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Tom Sisson Jr.

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    Posted: 06 Sep 2020 at 6:52am

Thomas U. Sisson Jr., retired Navy officer

September 2, 2020

Thomas Upton Sisson Jr., 87, of Rehoboth Beach and Paris, France, passed away peacefully Monday, Aug. 31, 2020, at his home in Rehoboth Beach, of cancer.  Tom was the beloved husband of Mary Mallory Marshall (the former Mrs. Stuart Bowen Sr.), who survives him; the beloved father of his three sons, Edward, Thomas and Patterson; the beloved stepfather of Mary Mallory’s children Stuart Bowen and Sophie Schubert; the beloved grandfather of seven, as well as stepgrandfather of another seven; and the beloved great-grandfather of three (all surviving).  His beloved first wife, Mary Winslow, died in 1999.

Tom was born Sept. 9, 1932, in San Diego, Calif., to Thomas Upton Sisson and Edith Grey Nance.  As a child during World War II, Tom followed his mother to various Navy postings on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts while his father, a career naval officer, fought the Germans in the Atlantic, the “Vichy” French in North Africa, and the Japanese in the Pacific.  

After graduating St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., in 1950, where he was chosen senior prefect, Tom followed his father’s footsteps into the U.S. Naval Academy (class of 1954) where Tom graduated in the top 2 percent of more than 800 midshipmen.  

Tom then began a stellar 30-year Navy career.  Originally posted to destroyers, Tom sought the greater adventure and camaraderie of submarines, becoming in 1957 the junior officer aboard the diesel submarine Wahoo, out of Hawaii, where the executive officer (second-in-command) was Bill Crowe, the future chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then ambassador to Great Britain.  Admiral Crowe specifically mentions Tom with praise in his oral history compiled by the Navy historical office. 

This began Tom’s 15-year career in submarines, from 1957 into 1972, broken only by a two-year stint at Stanford University to earn a master’s degree in political science, and time ashore in training programs.  Being 6-foot, 4-inches tall, Tom always was the tallest man aboard every submarine - another half-inch and he would have been barred from submarines altogether, due to height.  Every mission he took throughout his career, Tom had to bunk “knees-bent” because no bunk was long enough for him to stretch straight and relax.  This was quite a hardship considering most of his missions were 60 days long, and the rest of the missions longer - that is how strongly he wanted to serve in submarines.

The opening of the submarine nuclear power program brought Tom into the orbit of the famed and feared Admiral Rickover, where Tom excelled in nuclear power school. Tom was assigned to the nuclear attack submarine Shark as reactor control officer, while Shark was still under construction.  This made Tom a “plank owner” of the Shark.  

Shark, with Tom running the nuclear reactor, in 1961 left the Norfolk, Va., navy base to make the first cruise of a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine into the Mediterranean Sea, where Shark welcomed aboard the King, Queen, Prince and Princess of Greece, and the future King of Spain, for a several-hour voyage, including a dive, and allowing the Queen to stand on the sail-plane while Shark, running on the surface, made such a bow-wave that the splash soaked the Queen’s feet and legs, leaving her to pad around barefoot aboard for the rest of the cruise, while her shoes and stockings dried - one of Tom’s favorite stories.  The Queen, a great friend of Rickover’s, was delighted.  

Tom then became engineering officer of the nuclear missile-deterrent submarine Abraham Lincoln, home-ported in New London, Conn., supply base in Scotland.  Tom was on Lincoln in Scotland on resupply when President Kennedy ordered Lincoln to rush to sea on 24-hours-notice at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Tom then became executive officer of the nuclear attack submarine Scamp, out of San Diego, making the kinds of secret spy missions written-up in the 1998 book “Blind Man’s Bluff: the Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage” - a book that closed-mouth Tom and most other members of the “silent service” grumbled ought never to have been written.  It was the only way his children learned some of what he had done, more than 30 years after the fact.  In about 1999, when Tom, retired, was on the computer at home looking at “Google earth” and putting in push-pins to mark significant places in his life, his son Edward happened to walk in, and, having just read “Blind Man’s Bluff,” joked that Dad’s set of pins would all be in spots in the trackless oceans, and that Dad couldn’t tell any of us what any of the pins meant.  Tom laughed and agreed - and then told Edward he wasn’t “cleared” to be in the room, and that Edward had to leave.  

After his time as executive officer of Scamp, the Navy then sent Tom to Stanford University to earn a master’s in political science, and to give him a two-year quiet stay ashore much appreciated by his children.  

Upon earning his master’s, the Navy made Tom commander of the “Blue Crew” of the nuclear missile deterrent submarine Ulysses S. Grant, home-ported in Honolulu, Hawaii, with the supply base in Guam.  (Missile submarines have two complete crews, Blue and Gold, which alternate aboard every three months).  Tom led Grant on several missile deterrent patrols before taking Grant to Bremerton, Wash., and the Hood Canal Navy base, for conversion and upgrade from Polaris to Poseidon missiles.  

Tom, commanding the Blue Crew, then sailed Grant through the Panama Canal to take up duties in the Atlantic, home-ported in Charleston, S.C.  An exciting moment for the boys was when they went to the Kennedy Space Center to watch their father test-fire two missiles, while the boys rode a watching destroyer.  An additional treat was that this was the day of the Apollo 15 moon-mission “roll-out” of the gigantic Saturn V rocket, which the boys walked around as it slowly crept toward the launch pad.  

After several deterrent patrols in Grant, in 1972 Tom was assigned to the Pentagon in a series of posts advising on nuclear weapons policy, including the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), and taking advanced studies at the National War College.  The secretary of defense in 1979 awarded Tom the Defense Meritorious Service Medal for this work, stating that Tom provided “clear, concise answers to major sensitive issues having a direct bearing on national security and policies.  Captain Sisson’s distinctive achievements reflect great credit on himself, the United States Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.”  

In mid-1980, Tom received the diplomatic posting of United States Naval Attaché to France, a three-year job, 1980-83.  Then followed a one-year posting as liaison to the French Navy in Toulon, France.  Tom received the Order of Merit for his diplomatic service from the government of France, for his successful efforts to ease the sometimes difficult relations between the two countries, particularly in allowing American nuclear-powered warships to make more frequent goodwill visits into French ports.

Of all those men and women who have earned the praise for military service that we know so well, Tom truly is in the first rank of those who deserve the words: “Thank you for your service.”

Tom retired in 1984 to an apartment in Paris, summering in Rehoboth Beach. 
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