Ben Bastura, the Keeper of the Flame

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
 
 

If you rode submarines, any class, at any point in the history of submarines, you owe a debt of gratitude to a gentleman whose devotion, dedication and hard work has kept much of our heritage from history’s overboard trash dump.

When you meet this remarkable gentleman and visit his 'Museum', you'll realize what a difference one man can make when he dedicates his life to a cause so men he never met and ships he never sailed in, will not be lost in the shuffle of the submarine force's ever-changing history and emphasis on each new class of submersible.

Ben Bestura has literally sacrificed his home to house our legacy. I visited this gentleman thanks to John Wynn, one of the shoemaker’s elves of Groton Base. I have no idea where Mr. Bastura sleeps… All of the rooms in his house warehouse our history… Yours, mine… Our predecessors… Men who rested oars long before most of us were born. Mr. Bastura has rescued forgotten artifacts, written documentation and painstakingly displayed it for everyone to come and see… Anyone who can find their way to his door.

There is no ticket booth… Nothing will show up in a credit card statement. No tax money to generate public criticism and complaint… Just a box on top of filing cabinets containing a file of everything he has been able to find out about each and every boat that went to sea flying U.S. colors.

He never pointed out the box. “Generous John” Wynn whispered to me that the box was the furnace that powered his effort and to toss some fuel in there. Fueling that Aladdin’s cave is an honor… An honor each and every raghat that ever stowed his gear inside a pressure hull owes himself to experience.

Mr. Bastura’s home is like King Tut's treasure room... World War II Submarine battle flags… Hundreds and hundreds of ship's plaques… Examples of damn near every ship's patch ever conceived… Hundreds of photos, certificates... Unsolicited testimonials, letters of heartfelt thanks running the complete spectrum of the submarine community… From Admiral to Messcook.

Where could you go and take a loving child to see an actual set of thirteen-button blues worn by a mannequin… Complete with 'cuff' Dolphins, a fully loaded combat patrol pin and a ruptured duck patch? How 'bout a Momsen Lung? How about a collection of models of every class of American submarines beginning with John Holland’s boat… Handmade by your host, the owner archivist, curator, resident and tour guide? And the 'all of the above' gentleman tells a wonderful story about how he paid some neighborhood lads to haul a creosote-soaked railroad crosstie to his house from which he hand-carved a detailed replica of a fleet boat. Let that sink in a moment… Close your eyes, mentally picture a person carving out a four or five foot smokeboat. Given a choice of doing that or being handed a bowling ball and an ice pick and asked to carve a likeness of Abe Lincoln, I’d go for Lincoln… Why? Because I have seen the submarine and I know that’s impossible. I think those handmade models told me the most about the love this gentleman has for submarines.

Mr. Bastura also runs a private submarine research facility out of what were once his dining room and kitchen. Not an amateurish scrapbook collection… No sir, this gentleman has a series of 'boat files' used by historians , writers and old bluejackets, and he is recognized as the 'go to man' by naval historians world-wide as a major authority on American submarine history.

Before John Wynn, Gumba and the Groton Subvets got Mr. Bastura a printer / copier, he used to take info from his files, crank up his car, go pay to have copies made, come home and mail the material using envelopes and postage stamps he personally paid for. Mr. Bastura is not a Rockefeller or the operator of a diamond mine in his basement… Just a very generous man who feels compelled to keep blowing on the embers of the dying fire of long ago submarine history.

To go to the place where Mr. Bastura could get copies made, he had to back out into a major traffic artery with his car. You would actually have to see this to visualize how dangerous it was. To come close, mentally picture backing a Mexican donkey cart against the traffic flow on the Indianapolis 500. John and Gumba were deeply concerned about Ben's survival, and once you have seen the act performed, you realize that their fear was totally justified.

There are submarine exhibits housed in grand edifices with graphic displays funded by public funds or corporate largess, but none of them represent both submarines and the bluejackets who rode them like this unbelieveably extensive collection in a house in Middletown, Connecticut. If you have the opportunity, visit it… You will not regret the decision.

If you can’t and you would like to take away some of the financial burden this gentleman has acquiring things and saving our heritage for future generations, you can mail him a check or better yet… Place an upturned white hat on the table at your next Sub Vets meeting or vote him a donation from your base treasury. Nothing you will ever do will have a greater effect on the preservation of submarine history and will send a clearer message of appreciation to this wonderful gentleman. He asks for nothing… Never has… Never will. That too makes him so remarkable.

Also, most of the donations we make get reduced by the porked-up overhead that every benevolent organization pulls as a silent invisible 'dead horse'.

Ben has no Deputy Director for Public Relations… No annual convention… No advertising expense or travel budget. There is just Ben… His house and his rapidly disappearing living space. As his museum expands, he has either got to figure out how to sleep on the roof or pitch a tent in the yard.

Another thing… Do you have some memorabilia tucked away from your days riding the boats? A patch? Photos? Ship's party program? Submarine publication? Uniform? Insignia? Medals? Memories from the War? Do you want these things to live on and to touch and be touched by future generations of red-blooded American lads who will go to sea in submarines? Well, the best thing you can do is pack them up and ship them to Ben before you end up in the nursing home, playing Scrabble with the bedpan lady and your kids start pitching out your gear.

Ben has made iron-clad legal arrangements for the preservation, perpetual display and archiving of his assembled and recorded collection. And do you know what Ben does? He places a 3x5 typed card by each object that is donated to him, giving full credit and attribution to the donor. Nothing is too small or insignificant for Ben's collection… If it concerns submarines, it concerns Ben Bastura.

When you are sitting at your kitchen table writing out a check for Ben, before you fill in the amount… Close your eyes and think of one man who loves our history so much that he whittled a fleet boat our of a railroad crosstie. Then, think of all the other submarine exhibits and displays… Did you ever shake hands with anyone who made one of every class of boat and hacked one out of a creosote-soaked chink of wood as long as your living room sofa? Now, fill in the amount and smile because you have just done more to honor your service heritage than all the years of bingo playing at the American Legion… You’ve done a very worthwhile thing.

You want to know what the best part about all this is? If Ben thought for one moment I was doing this, he would pick up something from his collection that was solid brass and heavy as hell and part my hair with it. God love him… We were always represented by the finest and Ben Bastura is certainly that. His address:

Bernard A. Bastura

Submarine Library Museum

440 Washington Street

Middletown, CT 06457

If I had lived in the Forward Battery, I would probably know how to properly honor this gentleman on behalf of the entire Submarine Force… Platinum special Dolphins or something. But I was an 'After Battery Rat' and I can think of no finer honor than the mental picture of this fine man going to his mailbox day after day and finding envelopes with old stove-up bluejacket return addresses containing modest checks to fuel his work… Hand salutes are great but they don’t 'feed the bulldog'.

Ben Bastura, American patriot… Museum builder, librarian, archivist, submarine memorabilia preservationist, historian, pack rat, and above all, probably the best friend a sub sailor ever had.

John Wynn, Ben Bastura, 'Dex' Armstrong

 

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