A Sailor Brings His Ship Home
Some of the images used are from social media over a period of more than seventeen years. If one of these is yours, please let me know if you want it removed or credited to you.
May 9, 1960. Nearly a year after being launched in Bath, Maine, a new United States warship is commissioned. An Admiral opens with the statement “I hereby deliver the USS PREBLE”, then the commanding officer reads his orders and declares, “I hereby assume command of the USS PREBLE”. He orders the executive officer to set the watch. The XO directs the officer of the deck to set the watch, and the chief boatswain’s mate pipes the watch. The OOD and the other duty members take their watch stations and a new piece of naval history begins. This is the start of a period of over thirty years during which this ship and her crew served the nation.
The end of this period is the exact opposite of that festive day. After decommissioning and being stricken from the naval registry, this vessel, once a warrior, waits to be dismantled. A few of her sailors get to board her and spend time with the old lady. Silence reigns.
In one such visit, a visitor approaches the ex-USS PREBLE (DLG-15 / DDG-46) and crosses the wharf to her deck. It seems strange boarding without rendering honors to the flag or the officer of the deck but the quarterdeck had been silent and the jackstaff empty for more than seven years. Already sold for scrap, she was humiliatingly repossessed to be sold again to a ship breaker that the Navy hoped would pay his bill.
One can appreciate how advances in technology caused a ship that was commissioned when Dwight Eisenhower was commander-in-chief, to enter a state of obsolescence. Even so, it is hard to witness a fine ship laying in rusty repose, cast aside by the nation she so ably served through war and peace.
With only a shipyard official joining the visitor on the boarding it seemed surreal that there was just two men on the ship. The door to the officer’s berthing area stood open, its plaque declaring “Officer’s Country – No Passageway” to no one. In the wheelhouse on the bridge, the engine order telegraph and fathometer were missing as was the Captain’s chair, items removed for display at the National Maritime Center. The windows of the bridge were painted over; the battle and campaign ribbons once displayed on the exterior of the wing bridges had been removed.
It seems wrong to find hatchways leading to the Combat Information Center and weapons areas open. When operational these areas were secure spaces but now the equipment within was no longer current technology as much as it was historical. All were indicators she was no longer a warship. In fact, because her power plant was “cold iron” and unable of raising steam again, she was a ship no more, just a hulk at the final eight bells of her life.
The hull number on her bow was painted over making it obvious she had been ordered into anonymity. “PREBLE” on her stern sheet was obliterated, the saddest sign her last voyage had occurred.
Identities of the other ships around her were removed as well. With the PREBLE, the ships comprised a silent squadron waiting the day ship breakers altered their steel and equipment from military machines to peaceful products. Until then fortunate former crew members ask for permission to go onboard the ships and walk through the shadows of their youth. The sight of gray ladies muted and abandoned has a talismanic power over a sailor. For visitors spending time on a ship that is so familiar is an experience nearly beyond description. The memories that are evoked transport visitors to a different time. The slope of the deck, the feel of brass handrails, the smell of fuel oil all contribute to a conveyance of sensations long past.
Going through compartments now lonely and still, one is struck with the eerie silence that has replaced the deafening roar of weaponry that once filled this venerable vessel. This ship was the first of her class to fire a weapon at a hostile force and was the last U.S. warship to fire on shore batteries in the Vietnam War but presently that seems removed from the here and now.
Looking at the area of the ship that had taken enemy fire during a Vietnam deployment one can hear the past. The ship speaks to the visitor: Whispers of war resonate from her steel body, heard by those that pass by now. Even by appearance, this machine spoke of war. One crewmember remarked that she looked like business in much the same way a B-17 Flying Fortress did. This ship kept up appearances under eight presidents.
That her crew retrieved numerous downed aviators and a rescue mission was launched from her helo deck that resulted in her helicopter pilot being awarded the Medal of Honor is hushed by her inability to ever be underway again. Rusting deck plates and vanishing paint obscures her condition when she had efficiency awards painted on her superstructure.
Her endurance was telling. In 1980, this graceful lady sliced through the water at over thirty-eight knots during a record setting sea trial, a remarkable speed in that it occurred at the end of a thirteen-month overhaul and twenty years of hard steaming that included a relentless period of being on station in the Tonkin Gulf. Even near the end of her service, the Battle Group Commander, an Admiral who later became Chief of Naval Operations, made two passes around the ship one day and indicated that PREBLE set the standard by which he measured the rest of the fleet.
Philadelphia. It is here PREBLE waits out her days. The endurance of the Preble name is still evident on the naval station: The Naval Inactive Ships Maintenance Facility, which is the command responsible for PREBLE and her widowed sisters, is located on Preble Avenue. And the Secretary of the Navy has decided the name will live on. A new guided missile destroyer (DDG-88) will bear the name PREBLE. A sister ship will be the USS LASSEN (DDG82), named for her Honor of Medal sailor. Substantial construction on both begins in 1999, likely the last year of the fifth PREBLE’s existence. One PREBLE sails into the sunset, one PREBLE appears on the morning’s horizon.
PREBLE sailors, like those who were on other ships of the line, received an understanding that comes only when one leaves youth behind and sets a course through unfamiliar waters to what they now know is adulthood. While serving the nation, they took care of her, she took care of them. There is no other bond between man and machine like the one between a sailor and his ship.
Before leaving this five hundred and sixteen foot long piece of scrap that had been commissioned the guided missile frigate (DLG) and re-designated the guided missile destroyer (DDG) PREBLE, the visitor asked his host to take a photograph of him on the helo deck. When comparing a photograph of the visitor on the same location twenty years earlier, one sees a petty officer at the midpoint of his tour onboard, and in the other, an image of one of the last PREBLE sailors to cast a shadow on her deckplates. The visitor is about twenty pounds heavier, the ship three hundred and eighty-six men lighter. Behind the man in the original Pearl Harbor image is the USS ARIZONA memorial. In the Philadelphia photo stricken vessels, once resolute, now relics. Like the PREBLE, reminders all, of the ships that take their crews in harm’s way.
“Whispers of War – A Sailor Takes His Ship Home” was original written in 1999. What follows is an update of interesting connections between the Preble and Cummings’ names, and importantly, a noteworthy addition to my home.
Several years after I was separated from the Navy, I was stunned to learn that the fourth USS PREBLE was next to the USS CUMMINGS in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. PREBLE was cold iron and unable to raise steam but sent several crew members to CUMMINGS to augment her gun crews and ammunition parties. CUMMINGS was hit by bomb shrapnel and three sailors were injured yet her gun crews shot down one enemy plane. This historical connection turned out to be the first of many connections between the Cummings and Preble names. I already knew of two: I led 443 sailors in the Pass in Review movement during RTC graduation on Preble Field in San Diego and the next year, was assigned to the fifth USS PREBLE. Knowing a ship with my last name was next to an earlier PREBLE during the attack on Pearl Harbor where I served on the next PREBLE, made for an incredible connection.
More connections were to come:
In 1998, I accepted a position wherein I was responsible for facilities in sixteen states. One site was the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard where the fifth PREBLE spent twelve years waiting for the ship breaker’s torch. My engineering career began on her, and she ended in one of my facilities.
In 1999, I was contacted by a company that wanted to purchase PREBLE from the Navy and I provided some direction to them. Although unsuccessful, it was gratifying to assist in a project that would have kept PREBLE intact. Ultimately this fine warship was sold as scrap for $38,000.
In 2002, in my capacity as Registrar General of the Naval Order of the United States, I nominated Commodore Edward Preble for posthumous membership in NOUS. Although the Naval Order was founded on July 4, 1894, no posthumous election had ever taken place. The Commander General, Rear Admiral Thomas Brown III, USN (Ret) seconded the nomination and Preble (1761 – 1807), the hero of the Barbary Wars and the first terrorist fighter, was elected into membership.
In 2004, I made a business case to a modeler to issue a COONTZ class model. PREBLE was a COONTZ class DDG and I assisted them in finding research resources. They gave me one as a gift.
In 2005, I was invited to the sixth USS PREBLE (DDG-88). Former NOUS Commander General Rear Admiral Tom Brown, USN (Ret) current CG CAPT Fred Hawkins, SC, USN (Ret) and I presented the ship’s company with Edward Preble’s Naval Order certificate. It was framed in wood taken from the port bridgewing of my ship, the fifth USS PREBLE, which I obtained during one of my visits to Philadelphia.
In 2002 when PREBLE was broken up, I purchased the stern sheet and it now resides in our home. Stand next to it and you might hear sounds of iron men on steel ships and whispers of war.
I served with great men on USS PREBLE, key among them then-Chief Boiler Technician Petty Officer (later BTCM) Rod Roddenberry and it is in his memory I dedicate “Whispers of War”.
(C) 1999, 2016, Timothy Christopher Cummings