Old ship's bell now tolls to commemorate war dead

November 09, 1992|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

A bell that sailors depended on for the time and duty orders while fighting German subs in the North Atlantic rang out yesterday in honor of the dead during a pre-Veterans Day program in the lofty Baltimore War Memorial.

The bell -- all that's left of the USS Laning -- was salvaged from an old New Jersey church and served for the first time as a centerpiece for the ceremonies held by the Maryland Chapter of the Destroyer Escort Sailors Association.

The Laning, a spunky World War II destroyer escort, was scrapped in 1975; the bell moved to a Bernardsville, N.J., church years before.

Now it hangs, gleaming, as the newest piece of wartime memorabilia collected by the sailors group. An accompanying plaque lauds the bell for "sounding the watch for its able crew through calm and stormy seas."

Ringing the bell during the association's annual Veterans Day Memorial Service was a proud moment for Eric Kindt of Ellicott City. He and fellow crew member, Cosmo Vitale of Martinsville, N.J., discovered, recovered and refurbished the bell.

Mr. Vitale couldn't join the veterans for Sunday's ceremonies, but he sent his granddaughter in his stead.

"My grandfather did not have to ask me twice. I knew I was coming," said Marjorie Vitale, a junior at Towson State University.

At 20, Ms. Vitale is about the same age her grandfather was when he served on the Laning -- remembered by Mr. Kindt as "a punchy little craft that was more than a match for submarine and air attacks" in the North Atlantic and later in the Pacific.

"I'll tell him the bell is very beautiful and that I'm very proud of him," she added.

While researching the history of the Laning for a reunion last spring, Mr. Kindt discovered that the bell was hanging in the defunct church not far from Cosmo Vitale's home.

The local Knights of Columbus owned the building and had no use for the well-weathered bell, so Mr. Vitale helped retrieve it and Mr. Kindt paid $625 to have it refurbished.

A friend of Mr. Kindt, Baltimore contractor Tom Palacorolla, built a frame for the weighty bell because the War Memorial's walls could not hold it.

Mr. Kindt remembers the bell as a bit of security in the midst of war. "It's like a grandfather clock . . . if you don't hear it, you know something's missing."

Only a few of the Laning's crew are among the 180 members of the Maryland group of destroyer escort veterans.

But many of the more than 50 men attending yesterday's service gathered to look at the bell and relive their days aboard the small ships developed for anti-submarine warfare.

"We're an endangered species because we were the sailors of an extinct craft," said Mr. Kindt. Because the destroyer escorts carried only about 200 men, "we were like family. We knew everybody," he added. "Destroyer escort sailors do really have a strong bonding."

During the war, there were more than 500 destroyer escorts. Today only a couple survive. More than two dozen were lost in the war, the men say. Most were scrapped, as was the Laning.

The destroyer escorts, known in Navy lore as "trim but deadly," were about 300 feet long and 34 feet wide and carried a crew of about 200, Mr. Kindt said. The ships "primarily had a utility role," he said, because they could go places and do things that the larger destroyers and battleships could not.

Many of the veterans wore navy blue caps bearing the names and numbers of their ships in gold letters; some wore ties with small white ships on them. All of the men had stories.

Ezra Sullivan of Pasadena remembered some wild times aboard the USS Neal A. Scott. "I spent many a night in the North Atlantic with one arm around the chain to hold me in that bunk," said Mr. Sullivan, who, at 83, is the oldest member of the Maryland chapter.

He also recalled proudly bringing a German sub into Portsmouth, N.H., after the enemy's surrender.

C. H. Wolff of Baltimore remembered another destroyer escort, the Frederick C. Davis. It never came home. It was, in fact, the last vessel sunk by the Germans before the war ended, he said.

His own experience, aboard the USS Herbert C. Jones, Mr. Wolff remembered fondly. The pay wasn't so good -- "$50 a month, $20 more to get shot at" -- but, he added, the wine was cheap.

"If it wasn't for the shootin', it was the best time of my life."

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