By George S. K. Rider
Portland, Maine, and the Holiday Inn hosted 45 Abbot crewmen and 39 wives and family members for five action-packed days. Ted and Mary Lou Karras planned our reunion for well over a year with such imagination and detail that all we had to do was show up. They were aided by John Jackson, Rich Baran and Bill Beavers. The rest went off with Navy precision, prompting Rear Admiral Ray Taylor to email Ted a well-deserved “Bravo Zulu” on hearing details of the great event.
I was 11 years old in 1943 when Abbot came to life at the Bath Iron Works, not far from Portland. Original crewmen (“Plank Owners”) returning were: Ernest Perno, Mario Leone, Harry Benoit, Roland Pelletier, Walt Baranger representing his deceased father and Mary Vaughn representing her deceased husband Edwin. They gave all of us a feeling of great pride and a humbling sense of history.
Abbot was laid down on 21 September 1942 and was the 19th of 175 Fletcher-class destroyers to be built. At the height of World War II, B.I.W. was completing one Fletcher-class destroyer every 17 days. Mrs. Grace Abbot Fletcher, the great granddaughter of Commodore Joel Abbot, for whom the ship was named, sponsored her.
Abbot took part in battles and engagements in locations whose names would have gone forever unnoticed, places where Abbot and her crew distinguished themselves time and time again. These names became etched in history: the Marshall Islands, Majuro, Kwajalein, Eniwetok, the Solomons, New Guinea, New Hebrides, Espirito Santo, Mariana Islands, Hollandia, Saipan, Guam, Battle of the Philippine Sea, Leyte, Luzon, Corregidor, Cebu, Mindanao and Honshu.
Abbot earned thirteen ribbons and medals throughout her life. Among them, the Asiatic-Pacific Medal includes one star for each battle, and Abbot earned eight stars from the day she was commissioned in 1943 until March 1946.
In addition, Abbot distinguished herself during the Cold War in the European-African-Middle Eastern Area, the Mediterranean, China, Korea, Lebanon and off Cuba.
Dorothy and I arrived at the Holiday Inn on Wednesday afternoon, September 15th. From the time we checked in until Sunday morning that special feeling of being in the company of so many shipmates and friends old and new and sharing the events so carefully planned, never left us. Only a handful of those returning were under 70 years of age.
The hospitality suite, stocked with wine, beer and snacks was the gathering place for conversations and stories told and retold throughout each day and well into the nights between meals and events.
Thursday morning at 8:45 we boarded two buses for an hour trip to the Bath Iron Works and a fascinating drive through the large facility. It houses many sheds and large buildings engaged in constructing — at this time — three Arleigh Burke-class destroyers in various stages of completion. Each bus was assigned a plant supervisor to accompany us on the hour and a half drive through the facility to explain what we were seeing. We observed everything from the paint shops to the huge dry dock, including the sheds that house sections being put together and later welded into place as the hull takes shape.
The guided missile destroyer Jason Dunham is near completion and will be commissioned in November 2010 and Spruance will be launched next summer; both ships were afloat. Michael Murphy will be floated some time later. The first stages of the entirely new class Zumwalt-class (DDG 1000) destroyers are underway, a radical new design.
Michael Murphy is named for the heroic 29-year-old Navy Seal and Medal of Honor recipient who perished in the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan in 2005. President George W. Bush awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously to Michael’s father at a White House ceremony in 2007. Michael’s parents gave the President his ID bracelet. The President wore it throughout the ceremony.
I was not aware of the destroyer being named for Michael Murphy and welled up when I saw his name on the transom. He grew up and lived in Patchogue, N.Y., about 20 miles from where we lived on Long Island.
We had a great lunch at the Maine Maritime Museum and stopped at L.L. Bean in Freeport on the way home. The day was topped off with a great lobster dinner and a final trip to the hospitality suite.
Friday dawned too early. We boarded three trolleys at 8:45 for a day in Portland. The drivers doubled as very knowledgeable guides as we spent the morning touring the city and learning about its rich history.
We stopped for a special lunch at DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant, which was originally a Delaware River ferry. After lunch we boarded a double-decked excursion boat for a sea tour of Portland from the bay, highlighted by viewing some of the oldest lighthouses in the country.
We were on our own for dinner and enjoyed the company of the Bremers, Brooks and Gallaghers at Bull Feeney’s, a wonderful old pub near the waterfront.
Saturday was a free day. I bobbed around in the pool and Dorothy joined several ladies for a shopping expedition in downtown Portland.
The highlight of the highlight-filled reunion was Saturday’s formal dinner. The food was outstanding; the roast beef was just as rare as I like it, and there was lots of it. Ted shouldered the emcee job with humor and delivered a fast-paced program that featured raffles for 20 baskets contributed by crew members from near and far, organized by Rich Baran; a four-night room credit; and a framed picture of Abbot signed by all the reunion crewmen. I signed for my brother and shipmate Ken, who died in 1995.
Proceeds of the raffles were donated in the name of U.S.S. Abbot to the Navy Relief Fund.
Our honored guests, the Fletcher family, treated us to another history lesson, and brought along the 1812 sword awarded by Congress to Joel Abbot for his heroism. He was ordered to destroy a cache of spars and masts that were to be used by the British in fitting out their naval force on Lake Champlain. Abbot destroyed the gear while dressed in a British naval uniform, and for his bravery was awarded the sword and promoted to lieutenant. Also displayed was part of his log, in his own hand, from his East Asia voyages.
Walt Baranger spoke of his father’s service as Exec on Abbot during the war years and also described our outstanding website, for which he is responsible. Walt also took many pictures during the reunion.
Saturday afternoon Ted received a call from the son of an Abbot crewman Earl Wood who served aboard from April 1943 to October 1945. Earl is living at the Maine Veteran’s Home in Scarborough. His son asked Ted to visit his father who wanted a picture taken with Ted. Ted drove out to the home, visited with Earl and pictures were snapped. Ted called to say that he got word that an Abbot T-shirt had just arrived and that Earl was thrilled to receive it.
One of many stories that were told during the weekend involved Ted and me one night on patrol in the Eastern Med in 1956. I was O.O.D. and Ted was boatswain of the watch. We picked up a radar contact and our orders were to challenge any contacts by flashing light.
The quartermaster tried to raise the ship as it neared. No response. The contact was steaming at darkened ship. More flashing and no response. I said to Ted, “Better get the skipper out here.” Ted roused Commander Willard W. DeVenter, known as WWD, from his sea cabin. He appeared in his skivvies and bare feet, grabbed the hand-held light from the QM and began to signal the contact.
Finally the response came about the time we began to make out the silhouette of the British carrier Ark Royal, screaming down our port side. She was headed for Alexandria, Egypt, to pick up Brits and U.S. nationals. Gamal Abdel Nasser had blown up ships to close the Suez Canal and the Ark Royal was on a mission to get the civilians out. WWD signaled “Good Luck!” The reply came, “Wish you were going in with us!” The skipper signaled back, “If I had my way we would be!”
WWD did not stand on ceremony.
John Kelleher reminded us of the role that Abbot played in the Cuban Missile Crisis. George Simmons, the operations officer, was unable to attend this year's reunion but helped corroborate the details along with accounts by Brian Bremer and Gene Gallagher.
Orders were issued to challenge all sea transport attempting to transit the U.S. naval base waters at Guantanamo.
Mid-afternoon on a clear day late in October 1962, a Soviet bloc freighter was headed for Guantanamo Bay en route to enter and proceed upstream to offload her cargo. Abbot’s orders were to stop her from entering.
General quarters sounded. Abbot continued to challenge the freighter by light to stop, identify herself and disclose her destination and cargo. The freighter did not respond. Abbot steamed up the port side of the freighter, crossed her bow and began to crisscross back and forth to deny entry. Still there was no response to Abbot’s challenge.
Ensign Gene Gallagher, the Mark 56 fire control officer was summoned to the bridge and ordered to replace the GM3 as mount captain. Mount 51 was manually aimed at an angle off the bow of the freighter. Still no response.
Orders from the bridge were given to load Mount 51. A potentially serious incident was fast escalating.
At the last moment, a lookout spotted water churning astern of the freighter indicating that she was in reverse. No one will ever know what would have happened if the freighter had not finally heeded Abbot’s action. Both ships went dead in the water. A small boat from the Guantanamo base approached the freighter and a half-dozen Marines boarded her and verified that there were no missiles aboard. The freighter was allowed to proceed.
The problem then became, what to do with the live round in Mount 51. Abbot steered a course for open water, scanned the area and fired the round safely through the muzzle.
Abbot’s “last round fired in action.” Even though the round fell harmlessly into the ocean, the threat of finding another target was enough to avert a much different outcome.
I overheard one of the crew relating his recollection of the blockade incident and equating the mood of Abbot’s crew after completing the successful interception of the Soviet freighter to the elation of the players in the locker room of a Super Bowl winner.
As I write this, I’m reflecting on how very fortunate I was to have served on Abbot and with my brother Ken, a highlight of my life.
Hope we can all make it to Newport News, Virginia, in two years. Let the rest of the guys know how great it was for all us to get together in Portland. Stay well. Bravo Zulu, Ted!