This article was
written at a time when the USS Lexington (CV-16) was undergoing
repairs, ostensibly to keep her in service for one year more.
That stretched out fifteen years longer, until decommissioning
in 1992 after 49 years of service. The article was
accepted and paid for by the U.S. Naval Institute for
publication in the monthly magazine Proceedings. It
was returned to me years later, unpublished because of the
change in the Navy's plans for the ship. It is published
here as originally written. The sentiment also has not
changed over the years. The Lexington is now a museum in
Corpus Christi, Texas.
Gone to Glory
by Alvin S.
IT HAS BEEN 33 years since I walked through the Navy Yard at
Bremerton, Washington, laden with a seabag and parachute bag.
I remember stopping and resting the overstuffed seabag on
the ground while I turned to look back at the ship for the
I had been aboard
the U.S.S. Lexington (CV-16, Essex class carrier) two
years, a period extending from just prior to the ship's
shakedown cruise to the Gulf of Paria, Trinidad, British West
Indies, in the spring of 1943, to April 1945. When I
walked through the gate I left behind a ship which had
participated in 39 actions, including numerous pre-invasion and
invasion strikes, the First and Second Battles of the Philippine
Sea, the Battle for Leyte Gulf, a torpedoing, a kamikaze hit,
and strikes against Tokyo. In the immediate past were 14
months of action and sea duty without a liberty, said to be the
longest such unbroken stretch of duty in naval history.
I was heeding an
old Navy adage: Don't ask for a transfer, but never refuse if
one is offered. Ahead lay 30 days leave and 10 days travel
time, then school at the Lockheed aircraft plant in Burbank,
California. Liberty in large and heady doses beckoned.
After that assignment to a PV1 and PV2 squadron (land based
twin-engine patrol bombers) at a naval air station, possibly
It would be
difficult to conceive of a more appealing prospect for a carrier
airdale, especially for one who always believed that other old
Navy adage: Once you get a tailhook in your butt you'll never
get it out.
Why was it, then,
that I took a long last look at my ship that warm spring day
with a lump in my throat, and why is there a vestige of that
lump as I write this, after all these years?
I submit that
there is something about service on a man-of war which marks a
person for life. Shipboard duty is a classic example of
the much touted love-hate relationship. Perhaps it owes
its being to the intensity of the experience, the hazardous life
shared with friends under close quarters which generates an
emotional attachment to 889 feet of steel and teak.
How else to
explain the ambivalent feelings? What other way to
reconcile the "I can't wait to get off this tub" attitude with
strange longings which return years later, or which even surface
the moment the feet leave the gangplank for the last
Old soldiers in
their dotage may regale you with tales of a choice billet, or
speak beery-and teary-about a rusty tank with "Suzy" painted on
its side. Let the Coast Guardsman speak in glowing terms
of his memorable tour in a lighthouse beside the thundering sea.
These grow pale when compared with the fierce, lifelong loyalty
and affection a man holds for a ship which took him there,
exposed him to the cauldron, and brought him back.
was constructed by the Bethlehem Steel Company, her keel
being laid at the Fore River Shipyard at Quincy, Massachusetts,
on 14 July 1941. She was christened by Mrs. T. D. Robinson
(she had also christened the fourth Lexington which was
lost in the Battle of Coral Sea), and slid down the ways
on 26 September 1942. CV-16, the fifth naval vessel to
carry the name, was commissioned on 17 February 1943.
After a fitting out period in Boston and following her shakedown
cruise, she passed through the Panama Canal on 26-27 July 1943
and arrived at Pearl Harbor on 9 August.
There followed a
war career amply documented in Navy historical records and in
lay public books. Perhaps the most comprehensive
photographic short-span depiction ever made of carrier war lies
within the pages of The Blue Ghost (Harcourt Brace-1947),
by Captain Edward Steichen, USNR. Steichen came aboard on
9 November 1943 and was detached on 23 December 1943, following
the ship's torpedoing 4 December during strikes on Kwajalein.
That brief period
of intensive action was enough to mark this famous photographer
as the Lexington's own. At the conclusion of the
book Steichen says. “I hurry the handshake, salute the
quarterdeck, go down the gangplank to the dock, scarcely able to
hold the flooding emotion. The vast expanse of the ship
towers above us, merges into and becomes part of the night; a
gangway light reveals the long diagonal wrinkles in her hull
Plates, a fixed imprint of the concussion waves that followed
the torpedo explosion. Felix Stump (Captain of the
Lexington) is looking at those wrinkles ... there are no
"The Captain and
the crew ... the living and the dead, men and steel, men and
guns ... images, emotions ... all are fused, become a unity-a
ship. Goodnight, Lady Lex."
The book title was
taken from the nickname given to the ship following this, the
first of several "sinkings" by the Japanese. It was
followed by a succession of such claims as the war continued.
She became grimier and rustier in her blue coat while newer
carriers came to the Pacific in camouflage paint or older
ones returned stateside for refurbishing. Among his
remarks made when he was addressing the crew, Vice Admiral Marc
A. (Pete) Mitscher said, "She's a dirty ship, but she's a
fighting ship." There was no mistaking the pride in his voice.
And Tokyo Rose continued to insist that the Blue Ghost
was on the bottom.
time the Lexington was hit was when she was operating
with the Task Force off Luzon, 5-8 November 1944. A
kamikaze struck the starboard side of the island structure aft,
resulting in the loss of 47 dead and 127 wounded, plus extensive
damage to the ship. The ship's guns shot down the first of two
"Zekes" which closed. The second, although afire, pressed
Most of the
crew-at least those who were topside and witnessed the
attack--were convinced that the Japanese plane would have missed
had it not been for the crossing of the ship's bow close aboard
by another carrier, which shall herein remain nameless.
Maneuvering to avoid collision, the Lex was unable to
take the evasive action needed to foil the aircraft. I
recall the ship's whistle was blowing when the plane struck.
Months later, just
prior to my departure from the Lexington, the ship
was tied up at a pier in Bremerton awaiting its turn in
drydock. This same U.S.S. "Nameless" was being brought
out of drydock early on a Sunday morning. She bumped the
Lexington. We were roused from our bunks by the
strident clanging of the general alarm, and a call to collision
quarters. It was not a drill.
first stateside liberty in 14 months we went ashore, most of the
liberty party making a beeline for favorite haunts in Bremerton,
our West Coast port. About ten, yielding to a thirst for
beer, stopped at the first tavern beyond the Navy Yard gates.
One of the group, who shall also remain nameless, walked up to
the bar ahead of the rest.
"Anybody here from
the----------?" he asked.
A downy cheeked
innocent in dress blues stepped forward and answered, "Yes, I
A single punch
decked him. 'Be sailors from the Lexington turned
around and walked out. You don't drink beer with sailors who are
from a ship which you think placed your ship in
jeopardy-double jeopardy at that. Be they innocent or
guilty, suspicion of guilt suffices.
We heard later
that there were similar altercations elsewhere that first
liberty night in Bremerton and Seattle, a couple of which
required the services of the Shore Patrol. You might get
away with kicking my dog, but don't endanger my ship.
Since 1945 1 have
seen on several occasions mention of the Lexington in the
newspapers. I wish I had saved these small notations of a
great ship's continuing history. A year or two ago boxing
matches were held on and televised from the flight deck of the
Lexington while she was in Pensacola. A few times
the TV cameras panned over the ship; once an aerial view was
shown. It is beyond my power to describe the feeling which
swept over me as I watched. It was something more than
nostalgia, an emotion so acute only those who have experienced
it will understand.
Since 1969 the
Lexington has been in service in the training of fleet naval
aviators, the first and only aircraft carrier so employed.
A recent newspaper article revealed that the Lexington,
docked at the military ocean terminal in Bayonne, New Jersey, is
in for $2.85 million in hull repairs and painting. The
bottom line must have brought thoughtful looks to the faces of
any of the thousands who served aboard her and happened to see
the story. She will be decommissioned in March 1979, to
reduce the carrier force to 12 ships, as ordered by Congress.
The many who have
trod the Lexington's decks as crew or air groups during
her illustrious 35 years are numerous enough to populate a
good-sized city. Soon they will share with countless other
sailors that empty feeling which comes when one learns his old
ship is being mothballed, stripped, shredded, and melted into
bridge girders, skvscraper steel, and auto bodies. There
is a built-in frustration in trying to write about this.
Maybe it can't be written about successfully, but only
experienced. I have lost touch with every shipmate with
whom I served. One by one, the lines of communication went
down over the years. Captain Felix B. Stump (later
Admiral) is dead; also Vice Admiral Mitscher. Although the
Lexington's wartime losses do not compare with those of
some other ships, we had our burials at sea, we had our share of
pilots and crewmen who did not return. They have been
joined by many who survived those earlier days.
So now her days
are numbered, and soon she will be gone to glory.
than a ship leaves us when an old naval vessel puts out to sea
for the last time. Somehow, somewhere we have lost our
innocence along the way, and each departure breaks another
thread. Yet these gray ghosts sailing single file to the
horizon live in the memory of men who served on them as
monuments to the days when devotion to duty, respect for the
flag, love of country, and loyalty to one's ship were qualities
which made men stand taller and walk straighter.
The years pass
like the ships. Soon we too will be gone like them gone,
I hope, to glory.