Last Pearl Harbor warship polished for anniversary

December 04, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun reporter

Just because a ship has been put out to pasture, so to speak, doesn't mean it can't use a little sprucing up.

Armed with brushes, rags and cleaning fluids, more than 50 members of the Coast Guard swarmed yesterday over the veteran cutter Taney, docked in downtown Baltimore, scrubbing and polishing the ship's every nook and cranny in preparation for Friday's commemoration of the 66th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Some parts of the ship even got a fresh coat of paint.

The 327-foot Taney, launched in 1936 from the Philadelphia Navy Yard, is the last warship afloat that survived the Japanese attack, and bears its legacy proudly.

"We're trying to get a bit of history here," Boatswain's Mate 1st Class Michael Kristiansen, one of five volunteers from Coast Guard Station Annapolis, said as he diligently polished a brass lamp hanging from the ceiling of the Taney's ward room, where the ship's officers dined before it was decommissioned in 1986.

Kristiansen stepped back to admire his handiwork. "This is the shiniest this is going to be for a while," he said, glancing at his reflection in the gleaming curve of the lamp. "I don't think this ship normally gets this kind of attention."

Indeed, the busy horde of Coast Guard volunteers, most in dark-blue work uniforms, made it seem as though the Taney were getting ready for another of the far-flung missions for which it is renowned, rather than simply being subjected to a scrub-down for wide-eyed civilian visitors.

Some of the volunteers, for whom the Taney's history was as new as it is to tourists, took time to read the placards affixed to bulkheads that describe, among other things, the ship's deployments during World War II as a convoy escort in the Atlantic and as a command ship off Okinawa, where it downed four kamikaze aircraft and one "Betty," the Allied code name for Japan's Mitsubishi G4M bomber. Later, it saw service off Korea and Vietnam, and ran interdictions of drug traffickers in the Caribbean.

"This is one of the greatest pieces of history we have in the Coast Guard," said Navy Chaplain Brian Jacobson, who helped to coordinate the cleanup effort and who recounted how the Taney not only emerged unscathed in Pearl Harbor - where 101 naval vessels had been docked - but protected a vital power plant during the attack. While patrolling the Hawaiian islands afterward, Jacobson said, the Taney was credited with sinking a Japanese submarine.

"I'm doing all this cleaning, but I'd rather be reading the captions on these pictures," said Chief Warrant Officer Vincent Demeyer, a 19-year veteran of the service who is based at Curtis Bay and who was on the Taney for the first time. "This is all from way before I got into the Coast Guard."

Then he went back to his polishing. "We like the public to see something nice," he said.

Friday's remembrance ceremony on the ship, at 11:45 a.m., is free and open to the public. Survivors of Pearl Harbor will share their stories and there will be a 21-gun salute, a playing of taps, a "solemn bell-tolling" and a wreath drop by a Baltimore Police Department helicopter, said Kristi Betz, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Maritime Museum, which owns and operates the Taney.

While the ship, as a floating museum, undergoes basic maintenance on a regular basis to keep it presentable, the extent of yesterday's operation was unprecedented and involved not only cleanup but some mechanical aspects, including installing new toilets and electrical work. The volunteers attacked their jobs with vigor, polishing brass railings and getting on their hands and knees to scrub small corners with brushes and rags.

"Ships like this get pretty dirty," said Steve Sharpe, the retired former engineer officer on the Duane, one of the Taney's six sister ships and now part of an artificial reef off Key Largo, Fla. "Any flat surface gets covered in dust."

While active, he said, ships like the Duane and the Taney - all seven were named after secretaries of the treasury - are prone to grime from oily mists that emanate from engine rooms, dirty handprints and salt water tracked indoors from the decks. At sea, Sharpe said, crews sometimes take to cleaning because there is little else to do.

"When you're spending eight hours in the engine room watching gauges, you'd polish brass just to stop yourself from getting bored," he said.

Often, of course, boredom was not remotely part of the picture. The so-called Secretary Class ships frequently practiced for rescues - not only of other ships' crews in distress but of passengers from downed airliners - and chased fishing vessels taking illegal catches. Some also served as mobile weather stations, supplying meteorological and navigational information for air and shipping routes. In one of its 11 drug seizures in the Caribbean, the Taney seized $140 million worth of marijuana.

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