He didn't mean to cry - military men are strong, he thought - but he did anyway as soon as he heard the horn blow and felt the ship pull away from the pier.
William H. Wallace, 81, couldn't help thinking about the U-boats, the enemy planes, the many close brushes with death, and the friends - so many of them - who never came back the last time they left home on a military ship some 60 years ago.
"When we left," said the World War II veteran, "we didn't know when we'd see the dock again. Back then, you didn't even know where you were headed when you set sail."
Yesterday, however, the purpose and the path were clear for the John W. Brown, a restored World War II Liberty ship that was packed with about 600 veterans and admirers.
Five days before Veterans Day, they would sail out to the Patapsco River, drop a wreath into the water and say a prayer for the men and women who have died in America's wars.
Sailing from Locust Point on a ship that ferried troops to southern France on D-Day, the veterans waded through memory.
On the starboard side of the deck, Calvin Donnelly, 79, recounted his adventures on a Navy aircraft carrier during World War II. He had signed up two weeks after his high school graduation. On his second day on board, his only friend, a seaman he had met at a San Diego naval base, fell down an elevator shaft and died.
War was like that, he explained. "Everything's moving so fast. When you're 17, you think you're immortal. You don't realize the risks," he said.
Later, in the Pacific, his ship eluded submarines, enemy fire and kamikaze pilots, only to fall prey to a two-day typhoon that destroyed every airplane on deck. He remembers during the storm holding on for his life. As the ship's radio operator, he was tied to his chair while his chair was lashed to a bulkhead.
With those memories, Donnelly and other veterans seemed to gain spring in their step yesterday.
"This makes them feel young again," said Ernest F. Imhoff, 67, a member of the ship's volunteer crew and a retired Sun editor. "Once they're aboard, they climb the ladders a little faster. Their blood gets pumping. ... It sure beats sitting around playing golf."
The veterans' reminiscences and efforts also are a battle against time, said George H. Macey, a Navy veteran of World War II.
"Us guys are getting old," he said. "We're dying by the thousands."
Wanting to save some part of the past, Macey, 80, joined Project Liberty Ship, a crew of volunteers that restored and now operates the John W. Brown out of a Canton pier.
The 441-foot-long freighter is the oldest operational World War II Liberty ship, and one of two still existing.
The 2,710 oil-powered steamships were hastily built to carry troops, weapons and supplies to battlefronts during World War II.
"The ship has been around almost as long as I have," Macey said. "It keeps a part of history alive. Once it's gone - once we're gone - the history will be gone, too."
But war and the tragedy it brings probably will never end, said Ed Novak, 78, a former Navy electrician and gunner.
"Events like this get you thinking about life," he said, listening to the rifle salute and a lone bugle playing taps. Years after he returned from World War II, Novak watched his son join the Navy as a pilot. Then, he saw his grandson join the Marines.
"It seems in this world that every generation faces its own hardships," he said, as officers in dress uniform dropped a white-and-blue memorial wreath into the water.
"You just pray that you'll come back safe," he said. "And when you do, you thank God and all those who went with you and never came back."