This isn't the story of some great sea battle, or about a highly decorated individual. But it is about heroes. Heroes who, for the large part, have been forgotten by all but a few.
In the early nineteen sixties I was a sailor in what was known as the peace-time Navy. I had the Mid Watch and was standing on the Flying Bridge of the U.S.S. Coolbaugh, DE 217. She was moored alongside a pier in Beaumont Texas. She was there to be de-commissioned.
I guess I should explain that the Mid Watch, for those who don't know Navy lingo, is from Midnight to four in the morning. I think, in this case, the watch was more a tradition than a necessity. There was really not much left to guard.
This particular night was something else for a young man, barely out of his teens, from West Virginia, who had never seen a Texas moon. The night was a brilliantly, though eerily, lighted panorama to behold. It was made even more eerie by the row after row of moth-balled ships. As far as I could see, in both directions, were those silent rows of what had been, at one time, gallant warriors of the sea.
Something stirred in my chest. I felt a terrible sadness. But there was more than that. The sadness seemed mixed with a fierce pride for these silent warriors.
My older brother had served on a Destroyer Escort in the North Atlantic during WWII. He had nearly been killed while on patrol there.
Suddenly there were words running through my mind. Pulling a tablet from my shirt pocket, I began to write;
These were ships of a mighty fleet
A fleet of warriors both brave and bold
They wrought a fierce damage
As the defeat of a ruthless enemy told
They sank ships
And bombarded shore as well
Under these mighty warriors the not so mighty enemy fell
Throughout Europe Asia And the Orient too
They made many people happy
While others felt fear through and through
Now they sit in silent rows
And only move when the tide comes and goes
For they are silent warriors
Wrapped in cocoons and dust
Their battle scars patched and painted
Covered with age and rust
And on moon lit nights
Though you will never see
They have a ghost crew still striving for victory
They fight on and on through the years
While their ships sit in silence alongside these long quiet pears
Now I leave this beautiful Lady who never knew defeat
For she is joining these dark and silent warriors of the mothball fleet.
That sad poem said it all. It seemed we had ripped the guts out of these once great warriors. If it had happened due to an enemy bomb or torpedo it would have still been a sad loss. But they would have breathed their last death rattles as fighting ladies.
Their campaign ribbons had been removed from the bridge wings. Their ships bell and commission pendant were also take from them.
It was as though we, having removed the spirit of the men who fought on board, had left them rusting hulks of steel that had nothing to do but raise and drop with the tides. We had reduced these once proud gladiators of the high seas to hollow derelicts fit only for razor blades.
These had been more than mere sleek gray profiles cutting through the waves. They had more power then just their guns, depth charges and other weapons. They had been part of a new brave ideology. And to the spirit of those who manned them they were symbols of a battle for peace that has never been equaled in world history or the annals of human kind's struggle for right.
To my young mind it seemed they should stand for something. Perhaps preserved as a shrine to those who fought and died in battle aboard them. As I stood there, the Texas moon casting its eerie glow across their silent rows, a chill ran through me. I had tears in my eyes. They deserved more than this.
It is a thought that has stayed with me for more than thirty years. I wonder about those men who fought aboard them, those who gave their lives to keep them afloat. I wonder if those still alive ever feel a touch of pride at remembering their "Gray Ladies"?
Did they feel that touch of sadness at leaving them for the last time? Do they feel some anger at the idea of their "Silent Warriors" being left to rot? I also wondered if those who died still serve as a ghost crew. And, if so, where do they go when their valiant lady goes to the junk heap? Were they filled with the same sadness I was feeling?
I'm sure that any person who never sailed in these mighty gladiators of the sea would scoff at these thoughts. But there are those who will read these words with tears, because they served aboard them. They used every once of fire power she had, and then some. It was they who coaxed that extra knot from their beleaguered old girls engines that chased the enemy from the oceans of the world. They know, and understand, what I'm talking about. It is for them that these memories are written. And it is they who will understand when I say, "Men, thanks for liberty. And to you Gray Ladies, job well done old girl. Job well done."
While these memories are from the 1960's something happened in May of 1999 that I feel should be added.
That young man barely out of his teens mentioned in the story was now a man in his sixties, working in what used to be the old U.S. Navel Shipyard in Charleston South Carolina. We were bringing, and modernizing, an old U. S. Navy ship out of mothballs. She was formally named the USS Alwyn FF938. This ship had been sold to another country and towed to the shipyard. Her boilers had not been lighted for years. After much reworking it was time to light off her boilers once more.
What follows is true so help me GOD. Most of the yard workers had been ordered off the ship to the pier. We waited and watched the stack. It was a very exciting moment for most of us. Finally, after some time, for the first time since her decommissioning, there was smoke coming out of her stack. At the precise moment the smoke came out the wind picked up. That wind, blowing through the flag lines, and other wires and ropes, gave off the most unusual sound. I looked around. Every man standing on that pier, and others as far as I could see, had stopped dead and were all staring at the ship. It sounded as though hundreds of men were cheering. Not one person I could see made a sound.
I had tears in my eyes. One old Veteran came to attention and saluted. A young lad standing next to me asked, "What is that? It sounds like men cheering!"
"Maybe it's the ghosts of Sailors who died aboard their Gray Ladies." I replied. He gave me a questioning look as the men of the shipyard cheered and applauded.
Ron L. Dixon