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|Farewell, Gallant Lady!|
Remembering The USS
by Warren Kirbo
It pained me to watch
the USS New Jersey as she was dragged through the Miraflores locks. Yesterday was
such a contrast to that bright clear day in 1968, when I stood on the boat ramp a mile
north of Gatun and watched BB-62 coming down for her transit on her way to Viet Nam. At
least the sun did manage to break through as she entered the locks, a small tribute.
I was raised in SW Georgia, a sandy soiled peanut heaven with only one pond that shows on a map of the county. It may as well have been Oklahoma, the biggest boat there was a flat bottomed bass boat. But I had relatives in Jacksonville, Florida, I had seen ships on the St John's River. I had heard about BIG ships, and how close they could look when still a mile or more away.
I learned first hand that morning, as I waited with my camera. Fort Bliss trained in the Low Altitude Missle Department, I had come to the CZ to be in a HAWK missile unit, but had been sent by fate to Battery A at Fort Davis. Our motor pool was on the bank of the Canal at Gatun.
Closer, silently, head on she approached, a tug by her side, closer. I looked into my Miranda's viewfinder and pressed the shutter release. A minute or two later, the next level of detail emerged. That deserved another photo. This time I had to turn my camera to capture her height.
A third. She was almost head on at first, then she seemed to be turning, that long bow unique to the four FAST battleships of the IOWA class started to emerge. Another pic. The silence was broken as a red and white HUEY hovered ahead of her, SCN was getting their share of photos. A minute later, it was quiet again.
Damn, how long IS this thing? I turned the camera level again. Click, click. Now I see the tubes of her 16 inch guns. Click, the tug alongside. From its stern someone was fishing. Nice. I turned the camera on its side again to get the height of the superstructure and the masts. Two more snaps. Then back level, Click, click. Finally her stern appeared, and behind and another tug.
Five of us, all officers from the 4 Bn (HAWK-AW) 517th Artillery watched. It was about "zero seven hundred" and one of those beautiful late May - early June mornings. I recall, the National Geographic lighting by low sun gave a golden glow to the battleship gray hull, steel that contrasted with the foliage across the canal, and the black red and white of the tugs. Her number 62, trimmed in black, the campaign ribbons painted on the splinter shell of her bridge. Between shots I noticed, I had to literally turn my head to take her all in. Still, not a sound as she slipped on by.
Back to the jeep, to Gatun, and nervous as to whether I had enough film, and NOWHERE to buy more.
I arrived in time to see the first lock opening, and her bow entering the chamber. ONLY NOW did I notice how really big the guns were and how small humanity was, when one finally realizes how big an eight hundred and eighty four foot long ship really is.
The human sized details started to appeared, and on that scale colors hit me again, the brass base of the barrels where they would recoil into the turret, the red tampions in each muzzle, with a gold star. The shade of pale blue in battleship gray. The campaign colors. White sailor uniforms, the colors of the campaign ribbons from WWII and KOREA. A tiny white sign said, simply "OFFICER's COUNTRY."
The electric mule passed with its whine. The bow tub with fifteen sailors slipped by. I noticed how really, really big the anchors were. I noticed mops hanging upside down on the circular tub where quad forty millimeter guns used to defend her against kamikaze attacks. The deck was light tan. The upper portions of the masts, everything above the black caps of her funnels was were also black.
I noticed the fittings on the second turret, and wondered why the first turret had none. Were they and the nearby tools for lifting the barrels from their mounts as we had to do with our 40mm AAA guns? .
On deck were hundreds of sailors, and mixed in, a few marines in their khaki uniforms. I remember how great a view I had, looking down, then watching them as they rose with only the voices of hundreds of other spectators breaking the silence. I looked at the clearance, a foot or so, at most, from the side of the lock. Silently forward into the middle chamber. That day was the first time I noticed the yellow and black handrails on the top of the locks folding down as the gate opened.
The third turret slipped past, three more guns, elevated about ten degrees and somewhat reminiscent of the wings of an agitated wasp. Her wood afterdeck had various launches, and a blue US NAVY crew cap pick-up truck for moving them to the crane that punctuated her stern.
I had a distinct feeling that I was in the wrong branch of the service, at the wrong time. Since that morning, I have been a battleship sailor at heart-- except in DECEMBER when Army plays Navy.
As the New Jersey slipped from the third lock into Gatun Lake, I noticed that in her passage through Gatun, she had been accompanied by a ship with a VOLKSWAGEN VW on its black funnel. WW II was over. So was the day, and thank God, I had 36 exposures on that roll of Ektachrome.
And then I think of yesterday, and the vacant decks, the nine tubes laying flat, the lifelessness.
But 1968 was a time of war. The New Jersey was overkill. She literally ran out of targets and was brought back and decommissioned. Then resurrected, and now decommissioned. I read somewhere a battleship can put eight times the ordnance on a target in a given time as an aircraft carrier can manage in a day. I also read that 70 percent of the earth's population lives in range of the guns of a battleship. I think of the Sheffield burning in the Falklands. I think of the men who died in the Persian Gulf when Saddam "accidentally" hit one of our frigates with an exocet. I think of reading that battleships were designed to withstand the oncoming fire of ANOTHER battleship of equal size.
I guess I am STILL a battleship sailor at heart, an anachronism.
Oh well, back to work.
El Seņor Jim
Collage by Virginia Hirons
October 21, 1999
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