In War, A Ring Of Safety

September 26, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

Perhaps it was Zachary Lansdowne's 1909 Naval Academy ring. Perhaps it was the skill of the destroyer's crew. Or maybe it was just luck.

But something seemed to protect the men of the USS Lansdowne from all the shells, torpedoes and kamikaze pilots the Japanese navy threw their way.

Despite more than three years of World War II combat in the Atlantic and the Pacific, "The Lucky L" ended the war in Tokyo Bay without having sustained a single combat casualty.

About 50 veterans of the Lansdowne gathered this week to mark the sixth reunion of the USS Lansdowne Association, and the 50th anniversary of their ship's commissioning.

At a Naval Academy luncheon yesterday, some of them were still marveling at their experience.

"I stood up and looked around the room at all the old men," said Marvin Glauber, a Lansdowne vet from White Plains, N.Y. "Some of them are fat, some are skinny or funny-looking guys now.

"But these men, without exception, were willing to die for their country, no questions asked. That's what struck me more than anything about the whole reunion," he said.

But none had to make that sacrifice.

The ship was named for Lt. Cmdr. Zachary Lansdowne, an aviator who died in the 1925 crash of the dirigible Shenandoah in Ohio.

His Naval Academy ring was missing when rescue workers reached the scene, and it was thought that looters had stolen it. But 11 years later, the ring was found in a garden, hanging on a flower, as the story goes. It was returned to Betsy Lansdowne, the aviator's widow.

"When the ship was launched, she had the ring put in a silver case with a glass top," said Robert D. Behymer, editor of the Lansdowne Association's newsletter.

"As the ship put out on its first voyage, she went out in a small boat" and delivered the ring to Commander [W. R.] Smedberg, he said. "She indicated the ring might be a lucky token for the ship."

Perhaps it was.

Richard C. Inghram, 76, of Morningside, Iowa, has gray hair and a hearing aid. But 50 years ago he was a gunnery control officer on the Lansdowne. On Sept. 14, 1942, the ship was one of six destroyers sailing to protect the aircraft carrier Wasp, part of a task force headed for battle at Guadalcanal.

In midafternoon, a Japanese submarine fired a pattern of six long-range torpedoes toward the Wasp, two of which hit their target. A third missed and ran beneath the Lansdowne, bumping its hull without exploding, and churned on to strike the battleship South Dakota.

"We saw what was going on," Mr. Inghram said. "The torpedoes hit the middle of the carrier, and the people went overboard. We were one of the ships that picked up the survivors."

Later in the battle of Guadalcanal, "The Lucky L" was anchored just offshore, unloading ammunition for the Marines on shore, when a sharp lookout spotted a torpedo.

In a split-second reaction that saved the ship and earned him a Silver Star, Commander Smedberg demanded power from the engine room and jettisoned the anchor.

"It's still down there somewhere," said Mr. Inghram.

In seconds they were under way, and the torpedo passed astern of the Lansdowne. But it struck her sister ship, the Majaba, sending debris and crewmen into the air.

There were other close calls for "The Lucky L." Mr. Behymer, 66, of Hanover Park, Ill., recalled a rainy day in May 1945 when the Lansdowne was supporting U.S. forces fighting on Okinawa. A Japanese kamikaze plane flew in low and fast. The ship's guns opened up.

"We surprised him," Mr. Behymer said. "He eased back on the stick instinctively, flew over the fantail, and passed so close to the ship that the wind took Joe Wright's helmet and headphones off."

The Lansdowne hunted down submarines, ferried troops and supplies, fought off and downed enemy aircraft, bombarded shore installations, sank enemy shipping and dodged Japanese shore fire, earning 12 battle stars without a casualty.

Maybe it was the ring.

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