Walter L. Magalis, 79, veteran, ship volunteer

April 02, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Walter L. Magalis, a World War II Navy veteran and one of the first volunteers in the restoration of the Liberty ship SS John W. Brown, died of colon cancer Monday at his Arbutus home. He was 79.

A Brunswick native and son of a Baltimore & Ohio railroader, Mr. Magalis moved to West Baltimore with his family in 1935 and attended city public schools. In 1943, at age 18, he enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to its Armed Guard -- men posted on merchant ships and responsible for operating the defensive guns against air and sea attacks.

Mr. Magalis' first vessel was a Liberty ship, SS Walter Grayson. He joined it in the Pacific, sailing around the world, and was aboard as it withstood 35 air attacks by German aircraft as it steamed from Gibraltar to Port Said.

"Those air raids lasted for 15 terrifying minutes, followed by the worst boredom," he told The Sun in 1997. "I improved real fast. I thought I was bulletproof, and it really didn't hit me until years later what I had done. At the time, all I cared about was the next liberty and beer. But I'd do it all again in a heartbeat."

His next ship, also a Liberty, was the SS John Merrick, which arrived at Normandy on June 7, 1944, one day after the Allied invasion. He remained aboard as it made 21 voyages ferrying troops, tanks and supplies between English ports and Utah Beach.

"On one trip, they hit a mine but were able to make repairs and keep going," said Joseph T. Colgan of Berlin, an Armed Guard veteran and friend.

Mr. Magalis finished his wartime career aboard the aircraft carrier USS Boxer in the Pacific, then returned to Baltimore and took a job as a truck driver. He drove for Johnson Motor Lines for 35 years until retiring in 1981.

Since his 1952 marriage to Mary Quesinberry, the couple made their home on Leeds Avenue in Arbutus.

In 1988, Mr. Magalis read a newspaper ad for volunteer help in restoring the John W. Brown, which was being brought to Baltimore by Project Liberty Ship. The 4,700-ton vessel had been built at Bethlehem Steel's Fairfield Yard in 1942 and was used as a nautical high school in New York City after its wartime career. Then it was consigned to the James River Reserve Fleet in Virginia -- mothballed.

Mr. Magalis became an early volunteer, and was among the 50 former seamen who rode the dead ship up the Chesapeake Bay on its return to Baltimore. He joined other Armed Guard veterans in the restoration of the aft quarters.

"He was one of the original members of the Brown's Armed Guard and worked two or three days a week when we started restoring the ship working on her equipment and guns," Mr. Colgan said.

Capt. Brian H. Hope of Ellicott City, a Chesapeake Bay pilot and former chairman of Project Liberty Ship, said Mr. Magalis "was one of those guys who always smiled and was cheerful. No matter what we were up against, he never shied away from hard work."

When the ship was open for tours, Mr. Magalis, beret set at a jaunty angle, was a popular tour guide as he squired visitors around the Armed Guard's quarters and demonstrated the vessel's armament.

"I loved every one of those 14 years on the Brown," Mr. Magalis said in an interview this month with Ernest F. Imhoff, a retired Sun reporter and editor.

"It was fun. Even when we brought her up as a dead ship on a hot day in 1988," he said. "The seagull and pigeon stuff was three and four feet high and we slept out under the gun tub nearby. What a sorry-looking, impossible job the Brown looked like then."

As part of his daily routine, Mr. Magalis raised the U.S. flag at his home.

"He was the most patriotic human being I've ever encountered. He loved listening to patriotic music, and he didn't have much time for those who demonstrated or desecrated the flag," said daughter-in-law Angel M. Magalis of Arbutus.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. today at Ambrose Funeral Home, 1328 Sulphur Spring Road, Arbutus.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Magalis is survived by a son, Douglas E. Magalis of Arbutus; a daughter, Barbara Gunther of Severn; and two grandchildren.

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