I read in the newspapers that they decommissioned the USS...


April 27, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

I read in the newspapers that they decommissioned the USS Missouri in Long Beach the other day.

Marcel Damiens, one of hundreds at the ceremonies who had served on the battleship in World War II, the Korea War or in last year's gulf war, was quoted as saying, "If it was between my wife and the Missouri, it would be hard which to choose for decommissioning first."

I called my old shipmate in New Orleans. "Can you really do that in New Orleans?" I asked.

He said, "No -- and I'm now sleeping in the garage."

Damiens served on the Missouri in Korea. It was the only battleship in the fleet in the summer of 1950, when that war broke out. By September it was bombarding North Korea forces and installations.

In a way, the war was a fortunate occurrence for the Missouri. It had been getting a lot of the wrong kind of publicity. In January, it had run aground in the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. It took two weeks for an embarrassed Navy to drag it out of the mud. Then it took a couple of months to conduct a very public inquiry into what happened.

The Sun ran more stories about the grounding and its aftermath than it ran about everything else the Missouri was involved in before and since. Of course, its 1944-45 whereabouts and activities in the Pacific during World War II were strictly censored. A slip of the lip could sink a ship. In Korea in 1950-51 and again on a second combat tour in 1952-53 there was some reporting of its activities, but it was limited.

In the Persian Gulf war, the Navy gave reporters a lot more material to file, about what the ship's cruise missiles and 16-inch gun rounds were doing to Iraqi targets. Some of this material was even true.

The Missouri made a lot of history in three wars -- at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, Inchon and Wonsan, and in the Persian Gulf.

Yet it is best known for a peaceful event described as follows in its deck log: "Sunday 2 September 1945 08-12 Anchored as before. 0805, Fleet Admiral C. W. Nimitz came aboard . . . 0843, General of the Army Douglas Mac Arthur came aboard . . . 0856, Japanese representatives came aboard. At 0902, the ceremonies commenced and the Instrument of Surrender was presented to all parties . . . ."

Thus ended World War II in Tokyo Bay.

The Missouri was towed from Long Beach to Bremerton, Wash., where it will join the Inactive Fleet. The ship was mothballed once before, from 1955 to 1984. During that period it could be visited by the curious and the nostalgic. Any battleship of the Missouri's generation is a treat to explore. A plaque on "the surrender deck" makes a visit to this ship doubly inspiring.

But don't buy a ticket to Bremerton. This tour through the mothballed ship will not be open to the public. The same defense cutbacks that caused the Navy to decommission its last battleship prevent it from maintaining it as an historic site.

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