The USS South Dakota nuclear attack submarine will soon be patrolling the silent seas along with a bit of poetry written by a local man.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to attain but never dreamt it would be of this nature,” said Brian Hagg, a Rapid City attorney.
In 2017, Hagg received a request from Gov. Dennis Daugaard to write a poem for the commissioning of the Virginia-class submarine carrying the name USS South Dakota, which took place on Feb. 2. Hagg had in 2010 written and read a poem for the 100th anniversary dedication of the state capitol building in Pierre, but this was a different kind of challenge.
"I've known Brian's family since I was in grade school," the former governor said recently by phone from rural Dell Rapids. "He's a military guy and had a feeling for the espirit de corps that is formed for a group of military that serve together in a unit, even more so when you've got a submarine crew who is in small quarters for weeks and weeks at a time."
So Hagg scampered up to a cabin near Keystone, assembled naval history books, and etched out a poem that now hangs in the captain’s galley of the USS South Dakota.
“I’ve been writing since I was 9 or 10 years old,” said Hagg, who said he was the literary editor of his high school annual in Dell Rapids. “Sure, I’m a small-town bumpkin a little, but I can write.”
When the U.S. Navy commissioned the Virginia-class submarine USS South Dakota in Groton, Connecticut, numerous state dignitaries were in attendance to see Hagg read the poem, titled “On the Occasion of the Commissioning of the USS South Dakota (SSN 790).”
“God speed, great warship of the deep,” the poem opens with an august ode. “[E]ntrusted by our Motherland / to protect its shores / while our children sleep.”
In rich language reminiscent of Hagg’s poetic forebears, the poem evokes the coming “odyssey” and “Battleship X,” the original World War II-era USS South Dakota.
“I enjoy Frost, Emerson and Hawthorne,” said Hagg, who said he first fell in love with verse from nuns reading him Shakespeare during his school days at Dell Rapids St. Mary. “But Badger Clark’s also at the top of my list.”
Over the years between his lawyerly duties as a state’s attorney or in private practice, Hagg often put visions to verse, seeking a spiritual bent to his creative work. He’s woken from dreams in the middle of the night to write poems about battles from the Civil War to climbs up Bear Butte or ripe cherry moons over the Badlands. For the poem written for the USS South Dakota, Hagg said he wanted to capture the essence of the ship’s namesake.
“It’s just three short stanzas. I got some history, the challenge, and the notion that these sailors are a special chosen few,” he said. “It’s basically a message from South Dakota. It’s our prayerful dedication.”
But he was stuck on the final stanza, so he went up for inspiration on a sunny October morning to his writer’s cottage near Keystone.
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“I write from the heart, and the poem is always there,” Hagg said.
And he found it.
The final stanza opens like a bell ringing: “From the Great State of South Dakota / home of Mt. Rushmore, / with its iconic symbols of liberty / chiseled in stone, / accept this prayerful declaration.”
Hagg alludes to Crazy Horse, who the poet notes was “impervious to enemy fire,” and Black Elk and the granite in the heart of the Hills.
“Forget not that for which you stand,” writes Hagg, “rock solid in the service of our nation.”
Hagg, an Army veteran, notes with irony he’s writing a poem for the Navy. But he felt inspired during his trip to Connecticut when he saw the sailors aboard the new submarine.
“I just saw all these magnificent young sailors who can sometimes get a bum rap [as millennials],” said Hagg, “and I got a little choked up.”
The real honor came later when the skipper told him he’d taken a plaque of the poem and hung it up in the officer’s galley, forthwith.
“It’ll be with the ship for the duration,” said Hagg, who described the USS South Dakota as the “meanest, baddest submarine ever built.”
The Navy Heritage and History Command in Washington, D.C., said the commissioning of works of art for ships or submarines is not new, but the commissioned officer in Groton said he has no memory of a poem being dedicated. Hagg also said the Navy’s coterie told him February’s commissioning of the USS South Dakota was among the finest they’d seen.
“The committee worked for two years, and the naval brass loved it,” he said.
The U.S.S. South Dakota is one of the fastest nuclear submarines in the naval fleet and has the ability to stealthily pop up next to enemy ships in the ocean without notice. There is no periscope, Hagg said, only a board of computers. But the sub will be guided by a trusty crew and the spirits of those in South Dakota, as captured in Hagg’s poem.
“At my age there’s not a helluva lot that makes life all that exciting,” said Hagg, laughing. He’s now working on his own collection of poems, with the reassurance that at least one is already getting a world tour.