The old Baptist minister climbed the gangway of the old Liberty ship. By the time he reached the slanted deck, his eyes had moistened. For the first time in 56 years, since he was a teen-ager in the U.S. Navy Armed Guard, Richard W. Hass of upstate New York was back aboard a ship he thought no longer existed: the SS John W. Brown.

"I can't keep the tears back," said Hass, now 75, as he boarded the Brown in Buffalo, N.Y. "I fired the Brown's five-inch gun at German planes in the [Mediterranean Sea]. ... Sometimes we hid beer below the gun mounts. We drank Mennen after-shave on VE-Day.

"I heard nothing about the Brown until two years ago," he continued. "I thought she was scrapped like the rest ... this is overwhelming."

It was a moment replayed many times in many ports during the Brown's recently completed Great Lakes 2000 cruise, as the newly refurbished Baltimore-based Liberty ship welcomed more than 35,000 visitors aboard. Many of those were veterans of either the Brown or of World War II, for whom the ship was a living reminder of younger days and different times.

Old seafarers - among both visitors and the volunteer crew - talked endlessly as they walked the decks. And young visitors heard for the first time about the merchant seamen who ran the Liberty ships, the U.S. Navy gunners who protected them and the sacrifices of both in helping win the war.

In Buffalo, Don Yockel, 75, of New York and Vernon Joyce, 76, of Ontario, also veterans of the Brown's World War II service, told of the time off southern France when the Brown's crew shot down the only German airplane credited to the transport and troop ship. "We were all firing, we don't know who hit it," Yockel said. "We were a team on the Brown."

In Halifax, youngsters tapped out their names in dots and dashes as Andy Hodder, 82, a radio operator in World War II, taught them Morse code.

"I enjoy teaching children Morse," Hodder said. "It's a dying art - like riveting the Brown."

Experienced crew

The need for new rivets - nearly 14,000 of them - was the fundamental reason for the Brown's voyage to and from the Great Lakes this summer under Capt. Paul Esbensen. It was the nonprofit ship's most difficult voyage since World War II. A rotating crew, averaging almost 70 years of age, sailed 5,505 miles over 107 days, performing traditional sea duties and tying and untying the ship 100 times. They also sailed the ship in endless circles around Lake Ontario for a demanding film crew shooting a TV movie.

Toward voyage's end, the mariners were tired and a bit irritable. There had been little liberty on this Liberty ship. But craggy-faced messman Bob Carlson of Philadelphia, a former merchant mariner and U.S. Navy sailor who earned a place in the ship's history by washing every dish used on the 3 1/2 - month voyage, wasn't complaining.

"You can't complain," said Carlson, 72. "It's all voluntary. You work hard. You do this on your own. You're happy to be at sea again."

Said the Brown's Armed Guard commander, Joe Colgan, 74, of Berlin, Md., who manned ships' guns in the South Pacific, "The camaraderie here is like in the war. People who complain a lot don't last."

Their sentiments were echoed by Torben B. Hansen of Annapolis, the Danish-born able seaman and ship's video-cameraman who, at 79, was the oldest crew member on the voyage's last leg.

"Going to sea is a mystery," Hansen philosophized. "It's genetic. Something to do with spawning. We're escaping land. People aboard have high IQs, low IQs, but they all want to go to sea ... we all want to sail."

Many of those who came aboard felt likewise, or were happily reminded of the days when they did.

"You need a sense of comradeship, and the Brown gives it to many kinds of people," observed the Brown's carpenter, 65-year-old Stanley "Stosh" Sdanowich. That included visitors, he said.

"We've seen it again and again," said Sdanowich. "The veterans don't tell their families about their adventures for 50 years. They find fellow seamen and start telling story after story. They can't stop. Strangers on land, comrades at sea."

Stories of the sea

One day at his station below the Brown's main deck, two Quebec Province seamen met for the first time. The two began exchanging North Atlantic sea stories so intensely that even when a five-minute power outage doused the lights, they kept talking in almost total darkness.

On another occasion, the spouse of one loquacious visitor was heard to remark: "Don't re-fight the war, honey, you want to see the engine room."

In Montreal, two tenors, Canadian Dennis Delaney, 67, and Jack Wright, 76, the ship's Wilmington, Del., bo's'n, sang "My Wild Irish Rose" to the delight of other salts.

"It's my first time on a Liberty in more than 30 years," Delaney said between songs. "First the smells hit me - oil, grease, steam. Then the rake of the deck to the bow. Then the ship's feel: how well they were built and sailed with such great pride. Finally, how big they were [441 feet long by 58 feet wide].

"Thanks, bo's'n," he said to Wright, "for sailing her here."

Wright, a 41-year Navy veteran, nodded, tears in his eyes. During World War II actions, he'd lost many close friends when two destroyers in the Atlantic, the Blakeley and the Corry, and one in the Pacific, the Hadley, sank or were disabled while he was aboard.

"This is an excellent trip," said Wright, who made solitary rounds of the main deck each day as the sun rose. "People never see this. They see smelly traffic and loud buses. Even on a cruise, they sleep in. This is so peaceful. The sea at dawn. Best time of day."

Indeed, the Brown proved to be a vessel that offers a sense of place as well as a ship that visits places. It was, for instance, home all summer for two crewmen, Richard L. Stultz, 71, fireman/water tender and former mayor of Union Bridge, Md., and deckhand Harry Naismyth, 76, of Bucks County, Pa. They were aboard ship all 107 days, earning awards for endurance and joking questions about their mental health.

But the two men perhaps best represented the patriotic feelings shared by many of those aboard. Stultz, for instance, flew his American flag on the mast on the outbound voyage to Toledo. "I love this great country of ours, and this ship symbolizes it," he said. "When I die, I'll be buried with this flag."

For Naismyth, a wartime Coast Guardsman, Libertys took him to Europe and back. "I felt I owed the Libertys some work," he said.

Along with the rest of the crew, the men, assisted by the Brown's chaplain, the Rev. Ra Reno, buried at sea the ashes of Ted Taddei, a former Navy mane from Sykesville, Md. and six others. Off Point Judith, R.I., a ceremony honored all departed servicemen and women.

Looking ahead and back

Aging is an inescapable topic on an older ship with a veteran crew, a topic approached with both humor and seriousness.

The last day at sea, chief mate Richard Bauman Jr., 47, of Pikesville, thanked the veteran crew. "Go home, sit in a comfortable chair, get a good eight hours sleep - you've earned it," he said.

And though the Brown is affectionately called a toy for old seamen, many worry about its future.

As the ship docked two weeks ago at its home berth, Pier 1 on Clinton Street in Canton, Joe Villa of Halethorpe, the second assistant engineer, disembarked with a lot of questions.

"I'm 77. Many here are in their 70s. ... But the ship needs younger people who understand the engine. Who knows steam today? Where will they come from?"

Others, though, were too busy savoring the experience and looking for more.

Among the dozen or so women crew members were two grandmothers, messman Louela Layko, of Brush Prairie, Wash., and cook Marian Sherman, of Milwaukee, Wis. They were two of 22 Brown crew members who sailed all three legs of the voyage.

Layko, as her colleagues like to say, has a lot of sea water flowing through her. She is also a member of the only other sailing Liberty ship, the SS Jeremiah O'Brien of San Francisco. Her late husband sailed for 40 years, her son is a ship's engineer and a daughter was a longshoreman for 18 years.

"I've been around ships all my life," said Layko, "I belong on ships."

At a stop in Canada, French-Canadian Marcel Painchaud, 76, a seaman during the war, was right at home as he strolled the flying bridge of a World War II-vintage ship for the first time in more than 50 years.

"I thought I would never be here again," he told the Brown's crew. "Find some more loose rivets in three years and come back."

Ernest F. Imhoff , a retired Evening Sun and Sun editor and reporter, worked as a deckhand on the Brown during its voyage back to Baltimore.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad