Sailor rejoins old mates in the Atlantic's depths Voyage: A World War II veteran traveled from his home in England to drop a wreath in the Atlantic Ocean in memory of those who died there during the war -- and met his own death.

August 23, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff and Frederick N. Rasmussen | Ernest F. Imhoff and Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

ABOARD THE S.S. JOHN W. BROWN -- The old English seaman had planned to honor his dead World War II shipmates by tossing a wreath into "The Graveyard of the Atlantic" -- the vast East Coast area where a German U-boat had sunk their ship 56 years ago.

Instead, Thomas William Tickner joined his old friends in the depths.

Tickner, 75, a volunteer crewman from Kent, Surrey, suffered heart attack and died during this restored, Baltimore-built Liberty ship's visit to Charleston, S.C. He was buried at sea Tuesday off Cape Hatteras, N.C., entering the water along with the wreath he had bought.

During the 10 years of the Baltimore-based Brown's revived existence, sailing in the Chesapeake Bay and as far away as Nova Scotia, the old ship has welcomed thousands of visitors and buried other sailors. But the crew remembered no more emotional moment than when they bowed their heads and buried Tickner, the Brown's first death while the ship was on a cruise.

Gathered on the starboard foredeck for a traditional service were Tickner's new friends -- 40 fellow sailors, including several women of the all-volunteer Brown, most of them also veterans of the Merchant Marine and the Navy. Nineteen others were on duty.

"The Lord is my Captain, I shall not want," intoned the Rev. Ramon Reno, the ship's chaplain, in his mariners' version of the 23rd Psalm, as mourners stared stoically or wept. "He makes me sail to pleasant bays, He anchors me in quiet waters. He restores my soul."

And from the 139th Psalm, he offered, "If I settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there Your hand shall guide me and Your right hand hold me fast."

The ship's master, Paul J. Esbensen of Kent Island, had slowed the Brown to five knots. Perfect conditions prevailed for a funeral at sea: out of sight of land, under a sunny sky, in a fair wind and with a following sea.

Two years before, Tickner had joined the Brown's crew as a deckhand. He volunteered for any job except taking the helm. Never again, he had said, remembering a wartime horror: He was at the wheel of a tanker in a North Atlantic convoy when, under convoy rules, he had to steer it through live and dead Allied sailors in the water without stopping for fear of endangering his vessel.

The ship whose crew Tickner had planned to honor, the freighter S.S. Margot, was sunk May 23, 1942, away from the Brown's Baltimore-to-Charleston course. So it was not possible to lay the wreath and bury Tickner at that spot. He was laid to rest not far from Diamond Shoals, near where the British tanker Empire Gem was sunk by another German U-boat with the loss of all but three of its 57 crewmen.

A final salute

The ashes of Tickner were in a biodegradable bag on a board inside a black box especially created with four brass handles and painted battleship gray the night before the funeral. The remains were covered by the red ensign, the distinctive British merchant navy flag of scarlet with the Union Jack in one corner.

On completion of the rites, a burial detail of four crew members tipped the board and committed the remains of the old sailor to the deep.

The quartet consisted of Ralph Brown of Cambridge, representing the U.S. Navy Armed Guard, which served aboard Liberty ships; Ed Agnew of Lewes, Del., representing the U.S. merchant marine; Ray Lewis of Essex, who resuscitated Tickner after the heart attack on a Charleston street; and Craig Crawmer of Columbia, a paramedic who attended him later.

Esbensen pulled the ship's steam whistle for three blasts. It's the traditional salute of ships to each other as they pass each other and was a final salute to Tickner.

"Tommy was a good shipmate. We can't say anything better about a crew member," the captain had said days earlier when he announced Tickner's death to the crew in Charleston.

Tickner's joking manner fit in on the Brown, which is run with military strictness yet doesn't take itself seriously off duty. A sign in the Brown crew's mess reads, "Floggings will continue until morale improves."

Reno later conducted another burial service, for David Shelley Klass III, 74, of Somerdale, N.J., a retired American merchant mariner and Navy veteran who died June 3 and was covered by the Stars and Stripes before burial.

Project Liberty Ship

Klass was a member of Project Liberty Ship, the nonprofit Baltimore group that acquired and restored the Brown, but he was not a crew member.

The group, supported by 3,100 members, was given the 10,865-ton ship by the U.S. Maritime Administration in 1988, towed it to Baltimore from the James River in Virginia and, during thousands of hours of scraping rust and tuning engines, restored it to operating fitness. All rivets are being replaced in a major overhaul that is expected to last several years.

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