Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 46

November 14-20, 2002

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On Liberty Ship John W. Brown, Veterans Cruised Down Memory Lane

Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.
— Carl Sandburg: “The People, Yes,” 1936

Three years after Sandburg penned those words, World War II erupted in Europe — and they came by the millions. Two years later, we were in it; the conflict had become worldwide, and from our nation, many more millions came.

Such is our heritage, such are our young men and women and such are the sacrifices that must be made for one’s country. How satisfying it would be if they gave a war and nobody came. But let’s be realistic; that’s not the way the world turns. Freedom does not come, nor is it preserved, that cheaply.

A Troop Ship Sails Again
The other day — Veterans Day — was the occasion to honor those who came. Of the 25 million remaining warriors of World Wars I, II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Gulf War and other conflicts, a tad more than 500 observed the occasion a day early aboard the World War II Liberty Ship S.S. John W. Brown for a cruise of an hour in the Inner Harbor of Baltimore.

Coincidentally, it was about 500 troops that could be accommodated along with 9,000 tons of cargo when the Brown was launched on Labor Day of 1942 at Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard, Baltimore. She made nine runs on the Atlantic before war’s end, and four more thereafter. A few who had sailed her were among the 500 aboard the other day.

Those who served in World War II — some ferried to combat by Liberty Ships or their counterparts, Victory Ships — had no need to be identified. They were the ones who slowly walked the gangplank, some with canes, crutches and walkers, others aided by comrades, but all with heads held high and an ‘I wouldn’t be anywhere else’ look in their eyes.

When in their prime — when the biggest war of all time was called, and they came — their walk was brisk and determined as they climbed aboard ships like the John W. Brown at near and far-flung ports, many with rifles on one shoulder, a sea bag stuffed with all their possessions on the other, no idea where they were going — and within their hearts apprehension whether they would return.

All that was long past the other day. These were the lucky ones; they did return and have beaten the odds. Each day in this country of ours, nearly 1,000 World War II veterans pass away; no longer do they represent the largest membership in the veterans organizations.

Hard Times Shared
Most of those who climbed one of the two gangplanks at Locust Point Marine Terminal had more than a half-century ago sworn never again would they board a troop ship unless under orders. But this was different. They wouldn’t be anywhere else, and for two reasons.

Foremost to them, along with other veterans, it was an appropriate way to pay fitting tribute to those who never returned, or those who did but are no longer here. Second, it was an opportunity to be among the diminishing numbers of men and women who share the pride of answering their country’s call. All gathered as guests of Project Liberty Ship, the all-volunteer group dedicated to keeping the John W. Brown afloat as a maritime museum. She is one of only two still afloat.

Others were in uniform still on active duty. No matter which war, they mingled, their talk not on their personal exploits, but on those of others: the times good and bad they shared as they went to war and mutual concerns about the future in these turbulent times. Many tears rolled down wrinkled cheeks as taps sounded after a wreath was tossed into the waves not far from the Francis Scott Key Bridge and a World War II vintage fighter plane roared overhead.

And Memories Revived
But all was not somber. At times the spirit of youth returned, even to the most veteran of the veterans. Who could resist a smile when passing by on deck were some not-so-young ladies adorned in dress appropriate for the time when a new John W. Brown carried troops and supplies?

On their shoulders were furs; on their legs, real silk stockings with a dark seam that ran straight up from their ankles. How many of today can recall when the fair sex spent more time looking back over their shoulder to insure the seam was straight than they did looking ahead to see where they were going?

And who did not look back on mail call so many years ago, when passing through the Armed Guard quarters of the Brown under guns at the stern where posted was one of the dreaded ‘Dear John’ letters written in neat handwriting on lined paper. Dated Aug. 29, 1943, It read:

Dear Walter
I hope this finds you doing well. I have been keeping busy. I work at Martin’s aircraft factory. It started in March and I like it.

I don’t know how to tell you, but you need to know. I met this really nice guy. He drives a blue Ford convertible. He takes me dancing, and he’s a real gentleman.

I don’t know what the future might hold, so, it’s only fair to return your ring and picture. I don’t mean to hurt you! I know you’ll meet a wonderful girl when this horrible war is over. Have a good life and please don’t hate me.

Take care of yourself.

There was no indication of who Walter or Marge was, nor whether Marge ended up with the fellow with the blue convertible and lived happily ever after, nor if Walter ever met that wonderful girl.

It was just one of the countless millions of letters of its ilk that came from the mail bag during that or any other war anywhere. Among those who read it aboard the John W. Brown the other day, there came back memories of Dear John letters to their buddies far from home, or perhaps to themselves.

You might say nothing ever changes, but there was a momentary change for me. I failed to promptly respond to an invitation to represent this publication on the Veterans Day cruise, and when I finally did the day before, I was told the complement was filled.

After a few calls I reached the Brown’s volunteer port steward Dave Scheuerman, told him of a grumpy Master Sergeant-editor who wouldn’t accept any excuse, then pleaded for something I thought I’d never want: a billet on a troop ship.

He promised me passage, then laid out a game plan to get me aboard without press credentials and told me to ask for him if there was any problem — which of course there always is, regardless of branch of the military. They call it SNAFU (situation normal, all fouled up).

So there I was, notebook and pen in hand, and a stern, no-nonsense Marine corporal standing between me and the gangplank busy with guests boarding. He listened to my pleas but didn’t budge. No pass, no passage.

“Hey,” said I. “In 1945, me a Seabee with my sea bag, rifle and machete headed for the Pacific Theater, I had Marines rushing me and others of the battalion up the gangplank to board the William S. Braxton at San Diego, and now you won’t even let me on deck for a couple of hours.

“A fine thank-you. Things sure have changed, haven’t they?”

Joining My Comrades
The stern face changed to a broad smile. He stepped aside, saluted, and I was on my way — but not with the jaunty lilt of 57 years ago — to join my comrades of yore.

I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly