USS Missouri – BB-63
In 1952 the Korean War was still going hot and heavy, so during my junior year at Watervliet High School—in Watervliet, New York—I decided to quit school and join the Navy. In April at the age of seventeen, weighing one-hundred fourteen pounds and standing five feet tall, I enlisted.
I was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, just outside of Chicago, for my basic training. Having been raised at an orphanage, being away from home wasn’t a problem; you can’t get homesick if you don’t have a home. However, some of the other guys really became homesick.
After graduating from our eight weeks of basic, we received our orders for the different ships and commands we would be assigned to for the next several years. I was excited when I received my orders—the USS Missouri BB-63.
It was during the middle of June when I reported to the Missouri. I was assigned to the Engineering Department and R-Division, which was responsible for the watertight integrity of the ship. Along with firefighting, we were in charge of the carpenter shop, and the machine shops, which included plumbing, and all the damage control facilities. My duties would include standing watches in Damage Control Central, sounding of the bilges (checking for water), air testing of compartments, and being the hot suit (asbestos suit) for air operations of the helicopters.
When I boarded the ship she was in her home port at the Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia. Then she was in dry dock at the Naval Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia. After being assigned to a berthing compartment, it was time to learn the ships routine, and to find my way around the maze of compartments. At this time, she had about 2800 men aboard, and even trying to find the chow line was an experience.
After being aboard for a few days, I was working with one of the Petty Officers. We performed an inspection of the shaft alleys, which are located at the heart of the bottom of the hull. The alleys contained the actual shafts. There were four on the Missouri and they held the propellers. This required us to work in such a confined area that we had to crawl through passageways that were extremely tight. After this, we had to go to the bottom of the dry dock and visually inspect the shafts themselves. There was this massive battleship, weighing some 58,000 tons, sitting on concrete piers, and we had to walk underneath it. Talk about giving you the creeps! The only thought that goes through your mind, is, “Don’t slip off now.”
Finally, she was out of dry dock and we were headed to Cuba for training, and to check out any new equipment that had been installed while we were in port. The trip would give us new crew members a chance to learn, and become part of the team. We also had gunnery practice and every other drill known to man—at all hours of the day and night.
In early September we returned to Norfolk to replenish our fuel, ammunition, and food, to begin our voyage to the west coast. As we passed through the Panama Canal we only had about four inches of clearance on each side of the ship—what an experience. She eased through the gates and entered Gatun Lake, which is the freshwater lake that feeds the locks. The freshwater is helpful to a ship; it causes the barnacles that are attached to the hull to die and fall off. This in turn provides a smoother bottom and the ship will glide through the seas with less effort.
After a short stay in Long Beach, California, we headed for Pearl Harbor. Here we stayed a few days and replenished our supplies for our trip to Japan. While here we were able to visit the site of the USS Arizona, and what remained of her above the waters surface.
We were now headed for Japan to relieve the USS Iowa, another battleship that had just spent six months off the coast of Korea. Our trip to Japan was uneventful.
During our time in Korea we operated on both coasts supporting the ground troops, by shelling targets that had been defined by Task Force 77 and the 7th Fleet. When operating with the task force, we watched as carriers launched their aircraft with the destroyers following as plane guards. If a plane went down in the water, the destroyer would be there to rescue the pilot. On numerous occasions we provided escort for the carriers and destroyers.
We managed to be in port on Christmas Day, of 1952. However, we were back on the firing line on New Years Eve as 1953 arrived.
Being assigned to flight crew from October 1952 through April 1953, we would standby for helicopter operations during its take-off and landing; the Missouri carried one helicopter. The copter was our eyes, and did spotting missions to direct the guns to their targets.
I had the chance to see many of her visitors as they came aboard during this time. Men like Sygman Rhee of Korea, and Cardinal Spellman of the United States, who brought packs of cigarettes with him. I kept my pack for many years, but somehow lost it when the Navy moved me to another command. The helicopters were arriving fast, and when the men disembarked the stars of their collars were too many to count; they sure didn’t come for a cup of coffee. These men included Generals Van Fleet (Army), Barcus (Air Force), Pollack (Marines), and Admiral Clifford of the Royal Navy.
Korea was one of the coldest places I was ever assigned to. Even the sea water froze to the deck, making it very slippery.
While we were the flagship for the 7th Fleet, and Task Force 77, our crew grew to nearly 3200 men. During our tour to Korea, we lost four crew members. Our Commanding Officer, Captain W.R. Edsall—suffered a heart attack and died on the bridge. First Lieutenant’s Robert Dern and Rex Ellison, of the Marine Corps, and Ensign Robert Mayhew died while on a helicopter spotting mission off the coast of Korea. The loss of these three men was a turning point in my life. I boarded the Missouri as a kid—now life was no longer a game. This was serious business and no place for a kid. Time had come for me to grow up, and become a man.
I departed Korea in April of 1953. However, I served in the Navy for another twenty years, retiring in 1971 as a Chief Petty Officer. During my tenure I served aboard the Lexington, Oriskany, Geiger, and Barry.