Soon they all will go to sea no more

January 16, 2007|By Ernest F. Imhoff

These can be sad days for the SS John W. Brown. Last week, the crew of Baltimore's old Liberty ship gathered at Arlington National Cemetery and said an emotional farewell to one of their own.

Capt. David R. Smith was an old New England seadog who had sailed as chief engineer on U.S. Navy ships and later as master on commercial vessels. His rare double sea skills were like being a symphony orchestra conductor who can also repair the violins and the trumpets.

The World War II veteran, who sailed during three later wars, died recently at 79 after kidney surgery. On the Brown, he was a fount of maritime knowledge for colleagues and an anti-terrorism adviser for professional mariners.

The captain was not alone in death. Six other Brown shipmates who served during World War II passed away within weeks. I think of the old Scottish poem:

When life's last sun goes feebly down,

And death comes to our door,

When all the world's a dream to us,

We'll go to sea no more.

By themselves, the seven deaths are not unusual, but bunched together on an old operating museum ship, they are a dramatic reminder of the quickening pace of an entire American generation's passing. The seven were among 80 Brown volunteers who saved the ship after 1988 but have since passed away.

World War II veterans are dying at the rate of 978 a day, says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. From October 2006 to September 2007, some 357,000 are expected to die. By September 2020, the department expects only 210,000 World War II veterans to be alive. American veterans in general are disappearing at the daily rate of 1,879.

The department estimates there are 3.24 million living World War II veterans. Living vets from the Korean War are estimated at 3.08 million; the Vietnam War, 7.28 million; the Persian Gulf war, 2.26 million; and the war on global terror, 588,923. World War I has fewer than 25 veterans left. There are 23,976,000 living American veterans.

Retired Brown chief engineer John W. Minor was 90 when he died of double pneumonia. He revived the original wartime triple-expansion steam engine in 1991. He tested ships during the war, and afterward took 750 vessels out for sea trials from Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point Yard.

Another was Brown purser/secretary Hercules Esibill of Catonsville, a jocular one-time salesman who could sell a car a day. He died, at 81, of pneumonia. In the war, the able seaman saw two of his ships crash onto the rocks in Africa and another sunk by a U-boat. He never stopped joking.

This count goes on: Daniel Hellings, a former Army paratrooper and a tough little able seaman on the Brown who fell on his head while fixing his new home at age 80 and was killed. Dead from Parkinson's disease at 85 was Irene Butterbaugh, an all-purpose Brown worker who was a civilian code breaker for the Navy. She broke a U.S. weather code so it could be improved.

Another death was Brown carpenter Walther F. Nehrenz Jr., a retired Baltimore insurance man who first made crucial steel in the war and later finally got overseas in 1944 as a U.S. Navy baker. He died of dementia at 85. And John W. "Bill" McClernan, a Brown master cabinetmaker who created beautiful things such as the chapel pulpit and who survived a kamikaze attack on his Navy ship. He died at 81 of complications of dementia.

Brown rituals often follow the deaths. Heads shake. Memories come to mind immediately. Cards are signed by the ship's company. Planters go to the families. Work stops. Heads bow. Services are held in the ship's chapel, and an engine-room oiler plays the organ. Work goes on. Ashes are buried in the Atlantic. Names go up on a bulkhead plaque.

The seven who died were strangers and had never seen the Brown until they came to know one another as elderly, busy volunteers. The Brown is one of only two survivors of the 2,710 emergency, prefabricated Liberty ships launched from 1941 to 1945. They were a success. Only about 200 Liberty ships were lost in the war to the enemy, weather, error or faulty construction. Many sailed commercially after the war, and some were sold, but most were scrapped as the American merchant marine declined.

Here in Baltimore, the deceased had little in common except their upbringing, illnesses common to old age, love of sea and ship and working aboard their aged, prefabricated vessel. It was hustled together in Baltimore's Bethlehem Fairfield Yard in 56 days in 1942 before sailing off to war in Europe with cargo and, later, troops. It lives today. The fancy Cunard Queens never last nearly so long.

The seven shared the pleasure of working and joking in tight quarters for no pay, covering their own expenses; even the black coffee and the doughnuts have a money jar standing sentinel. They shared a warm camaraderie with few quarrels and stood for little ceremony beyond the Pledge of Allegiance. Talk of politics or religion is rare, keeping things peaceful.

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