A warship of learning

Cutter: The Taney has earned its Memorial Day honors, surviving Pearl Harbor and serving in most major conflicts of the 20th century.

May 22, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Its deck is rotting and its rivets are rusting, but there's no denying the toughness or longevity of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Taney: the last warship afloat to survive the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The 65-year-old veteran of most major U.S. naval operations of the mid-20th century is now a floating museum in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. As part of a Memorial Day weekend celebration, the nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation is flying in an 80-year-old Coast Guard veteran who was one of the Taney's chief gunners at Pearl Harbor.

"At the time, we didn't realize that it was World War II that was starting," said Francis C. Soares Jr., a retired career Coast Guard officer who lives in Maine. "Bombs were falling, guns were blazing, everybody was firing. You didn't have time to stop and think about it."

At 10:30 a.m. Sunday, caretakers of the 327-foot-long ship plan to unveil an on-board exhibit of pictures, movies and models of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack that prompted the United States' entry into World War II. And on Monday, Memorial Day, Soares is due to present a plaque that will dedicate the ship's new Pearl Harbor exhibit to the sailors who died in the bombing.

The Taney survived that assault to serve for nearly a half century, bombarding Vietnam's shores in the 1960s and seizing drugs during the drug wars of the 1980s.

Built in Philadelphia in 1936, the cutter was named after Maryland native Roger Brooke Taney, former chief justice of the United States. He is perhaps best known for the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which held that blacks could not be citizens and thus had no standing in U.S. courts. But the Coast Guard did not name the ship after Taney for his legal opinions.

Taney also was an acting U.S. secretary of the Treasury, and during the 1930s, the United States built a series of "Treasury Class" cutters named after former Treasury secretaries.

One of the ship's first duties was cruising the South Pacific, helping Pan American Airways set up airstrips and bases on several small islands.

When Amelia Earhart's plane disappeared over the Pacific in November 1937, the Taney was among dozens of ships that searched in vain for the adventurer and her navigator.

"It's amazing to think about the huge array of operations the Taney has been on over its history - from the Earhart search to patrolling the fisheries off of Alaska," said John Kellett, director of the Baltimore Maritime Museum. The museum is part of the Living Classrooms Foundation, which runs the Taney and a dozen other historic sites around Baltimore harbor.

The Taney was one of many Coast Guard ships the government used for military operations during World War II. It was docked at Pier 6 in Honolulu when 353 Japanese warplanes sunk or seriously damaged 18 American ships in Pearl Harbor, killing more than 2,300 sailors and soldiers. The stealth attack persuaded a previously isolationist United States to declare war on Japan.

The Taney was not damaged, and the thousands of rounds it fired chased planes away from the Honolulu power plant, which may have prevented blackouts on the island, according to a ship history.

"The Taney did a fighting job that day; she did the best she could do. The planes came at the power plant, but they couldn't [bomb it] because of our fire," said George "Bill" Atherton, 86, a retired Naval engineer from California who was a radio operator on the Taney.

Donald Brown, another Taney veteran, recalled what a surprise the attack was, coming at almost 8 a.m. on a calm Sunday morning. "The guys were saying, `What is going on?' And I said, `It's happening, We're being attacked. ... ' Then all hell broke loose, with planes all over the place. Afterward, everyone asked, was I scared? Not particularly, I was too busy working the gun."

After Pearl Harbor, the Taney escorted U.S. supply ships in the Mediterranean before returning to the Pacific to serve as the amphibious command ship for the invasion of Okinawa in 1945. The ship's gunners shot down five planes, including a kamikaze that could have destroyed a Navy supply ship.

The ship played a minor role in the Korean War and served as a medical ship during the Vietnam conflict. During the 1980s, it patrolled the Caribbean and its crew made 11 drug seizures, including one that netted a then-record 80 tons of marijuana, according to the Baltimore Maritime Museum.

The Coast Guard decommissioned the ship on Dec. 7, 1986, and donated it to Baltimore in 1989. The Taney, which is moored beside the Power Plant restaurant complex on Pratt Street, has been a floating classroom for the past 10 years.

It survived the bombardment of Pearl Harbor to be threatened today by another enemy: rust. Its hull is badly corroded below the waterline, with several small holes requiring the museum to frequently pump water out of it.

The museum's foundation is trying to raise $750,000 to replace its rivets and paint its hull.

"It's a pretty dire situation," said James Piper Bond, president of the Living Classrooms Foundation. "We have to save the Taney, because it is so important. ... So we are appealing to the public for help."

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