Robert C. Ballinger, 81, expert on Navy battleship boilers

May 23, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Robert Cornelius Ballinger, who became a highly regarded expert on battleship propulsion systems in a uniformed and civilian naval career spanning five decades, died of heart failure Saturday at his Annapolis home. He was 81.

"Known to his colleagues as `Battleship Bob,' Robert Ballinger probably knows more about battleship boilers than anyone else around," said a 1988 profile of Mr. Ballinger in a Navy publication.

A native of Bowling Green, Ky., Mr. Ballinger was raised in Nashville, Tenn. His father was a plumber and steam-fitter, and by age 12 the boy was working with him in the sweltering, noisy engine rooms of riverboats, learning about what became his life's work.

"By the time I was 15, I could operate anything on the Cumberland River," he said in the Navy article.

After graduation from a Catholic high school in Nashville, Mr. Ballinger attended Vanderbilt University and the University of New Mexico. In 1942, he enlisted in the Navy and was assigned as a fireman in the engine room of the USS Cetus, a merchant marine ammunition ship in the South Pacific.

Mr. Ballinger went aboard his first battleship in 1943, when he was transferred to the USS Wisconsin before its commissioning at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He spent five months aboard the new ship training its engine room crew.

He then returned to the Cetus for the remainder of Word War II as the supply ship delivered ammunition to Navy vessels.

After several years on Guam, where he was in charge of transportation vehicles, he returned to sea duty in 1950 aboard destroyers. He served on the battleship Mississippi from 1951 to 1954, and oversaw repair of the ship's six boilers, which were the size of a two-story house.

"We disassembled and overhauled the pumps, purified the lube oil, cleaned up the machinery and got our hands dirty," he said. "I loved it. It was a real challenge to tackle a piece of broken machinery, disassemble it, and add a few new parts. Then magically, it started running again."

During the Vietnam War, he was in charge of the boiler room of the carrier USS Independence from 1963 until 1967.

"They would be on the firing line for 90 days off Vietnam, and he said he often didn't leave the engine room or sleep for a week at a time," said his wife of 50 years, the former Blanche Virginia Hatcher. "He said he was worried something might happen and the ship would lose steam."

His final assignment in uniform was as officer in charge of Ricketts Hall at the Naval Academy, and of the gun battery used during ceremonies and parades. He retired in 1969, with the rank of chief warrant officer.

For the next 11 years, he worked at George G. Sharp Inc., a marine engineering firm in Hyattsville, then joined the Navy's Sea Systems Command as a civilian in 1980, when President Ronald Reagan ordered reactivation of four World War II-era battleships, the New Jersey, Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri. He worked on boiler restoration aboard all of them.

Proud of his Navy service and respectful of tradition, Mr. Ballinger was able to locate all four of the lighters that were issued to light their boilers for the first time, including the one at the Wisconsin's original commissioning. The one he had the honor of using to light its boilers in 1988 was the same one he had purchased for the Navy and used at the ship's first "lighting-off" ceremony in 1944.

He retired in 1992.

He was a member of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, the Battleship Association, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Fleet Reserve Club.

He also was a member of Evangelical Presbyterian Church, 710 Ridgely Ave., Annapolis, where services will be held at 10:30 a.m. today.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, John K. Ballinger of Reading, Pa.; three daughters, Cheryl Ann Faust and Barbara Marie Ballinger, both of Annapolis, and Tina Marie Noble of Westminster; a brother, Joseph P. Ballinger of Bastrop, La.; three sisters, Thelma Ballinger of Nashville, Margaret Johnson of Mount Lake Terrace, Wash., and Dorothy Newbern of High Springs, Fla.; and three grandchildren.

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