Gone to Glory

 

 

 

 

 

Foreword

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  It was returned to me years later, unpublished because of the change in the Navy's plans for the ship.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. Fick

 

          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 last time.

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 stateside.

 

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 time?

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.

 

The Lexington 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 words.

 

"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.

 

The second 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 on successfully.

 

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.

 

On the 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 am."

 

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.

 

Something other 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.

 

     
Copyright 1998 by Patty Cannon all rights reserved