An honorable voyage

Service: A ceremony aboard the SS John W. Brown pays tribute to veterans of past wars while honoring those helping to fight terrorism today.

November 12, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Two months to the day since a faceless foe declared war on the country, hundreds boarded a World War II ship in Dundalk to remember conflicts past - and the veterans who gave their youth and their lives in America's name.

Many of the 586 people who walked up the rocking steps to the SS John W. Brown yesterday morning fought in World War II, the last time the United States was attacked on its own soil.

They are accustomed to observing Veterans Day. But this year the day was especially solemn.

This time, they're thinking about servicemen and -women overseas and terror at home.

"Anthrax, that's my big concern," said Dundalk resident Thomas Payne, 78, who joined the Navy a year before Pearl Harbor was bombed. "No. 2, that nuclear information falls into the wrong hands. ... I've seen what it did to cities. Nothing, absolutely nothing standing."

All morning, people drew parallels between World War II and the country's new challenge. But ask Payne - or most others who fought in Europe and the Pacific - and they'll hit on the key difference: They knew who their enemy was.

Still, Silver Spring resident Robert Waldman, 72, who served two years in Korea and returned home to see his 15-month-old son for the first time, finds comfort in one certainty.

"There's no question in the world what we're fighting for," he said. "It's not just for principles, for democracy. It's to protect the lives of Americans.

"Can't let terrorism dictate the way we live," he said.

Veterans sang patriotic hymns in the ship's tiny chapel and listened to words of thanks for their service.

Ed Munro, a chaplain with Baltimore International Seafarers' Center, told the men tested by World War II that they need not worry about the mettle of the country today.

"We will prevail," he said. " ... This generation will make you proud, just as you've made us proud."

The World War II generation had plenty of opportunities to remember their youth as they cruised around Baltimore Harbor at a gentle 5 knots.

Teen-agers from the Chesapeake High School Vocal Ensemble sang songs from the Big Band era. People roamed around in vintage Army uniforms. Posters warned that loose lips sink ships.

Baltimore resident Eleanor Laun, 83, listened to a bugler play taps and thought of her 2 1/2 years as an Army nurse during the war.

"It's always a thrill to hear that," she said, smiling.

Joe Pipkin, 77, looked around inside the John W. Brown - the Spartan cots, the lower holds, the uniform grayness - and was filled with memories of his Navy ship.

"It just seems like yesterday," said the Baltimore resident.

The John W. Brown is a Liberty ship, part of a fleet constructed to transport supplies and troops after German submarines destroyed much of the U.S. merchant marine. More than 2,700 Liberty ships were built. The Brown is one of two ships that remain.

Project Liberty Ship Baltimore Inc., the group that maintains the vessel, has invited veterans on board for their holiday since 1995. Yesterday was the largest turnout yet.

Brian Hope, the group's chairman, thinks that's only fitting on a Veterans Day that carries a poignancy everyone can appreciate.

"We're just about to establish a whole new generation of veterans," said Hope, who served during the Vietnam War. "Our younger generations are going to understand a whole lot better the sacrifices previous generations made on their behalf."

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