The Old Grey Lady
Copyright © 2018
By Ralph F. Couey
We accumulate memories on our trek through life, some bad, some good, most neutral. Some of those recollections can be triggered by sounds, smells, or sight. When the emotionalism of nostalgia becomes intertwined with those memories, they can become far more selective than objective. But nothing brings those thoughts into focus like visiting a place of significance from the past.
I spent 10 years in the Navy, serving on two ships and a shore duty assignment. By the end of that span, I was a Chief Petty Officer, and facing a life-changing decision. My kids were about to become teenagers, and they needed me at home a lot more often than my duty commitments allowed. With my priorities properly aligned, I turned my back on the sea and headed home.
I left behind a decade's worth of remembrances of 28 foreign countries visited, friendships that have stayed strong across the intervening decades, and a warm recollection of a time when my life had a mission.
I was finishing up my shore duty assignment as the Navy Liaison to the National Narcotics Border Interdiction System, a multi-agency task force. In multiple discussions with my detailer, I had narrowed down the choices for my next duty station. For the career sailor, this is an exciting period of time. Each choice was framed by where we would go, the impact it would have on my family, and the professional opportunities that awaited me there. Then during one of those telephone calls, he casually mentioned that a billet had opened up aboard the battleship USS MISSOURI, home-ported in Long Beach, California, which was where I had spent my shore duty. I was immediately intrigued. Long a Navy history buff, I knew the historical significance of that ship. Plus, I had spent most of my life in Missouri, so the opportunity to serve aboard my state's namesake ship was well-nigh irresistible. After talking it over with my wife, I accepted the assignment.
The timing was going to be tricky. The last day at NNBIS would have to be adjusted to accommodate the ship's departure to participate in RIMPAC, a huge multi-national naval exercise in the Pacific. But things worked out, and on the appointed day, I found myself walking on the Battleship Piers, so named for the presence of two of the Iowa-class dreadnoughts. It was quite a sight. After clearing the pier sentry, I could see on the left the USS NEW JERSEY and on the right, my ship. Battleships were still a rare sight, and to see two of them together was just stunning, a vision of power, strength, and grace guaranteed to warm the cockles of any sailor's heart.
Swinging my seabag up on my shoulder, I crossed the brow, saluted the flag, then the OOD and officially reported aboard. Things were bustling, as typical for any ship preparing for sea. Beneath my feet, the teakwood deck gleamed, the product of hours of holystoning. The bulkheads all looked freshly painted and there wasn't a speck of rust anywhere to be seen. Ted Mason, the author of Battleship Sailor had written most eloquently of the pride of the old battleship navy of the late 1930's. Clearly, that same pride had been manifested here.
A couple of days later, we put to sea, a process much quicker and less detailed than the hard work on my last ship of snaking our way out of Pearl Harbor. In no time at all, we had cleared the mole and were making turns for the broad reaches of the Pacific. I was busy, running a division of 65 hard-working sailors along with another Chief and a Senior Chief. But I found some limited time to explore the ship and meet my shipmates.
On the third day out, the Captain scheduled a gunshoot of the main battery. As it happened, I was off-watch and temporarily free of other taskings, so I went up to the 03 level, the only safe place one could be topside during a main battery firing. Equipped with a pair of sound suppressors, those ear muffs we called "Micky Mouse Ears," I awaited with quiet excitement the commencement of the event.
Slowly, all three turrets swung out to port. The barrels raised to the proper level. Then the countdown started, the last three seconds marked by a very loud buzzer. In a titanic blast, all nine guns erupted, throwing a volcano-sized ball of fire and smoke over the water. The thrust imparted to the shells momentarily dropped the air pressure behind the guns, causing my skin to tingle and my ears to pop. As the roar faded, I could hear the swishing sound as the car-sized bullets flew downrange. Seconds later on the horizon, a massive curtain of water and foam rose to the sky as all nine shells impacted with 50 feet of the intended target. Without exaggeration, any object, whether on sea or land, would have been utterly obliterated. It was a sight, sound, and sensation that has stayed with me since.
I spent a little over two years on the Mighty Mo, as we called her. There were good times, and some very difficult times. But it was a gas to be on the battleship. When we steamed in company with other ships, their crews always came topside when we were close by, and even from 300 yards away, the envy was palpable. At sea, a battleship is the very vision of power as she drives forward, cleaving the waters aside and leaving the brilliant white foam of her boiling wake astern. In port, we always opened the ship for tours, and it was great to see the effect she had on the visitors who crossed her decks. The two most popular places were, of course, the guns, and that spot on the 02 level where General Douglas MacArthur accepted the surrender of Imperial Japan, thus ending World War II. The spot is marked by a brass disk set into the deck.
On a ship manifestly built for war, it is an altar to peace. On so many occasions, it became the place where the chance encounters of World War II veterans from America and Japan buried their hatchets.
It was a glorious tour of duty, but all things must end, and there finally came the day when I crossed that brow for the last time and left that life behind.
In the years since, I've made a few trips to Pearl Harbor. Missouri is moored port side to, and just forward off the port bow lies the brilliantly white iconic memorial to her valiant sister ship, USS ARIZONA. Together, the ships and the memorial provide a bookend to the most violent years of human history.
Going aboard always stirs deep emotions for me. A sailor develops a relationship with his or her ship. For them, the ship is a thing of beauty, and worthy of their best efforts to keep her looking like new. Pride can be at times a difficult thing to define, but a ship's appearance is a silent testimony to the affection and respect that runs between the ship and her crew. For old guys like myself, it's not just seeing a place where I used to work. It was here that I spent my youth, that period of time when energy is limitless, opportunity is without bounds, and the future is a long ways off. I sometimes think part of that emotion is a kind of mourning for that period of my life that is forever, irretrievable vanished. Walking her decks on this day, I place my hand lightly on the bulkhead, and realize that she is not dead, merely sleeping. The Association has taken such great care with her, she looks like she could still put to sea tomorrow.
My first stop is the Command Engagement Center, where I spent most of my on-duty hours. Most of the equipment is still there, some kept from when she was decommissioned, some scavenged from her sister ships. If I don't look too closely, it looks the same as it did the day I left her.
The console on the right was mine for controlling aircraft.
It is a surprisingly small space, given all the things that were done here. And even harder to imagine that during General Quarters, some 70 sailors squeezed their way in here.
I continue to walk around the ship, luxuriating in my memories. I am honest enough to remember the bad times, the difficult times when I was challenged to the limits of my abilities. And those times when I missed my family deeply, and those first moments of consideration of my future without the Navy.
As a former crewmember, I am accorded a few perqs during my visit, including meeting the curators and getting a rare peek at the Chiefs Mess where I lived during my stay. After a couple of hours, I realize it is time to leave, and after one long, last look around, I cross the brow and return to the pier. I spend some time in the gift shop and leave with a couple of t-shirts. Before I return to the bus for the ride back to the Arizona Memorial Visitors Center, I stop and take one last look. She is old, turning 74 on January 29th. But she is still a thing of beauty, and the hordes of visitors I see walking her decks makes me feel good, for she is being introduced to a new generation, and perhaps they will get to know here a little bit, and understand the singular place she holds in our nation's history.
These visits are special to me. I feel so much better that she is not merely resting at anchor in West Loch along with all the other inactive ships, sealed up, silent, and deserted. While she will likely never go to sea again, Missouri, along with here sister ships, will still inspire pride, and a reminder that our freedoms are hard-won and therefore must be constantly defended.
But as I see the ship recede from view from the bus windows, I know that she is something personal to me. In a way, we share a bond, the battleship and me, a reminder that even as old as we are, we can still be meaningful. And relevant.