Former Navy crewmates mark 50 years beyond sea Maritime memories rehashed at reunion

August 10, 1991|By S. M. Khalid

Nearly 50 years have passed since they were packed together on that old "tin can," the destroyer USS Ordronaux, which plied the dangerous seas of the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Pacific in World War II.

At the end of the war, they went their separate ways. Some crew members, like baseball pitcher Tommy Byrne, returned to the public adulation of playing with the New York Yankees.

Others, like Lt. David Owen, the ships' second-in-command, distinguished themselves in other fields. His was international maritime law.

Their ranks thinned and their hair grayed, but the bonds of friendship begun aboard ship in a world at war endured.

Yesterday, 67 members of the Ordronaux gathered for the first time in 46 years at Baltimore's Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel to retell a few tall tales and recall experiences ranging from the rescue of a German U-boat crew to steaming into Tokyo Bay days before the Japanese surrender.

"It's quite a thrill," said Mr. Owen of Baltimore. "I haven't seen more than a half dozen of these men in 46 years. It's remarkable. I didn't realize the closeness of the relationships until we started working on this reunion a year ago. Today, it's almost as if these fellows had gotten of the ship this morning."

When asked what made the reunion so special, former crew member John Varga, who earned a doctorate after his discharge, said: "Everybody [who said he would come] made it! I'm surprised that so many of us lived this long."

In fact, initial planning for the reunion began about 18 months ago, when a crew member contacted Mr. Owen and compiled the names and addresses of 17 of the 600 men who served aboard the Ordronaux during World War II.

In subsequent months, the names of 105 surviving crew members were obtained and they were invited to the reunion. Among the 67 attending this weekend's reunion are some in wheelchairs. People traveled to Baltimore from as far away as California, Minnesota and Florida.

"It's absolutely unreal," said Mr. Byrne, a former mayor of Wake Forest, N.C. "It's the greatest thing that's happened to me in the last 15 to 20 years."

Much of the talk last night was about the nine-team baseball league that Mr. Byrne organized aboard the destroyer. The games were played during lulls at makeshift diamonds in such far-off ports of call -- and unlikely baseball hotbeds -- as Oran, Algeria and Malta.

The Ordronaux, which was commanded by the late Capt. Robert Brodie, was mothballed immediately after the war and scrapped about 18 years ago. But the vivid memories of the survivors last night brought life aboard her alive.

Along with photographs and other mementos from the ship displayed by the group was the ship's log, brought to the reunion by former Naval Reserve member Jim Sorley. He retrieved it in 1972 from the mothballed destroyer while it was off the coast of Texas awaiting scrapping.

The reunion's unofficial guest of honor was in absentia. He was aboard the Ordronaux for only 24 hours. He is former German U-boat Capt. Fritz Wittenberg, who was rescued from the waters of the North Atlantic and interrogated aboard the Ordronaux after his submarine was sunk by the USS Champlain on April 7, 1944.

In recent years, Ordronaux crew members Tom Quinn and Mr. Owen and their wives traveled to Bremen, Germany, to meet with Mr. Wittenberg, who retired a few years ago as a university professor of architecture.

Strong friendships between the former wartime enemies have formed, not unlike those which formed among the American sailors themselves aboard the Ordronaux.

Mr. Wittenberg could not attend this weekend's reunion, but he sent a letter. Drawing on literature of the sea, he wrote to his former enemies: "The brotherhood of the sea is the unwritten code, under which sailors in distress are sustained and helped by their more fortunate fellows, irrespective of nationality, politics and war."

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