Memory sails on swell of patriotism
by John Luck
The Washington Times
BALTIMORE -- You're a GI. It's near the end of World War II. You're below decks in one of the dimly lit and cavernous holds of the SS John W. Brown, a Liberty Ship that's bringing you home from hell.
And what do you find? Exactly what the 400-some veterans found who boarded the Brown on Veterans Day at Dundalk, where the Brown is moored, for a commemorative cruise into Baltimore Harbor and into the past: There stood rows of cots five high, and stacked so closely that a person lying in one of them could find his face only inches from the canvas cot above him.
"The soldiers learned that the top bunk was the one to have, if you could get to it first," said Lou Rizzo, one of the many volunteers aboard the Brown on Veterans Day who served aboard similar ships in the Merchant Marine during the war.
"You had better light for reading, you didn't bump your head on the person above you, and most importantly, when the sergeant came by to assign KP duty, he might not notice you, and he'd grab someone else."
This is nostalgia? For these veterans, many of them in American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars hats, yes. For those at the pier, the children and grandchildren, it was a taste of what it was like long ago to welcome soldiers home from battle. And for all of them as Americans at war since September 11, it was a reminder that this country has prevailed before in a contest where at stake is nothing less than the nation's life.
The links between today's war and World War II are so strong, in fact, that the Veterans Day cruise into Baltimore harbor has become less an event to itself than the prelude to another, perhaps more poignant, ceremony: the Baltimore Maritime Museum's commemoration tomorrow, in the Inner Harbor, of Pearl Harbor Day - December 7, 1941, the date when an America at peace was attacked without warning, the date that President Franklin Roosevelt declared "will live in infamy."
Kristen Harbeson, director of development for the museum, says the parallels between December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001, are obvious to recent visitors.
"There's no question that what happened on September 11 has given special poignancy to this Pearl Harbor Day," she says. "People have called us and said that they knew about this event in the past, but because of what happened earlier this year, that they were definitely going to be here this time."
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Even aboard the Brown on Veterans Day, Pearl Harbor was not far from anyone's thoughts - even as they marked the clearest difference between then and now, the visual immediacy of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
"I heard about the Pearl Harbor attack on the radio, and weeks later I saw Movietone film footage of the attack at a movie theater," said retired Navy officer and World War II veteran Dean Wallace.
"What happened this September was right there on the television set as it happened - that was far more dramatic and shocking."
Mr. Rizzo focused on the feelings. "The level of anger is certainly the same, and what's even worse is that this time the attack was right here, on the soil of mainland America."
Aboard the Brown, a metallic voice over the ship's intercom barked out orders to the ship's crew. Big-band music played in the background. Four women in period dress sang a perfect version of the '40s hit, "Java Jive." World War II reenactors, in period uniforms from the various services, mingled with the crew and visitors.
One veteran stopped to correct the way a young reenactor, in an Army infantryman's combat outfit, complete with M1 rifle, had hung the canteen from his webbing belt. "If you put your canteen right there, it'll always be in the way when you walk with your rifle slung on your shoulder," the older man told the younger.
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The SS John W. Brown, 440 feet long and 10,865 tons, is one of the last two Liberty Ships remaining from the war - the other is the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, berthed at San Francisco. More than 2,700 such ships were built, and they were built faster than the Germans could sink them. As a bond-selling publicity event, one Liberty Ship, the Robert E. Peary, was launched only five days after its hull was laid. The Axis forces not only had to contend with the American military, but they also had to combat the manufacturing might of the United States.
Ships like the Brown carried not just soldiers and Marines, but in their holds transported the millions of tons of material - tanks, airplanes, artillery pieces, trucks, jeeps, ammunition, fuel, and C-rations - that contributed so much to the winning of the war.
These ships weren't glamorous, but they contributed as much to the Allied victory in the war as the sleekest destroyer or aircraft carrier. The movies' Private Ryan and thousands like him might have indeed parachuted into Normandy, but he flew there from airfields in England, and he was brought to England, stacked in cots five and six high, aboard vessels like the John W. Brown. The Brown made seven wartime voyages, carrying men and material to Africa and Europe.
Then too, Liberty ships, including the John W. Brown, brought German prisoners of war to the United States for internment during the war.
"We'd have just 15 GI's guarding almost 1,000 German POW's as we went back to the United States," said retired Coast Guard Admiral Richard Bauman, who served in the Merchant Marine before joining the Coast Guard.
How could 15 men manage to guard so many prisoners? "The GI's were all combat veterans and the Germans just knew not to mess with them," the admiral said matter-of-factly.
Normally berthed at Pier one, on the 2000 block of Clinton Street, the Brown is operated and maintained by the non-profit group, Project Liberty Ship. After surviving the war, the ship became a floating vocational high school in New York City for 36 years before ultimately coming back to Baltimore, where its keel had been laid in the nearby Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyards in 1942.
The Brown has been extensively restored, and is maintained by volunteers such as Mr. Rizzo. Many of them, now in their seventies or eighties, actually built or served aboard similar ships, either in the Merchant Marine or the Navy Armed Guard, crews of Navy gunners posted aboard merchant ships.
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But the Japanese sneak attack on the Hawaiian port of Pearl Harbor - which killed 2,403 servicemen and 68 civilians, sank or damaged 21 ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, including eight battleships, and destroyed or damaged 347 U.S. aircraft - was the start of it all.
To honor those who died during the Japanese attack, Pearl Harbor survivors from around the country will meet tomorrow in the Inner Harbor aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Taney, the last warship afloat of the 101 ships that were actually in Pearl Harbor that day.
The John W. Brown, though not itself part of the Baltimore Maritime Museum or the museum's ceremonies, will also be open to visitors this weekend. Combined, both ships give a glimpse of what it was like to have been at Pearl Harbor and, later, to have served in a war that spanned oceans.
In addition to the Taney and the Brown, other World War II vessels maintained by the museum will be present - including, on Pier 3, the USS Torsk, a diesel/electric submarine that served in the Pacific, arriving at Pearl Harbor in 1945, in time to serve on two war patrols, sink several freighters, and ultimately, to sink the last Japanese ship before World War II ended.
On the nearby shore is a site that witnessed an attack on United States soil 187 years before the September 11 terrorist attacks and 127 years before the attack on Pearl Harbor, a place where, by presidential decree, an American flag now flies 24 hours a day - Fort McHenry. There, aboard a British ship in the harbor during the British bombardment during the war of 1812, a young American named Francis Scott Key watched the cannon, mortars, and rockets being fired at the star-shaped fort, and saw the huge flag, with its 15 stars, silhouetted in the light and hastily wrote down the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Friday's ceremonies, open to the public, will begin at 11 a.m. Other events will continue through the weekend. Speakers will include Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley; U.S. Rep. Benjamin Cardin, Maryland Democrat; and Admiral James Loy, Commandant of the Coast Guard. The day will include talks by survivors of Pearl Harbor, several of whom were actually aboard the Taney that day. There will also be an aerial wreath drop, a bell-ringing dedication to honor the memories of Pearl Harbor survivors who have died in the last year, and a 21-gun salute.
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Docked at Pier 5, the 327-foot long Taney, part of the Baltimore Maritime Museum, survived the Japanese bombing and strafing, and was shooting back at the fighters and torpedo bombers flying overhead only minutes after the attack started. The Taney went on to serve in the Atlantic, providing protection for convoys, then returned to the Pacific in 1945, in time to participate in the invasion of Okinawa.
The Taney was decommissioned on Pearl Harbor Day, 1986, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1988. A permanent exhibit aboard the Taney highlights those events of 60 years ago; maps, dioramas of Pearl Harbor, and photographs give visitors a sense of what it must have been like when Japanese torpedo bombers appeared overhead on that quiet tropical Sunday morning.
Many of the photographic images have become icons of American history: Billowing smoke filling the beautiful Oahu morning as the burning battleship USS Arizona settles down into the bottom of the harbor; stunned sailors, frozen in a black and white tableau, looking back at the devastation at Ford Island; and destroyed hulks of aircraft littering Hickam Field.
A recently made documentary will be shown aboard the Taney, featuring footage of 10 Pearl Harbor survivors relating their experiences on December 7. Filmed before September 11, some of their quotes are eerily prescient. To hear a veteran say, "The next attack may not be on an island, but on Main Street, USA," or, "This could happen again," can't help but chill viewers.
One Pearl Harbor survivor, Hugh Roper, then a 19-year-old corporal in the Army Air Corps, emerged from his barracks at Hickam Field that morning to see other soldiers looking over at Pearl Harbor, where airplanes were buzzing over the ships. Belatedly, it was realized that those weren't American aircraft, but Japanese ones. Soon the aircraft were attacking parked aircraft at Hickham Field and Roper's barracks as well. "You could see the faces of the pilots in their planes as they flew overhead."
Another Pearl Harbor survivor, Edward Robertson, a 20-year-old in the U.S. Army 64th Antiaircraft Regiment, found himself crouching alongside his military motorcycle on the shoreline of Battleship Row, watching as the Arizona exploded, and as another ship -the repair ship USS Vestal, damaged by bombs and trying to clear the ship channel -grounded itself on the shore.
Mr. Robertson saw sailors jumping from the stern of the Vestal, and waded into the water to help them onto dry land. "A lot of those sailors were from the Midwest, and couldn't swim all that well," he said.
Mr. Robertson found it easy to find similarities with September 11.
"A lesson we learned yet again is that having an ocean barrier between us and much of the world isn't a defense against people who want to do us harm. We just always have to be ready."
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Then and now. During the John W. Brown's short Veterans Day cruise to the Inner Harbor - where it was saluted by ship's horns and geysers of water sent aloft by a municipal fireboat -a wreath was thrown onto the waters in memory of those who died for their country.
And at the cruise's finish, as the Brown tied up back at the Dundalk Marine Terminal, members of the Chesapeake High School Chorus sang, family members waved American flags, and even a reasonable facsimile of the '40s-era comedy team of Abbott and Costello -known not just for their "Who's on First" routine but for war-effort movies like "Buck Privates" and "In the Navy" - was waiting to entertain the "returning" vets. It was like old times.
"Just like when we came back from the war, it's always good to get back home," said Baltimore native and veteran Frederick Singletary, as he walked off the Brown.
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