Birth of new USS Maryland stirs hearts of those who served on 'Fighting Mary'

August 09, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Correspondent

STARKEY CORNER -- A half-century has passed, but the memories of that fateful Sunday morning still haunt Clyde Oney: the smoke and fire, the destruction and death that surrounded the USS Maryland at Pearl Harbor.

To Mr. Oney, 68, it seems only yesterday he was a shy, gawky farm boy who took a hitch in the Navy to avoid the hardscrabble life in the hills of Magoffin County, Ky. In the intervening years, he wed and raised a family, worked three decades as a steel worker in Baltimore, and retired to his Eastern Shore farm.

But mention the USS Maryland -- the "Fighting Mary" to those who served on her -- and those years melt away. In his mind's eye Mr. Oney can still feel the first explosions that rocked the 32,600-ton battleship, smell the acrid black smoke that soon engulfed the fleet, and hear the wild-eyed master of arms shout, "The Japs are coming and this ain't no s---!"

"The smoke sticks in your mind the most, the smell of it," the Queen Anne's County man recalled. "It was terrible, almost dark. All those ships burning. I didn't get scared until our planes came back in the dark that night. A guy about my age -- I watched him fall in the corner praying, he was so scared the Japanese planes had returned."

The USS Maryland was scrapped 32 years ago, but its proud name is about to be resurrected. Tomorrow morning a new Maryland, a $1.6 billion Ohio-class nuclear submarine, is set to be christened during ceremonies in Groton, Conn.

Instead of booming 16-inch guns, this Maryland will be equipped with the modern weapon of destructive choice: two dozen Trident II missiles carrying nuclear warheads. Its crew will number only 154 -- a fraction of the 1,022 enlisted men and 58 officers who manned the battleship.

About 70 veterans of the USS Maryland battleship are expected to witness the ceremonies, according to organizers. Next summer, the vesselwill be commissioned and become the 13th member of the Navy's Ohio-class submarine fleet.

But for those who served on board the storied Maryland, the one that survived Pearl Harbor and distinguished itself at such legendary venues as the Tarawa atoll, Leyte Gulf and Okinawa, no submarine can take the place of their battleship.

"It isn't my ship," said Wayne D. Ring, 71, of Lemon Grove, Calif., who serves as secretary-treasurer of the 992-member USS Maryland-BB46 Veterans Association. "I'm not sure it means that much to me, but I guess we're proud the name lives on -- at least as proud as a Navy sailor can be of a bubble-head."

The USS Maryland Veterans Association, one of the largest such groups in the country, claims a dozen members living in the state of Maryland. In addition to Mr. Oney, they include Garth E. Summers of Temple Hills, Prince George's County, and Richard C. Crosariol of Indian Head, Charles County.

For all three, the bombing of Pearl Harbor is the most indelibly etched of their memories aboard ship. Mr. Summers was then 19, a private in the Marine Corps and a communications orderly; Mr. Crosariol was a 23-year-old Marine private who manned a 5-inch anti-aircraft gun.

Each was caught below deck in the most casual of circumstances when the first explosions were heard shortly before 8 a.m.: Mr. Oney was cleaning up a compartment for church services; Mr. Summers sat waiting for messages in the communications office; Mr. Crosariol was readying for liberty, literally pulling on the trousers of his khaki uniform.

The sudden devastation that rained down was as unimaginable as it was unexpected. Tied up beside the Maryland, the battleship USS Oklahoma soon turned over, the victim of torpedoes. Ahead of them, the USS California, and astern, the West Virginia, also suffered serious damage in the first wave.

Miraculously, the Maryland was protected by its inboard position. The other battleships around her -- ships the crew had cursed for blocking out the cooling Hawaiian breezes -- shielded the Maryland from a direct torpedo hit. Only two Maryland crewmen and two officers died in the attack, killed by the explosions from two Japanese bombs.

"The first thing I heard was the sound of an airplane engine," Mr. Summers said. "As I walked or ran to the porthole, a torpedo hit the Oklahoma and the impact splashed water through the porthole and got my uniform all wet."

"I ran up to the deck and I remember somebody yelled, 'Holy smoke, they shot the Wee Vee [the West Virginia],' and it just got rougher and the smoke got thicker and then I watched the Oklahoma roll over. It finally dawned on me that this thing was for keeps and people were firing on us."

Mr. Crosariol, the son of Italian immigrants living on an Arkansas farm, could not believe it either, even after seeing the planes emblazoned with red circles fly overhead. His most vivid memories are of the confusion and panic, the ships blowing up and the burning oil on the water.

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