an undersea force in 1900.

A new artificial reef recently opened off the coast of Sarasota honoring these boats and the more than 4,000 crew members who never made it home.

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67 of these "reef balls" now lie at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico forming the "On Eternal Patrol Memorial Reef." BRIAN DOMBROWSKI/ETERNAL REEFS

The "On Eternal Patrol Memorial Reef" is made up of concrete structures called reef balls, which essentially look like giant whiffle balls cut in half.

The finished reef has 67 of them laid out at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. There is one for lost service members, another commending United States Submarine Veterans, Inc. and one for each sunken ship.

The last boat lost at sea was the USS Scorpion.

Lakewood Ranch resident Phil Orapallo, 75, served on it a few years before it mysteriously disappeared in 1968.

Lakewood Ranch resident Phil Orapallo, 75, served on the USS Scorpion a few years before it mysteriously disappeared in 1968. STEPHANIE COLOMBINI/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

"99 guys lost their lives on that boat and I knew a lot of them, especially the two chiefs, Walter 'Wally' Bishop and Frank ‘Patsy’ Mazzuchi, they were like fathers to me,” he said.

Orapallo said now he hates being on boats and doesn’t even think he’d board a submarine if it was sitting at a dock.

But he toughed it out to represent the Scorpion at the reef dedication ceremony in May, about nine miles off the coast of Sarasota.

Organizers rang a bell for each boat and surviving veterans and family members dropped flowers in the water.

"It’s a ‘thank you’ for those guys that sacrificed and lost their lives,” Orapallo said. “That trip out there was very, very emotional, very nice, I'm glad I did it."

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Phil Orapallo (second from left) stands beside fellow submarine veterans at the reef dedication ceremony in May. They bow their heads to remember each ship that was lost. BRIAN DOMBROWSKI/ETERNAL REEFS

The memorial was created by Eternal Reefs. The nonprofit typically works with people to create reefs that contain the remains of their loved ones.

“When we put these reef balls down, they add structure to the marine environment and Mother Nature gets to go to work on them right away,” said CEO George Frankel. “These reefs are recreational reefs, they’re there for fishing and diving purposes, so people get to use these reefs on a regular basis.”

RELATED: 'Circle Of Heroes' Underwater Veterans Memorial Open For Diving

It didn't take long after the reef balls were initially placed in the water for algae to form on them, and marine life has flocked to them as well. BRIAN DOMBROWSKI/ETERNAL REEFS

Frankel said their long-term goal is to convince the Department of Veterans Affairs to cover burials at the On Eternal Patrol Memorial Reef the same way it does for vets at national cemeteries.

The reef balls are even laid out in the same formation as graves at cemeteries, with Frankel dubbing the memorial the “Arlington of the Sea.”

"The concept of reef memorialization is very valid, it's meaningful, it can be done in a dignified way, and it is a real contribution for a lot of people who spent their entire lives serving the United States,” he said. “We think it’s time that the Veterans Administration takes a look at this as being part of its memorialization program.”

The VA turned them down a few years ago before the reef was constructed, but Frankel said they will keep trying.

In the meantime, veterans interested in paying out of pocket can still apply to be memorialized there in the future. The cost ranges from $3,000 to $7,000.