Watershed Journey

Tears and sea stories flowed freely when some ancient mariners returned to the Liberty ship John W. Brown for its Great Lakes voyage.

September 14, 2000|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The old Baptist minister climbed the gangway of the old Liberty ship. By the time he reached the slanted deck, his eyes had moistened. For the first time in 56 years, since he was a teen-ager in the U.S. Navy Armed Guard, Richard W. Hass of upstate New York was back aboard a ship he thought no longer existed: the SS John W. Brown.

"I can't keep the tears back," said Hass, now 75, as he boarded the Brown in Buffalo, N.Y. "I fired the Brown's five-inch gun at German planes in the [Mediterranean Sea]. ... Sometimes we hid beer below the gun mounts. We drank Mennen after-shave on VE-Day.

"I heard nothing about the Brown until two years ago," he continued. "I thought she was scrapped like the rest ... this is overwhelming."

It was a moment replayed many times in many ports during the Brown's recently completed Great Lakes 2000 cruise, as the newly refurbished Baltimore-based Liberty ship welcomed more than 35,000 visitors aboard. Many of those were veterans of either the Brown or of World War II, for whom the ship was a living reminder of younger days and different times.

Old seafarers - among both visitors and the volunteer crew - talked endlessly as they walked the decks. And young visitors heard for the first time about the merchant seamen who ran the Liberty ships, the U.S. Navy gunners who protected them and the sacrifices of both in helping win the war.

In Buffalo, Don Yockel, 75, of New York and Vernon Joyce, 76, of Ontario, also veterans of the Brown's World War II service, told of the time off southern France when the Brown's crew shot down the only German airplane credited to the transport and troop ship. "We were all firing, we don't know who hit it," Yockel said. "We were a team on the Brown."

In Halifax, youngsters tapped out their names in dots and dashes as Andy Hodder, 82, a radio operator in World War II, taught them Morse code.

"I enjoy teaching children Morse," Hodder said. "It's a dying art - like riveting the Brown."

Experienced crew

The need for new rivets - nearly 14,000 of them - was the fundamental reason for the Brown's voyage to and from the Great Lakes this summer under Capt. Paul Esbensen. It was the nonprofit ship's most difficult voyage since World War II. A rotating crew, averaging almost 70 years of age, sailed 5,505 miles over 107 days, performing traditional sea duties and tying and untying the ship 100 times. They also sailed the ship in endless circles around Lake Ontario for a demanding film crew shooting a TV movie.

Toward voyage's end, the mariners were tired and a bit irritable. There had been little liberty on this Liberty ship. But craggy-faced messman Bob Carlson of Philadelphia, a former merchant mariner and U.S. Navy sailor who earned a place in the ship's history by washing every dish used on the 3 1/2 - month voyage, wasn't complaining.

"You can't complain," said Carlson, 72. "It's all voluntary. You work hard. You do this on your own. You're happy to be at sea again."

Said the Brown's Armed Guard commander, Joe Colgan, 74, of Berlin, Md., who manned ships' guns in the South Pacific, "The camaraderie here is like in the war. People who complain a lot don't last."

Their sentiments were echoed by Torben B. Hansen of Annapolis, the Danish-born able seaman and ship's video-cameraman who, at 79, was the oldest crew member on the voyage's last leg.

"Going to sea is a mystery," Hansen philosophized. "It's genetic. Something to do with spawning. We're escaping land. People aboard have high IQs, low IQs, but they all want to go to sea ... we all want to sail."

Many of those who came aboard felt likewise, or were happily reminded of the days when they did.

"You need a sense of comradeship, and the Brown gives it to many kinds of people," observed the Brown's carpenter, 65-year-old Stanley "Stosh" Sdanowich. That included visitors, he said.

"We've seen it again and again," said Sdanowich. "The veterans don't tell their families about their adventures for 50 years. They find fellow seamen and start telling story after story. They can't stop. Strangers on land, comrades at sea."

Stories of the sea

One day at his station below the Brown's main deck, two Quebec Province seamen met for the first time. The two began exchanging North Atlantic sea stories so intensely that even when a five-minute power outage doused the lights, they kept talking in almost total darkness.

On another occasion, the spouse of one loquacious visitor was heard to remark: "Don't re-fight the war, honey, you want to see the engine room."

In Montreal, two tenors, Canadian Dennis Delaney, 67, and Jack Wright, 76, the ship's Wilmington, Del., bo's'n, sang "My Wild Irish Rose" to the delight of other salts.

"It's my first time on a Liberty in more than 30 years," Delaney said between songs. "First the smells hit me - oil, grease, steam. Then the rake of the deck to the bow. Then the ship's feel: how well they were built and sailed with such great pride. Finally, how big they were [441 feet long by 58 feet wide].

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