Standing the Watch Alone - Part 3

3 weeks ago

The Rendezvous – Part 3

The USSBoston (CA-69) was launched in August 1942 as a heavy cruiser of the Baltimore class. In January 1952 the Boston was reconfigured and reclassified as a guided missile cruiser and recommissioned on November 1, 1955 as CAG-1, the lead ship in her class. Boston carried a crew of 1,142 enlisted and officers.

While at Guantanamo the caskets of the Korean War Unknown Soldier and the Trans-Pacific candidate remained under guard at the Navy mortuary from May 17 until May 23, 1958 when they were transported to the dock and carried by motor launch at 8:35 a.m. to the starboard side of the Boston. The Boston was 673' long, 70' wide, and drew 27' of water. The channel and dock space could not accommodate ships of that size. The ship carried four liberty motor launches, each 44' long and about 12' wide, diesel-powered and seaworthy. The launches were normally used when the ship was at anchor to move personnel back and forth to shore especially for liberty calls while in port.[1]

One of the Sailors standing on the “02”deck (two levels above the main deck) when the caskets were brought aboard was Petty Officer Third Class Michael J. Brady. Mr. Brady was a twenty year old sailor in the Boston’s Fox Division – Fire Control. He remembers talking with his junior division officer, Lieutenant Junior Grade Jack Levitan, as the flag draped remains were carried past the two. “A chill went up my back when Jack said to me ‘you and I will remember this day for the rest of our lives.

Two teams of pallbearers, each composed of six Navy enlisted men and one Marine non-commissioned officer, escorted the caskets to the missile handling area, on the Boston’s stern, where a continuous honor guard of one Marine and one Naval sentry maintained a round-the-clock vigil at the direction of the Boston’s skipper, Captain Robert L. Taylor. At 11:10 a.m. on Friday May 23rd the Boston left her anchorage at Guantanamo for the North Atlantic.

Meanwhile by May 17th the Blandy, was well into the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean Sea with the World War II Trans-Atlantic Unknown candidate securely resting astern of the stack on the “01 deck”. The Blandy had left Naples, Italy on May 13h with orders to steam toward a rendezvous with the missile cruisers Boston and Canberra off the Virginia Capes.

As both the Boston and Blandy steamed to their rendezvous point in the North Atlantic the third ship, the Canberra where the final selection would be made, sailed from Norfolk Naval Base Virginia on May 26, 1958 at 8 a.m. escorted by the US Coast Guard Cutter Samuel D. Ingham (WPG-35).[2]

The Ingham, launched in 1935, is one of the most decorated ships in Coast Guard history with Two Presidential Unit Citations and credited with sinking a German submarine during World War II. When the two vessels departed Norfolk for the open Atlantic the Ingham took up station 1,000 yards astern of Canberra. The two ships glided through calm deep purple seas to the rendezvous off the Virginia Capes for an 11 a.m. meeting with Blandy and Boston. The Ingham would act as a life guard station for the operation. USCG Captain C. R. Courser commanded the 120 man crew of the Ingham whose motto was “Never Too Old To Serve.

Like her sister ship, the Boston, the Canberra (CAG-2) was also a Baltimore class heavy cruiser that had been converted to a missile ship after the Korean War. The big, fast cruiser was commanded by Captain F. H. Brumby. On May 26 the Canberra carried a ship’s complement of 1,142 officers and enlisted, but also onboard during the three-hour trip to the rendezvous point were 36 news reporters, camera crews and television media, the U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanter coral group, Navy officials and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Hospital Corpsman First Class (E-6 rank) William R. Charette, who had been chosen to select the World War II Unknown Soldier from the Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic candidates.

On March 27, 1953 Hospital Corpsman Charette was attached to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in the Panmonjom Corridor of Korea. On the night of March 26, 1953 Chinese infantry attacked three mountain outposts named Vegas, Carson and Reno that were defended by the Marines. By dawn the larger Chinese force had overrun Vegas and Reno. On the morning of the 27th Marine infantry, along with Charette attacked up the hill named Vegas to drive out the enemy.

As casualties mounted with the Marines, Hospital Corpsman Charette rushed to the aid of a wounded Marine, bleeding near his position. While Charette was treating the wounds an enemy hand grenade hit the ground close to the two of them. Without hesitation Charette covered the wounded Marine with his body absorbing the blast that ripped his helmet, medical pack and clothing from his body. Initially knocked out and dazed by the shock and bleeding from his face, he continued to treat the fallen Marine who had not received any of the shrapnel from the grenade.

As the battle raged with heavy machine gun fire, falling mortars and hand grenades landing along the Marine positions Corpsman Charette moved among the downed Marines treating each man with urgency and care. At one point in the battle he saved a Marine’s life in the line of fire of an enemy machine gun. Charette stood up in the murderous fire with total disregard to his own safety to pull the wounded Marine to a safer location. During this fierce battle Corpsman Charette gave his flak jacket to a wounded Marine and used torn pieces of his uniform to cover wounds and stop bleeding. He was credited with saving the lives of many Marines in Fox Company as well as Marines in an adjacent unit.

The Navy designated Hospital Corpsman First Class Charette to make the final selection of the World War II Unknown Soldier during final ceremonies onboard the Canberra. But first, three ships had to meet at sea from three different directions on the compass and perform delicate maneuvers that demanded the precise execution of large moving vessels on an ocean that could roll a ship in an unplanned direction without warning – the method employed to transfer the caskets from one ship to another is called “high lining”.

On Monday May 26, 1958 at 6:10 a.m. in the morning the Boston was sighted by lookouts on the Blandy 10 miles west of the Blandy’s location. The Boston carried the caskets of the Trans-Pacific candidate and the Korean War Unknown Solider from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to the rendezvous point. Matching speed the two ships merged at the rendezvous and at 7:47 a.m. began to commence preparations for the “high line” transfer of the Trans-Atlantic candidate to the Boston. The suction produced from the two vessels cutting through the water in close proximity attempts to pull the ships together. This complicated operation requires the ships to travel in the same direction, at the same speed, while moving the casket between the ships by rope and cables.

The Blandy approached Boston on her starboard side and transfer lines were secured to Blandy’s port side. As the Trans-Atlantic Unknown candidate reached the midpoint in the highline, Sailors on both ships came to attention and rendered a hand salute. The high line operation took 23 minutes to complete. The Blandy secured the highline and fell back to a position directly astern of the Canberra following a base course of 90 degrees with a speed of 10 knots. The Ingham took position behind the Canberra on her starboard side.

With all three caskets onboard the Boston, the ship’s crew maned the rails in preparation for the transfer of the caskets to the Canberra. At 10:50 a.m. a second high line operation was prepared from the starboard side of Boston to the port side of Canberra.

As the two cruisers maintained course and speed in a sea, with slight one-two foot swells, the first casket was transferred via high line at 10:58 a.m. At the midpoint of the transfer the crew of the Boston in their dress white uniforms snapped to attention and rendered a hand salute.

Onboard the Canberra sailors also lined the rails to honor the remains. Eighteen-year-old, Tony Appel, an E-3 meteorologist “striker”[3] who reported to the Canberra at midnight the day before was suffering from mild seasickness, but stood his duty on the rail with tears running down his cheeks. He remembered crying then and feeling the ship sway as it dipped in the seas during the transfer.

Also, standing on the rail that day was Yeoman Third Class Robert Randolph. He remembered watching the high line operation and feeling “goose bumps” run across his body. Years later he was reassigned to duty in Washington, D. C. and would take friends and family who visited him to three graves at Arlington National Cemetery: Joe Lewis, Audie Murphy and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

By 11:05 a.m. all caskets had been passed to the Canberra. Each casket was covered in a secured American flag and carried by six sailors with black arm bands down the port side of the Canberra to the missile handling room. Once the two World War II candidates had been carried to a separate room inside the missile handling space, the pallbearers left the room and a second team of twelve Sailors entered the room and removed the steel caskets from their shipping cases. This team then relocated the two caskets to a different position so that no one would know which casket came from Europe or the Pacific. These twelve Sailors left the room and three morticians entered – Mr. Richard L. Trask, a member of the Naval Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Mr. Hugh. C. Munro United States Air Force Mortuary Branch and Mr. William N. Annettire, United States Army, Memorial Division, Office of Quartermaster General. The three men removed the remains from the steel caskets and placed them in special bronze caskets. The previously selected Korean War Unknown Soldier was also placed in a special bronze casket with a small identification plaque.

After each of the remains had been placed in bronze caskets, Navy pallbearers carried them out of the missile handling area to the starboard side of the ship and up to the ‘01’ deck via a ramp on the port side. The three caskets were placed on support biers and the guests were asked to assemble for the ceremony. The casket of the Korean War Unknown Soldier was placed in the center with the two World War II candidates on either side. Standing in his dress white uniform on the ‘01’ deck was 26 year-old First Class Petty Officer Walt Welsh – a designated pallbearer.

Above him on the ‘02’ deck he could hear the continuous clicking of camera shutters as the press recorded every movement below them. He felt the breeze flipping the ends of his black, silk neckerchief tied in a square knot precisely at the “V” of his Navy jumper. Petty Officer Welsh at first thought the clicking of the cameras would interfere with the ceremony but in fact it proved helpful to him. The constant shutter clicking “…was a reminder for my shipmates and I that we might be the subject of one of the many pictures taken that day. So that sound meant stay alert, stand at attention and don’t do anything which would distract from the solemnity of the moment.”

The ceremony began with the ship’s band playing Chopin’s “Funeral March” as the Navy pallbearers moved the casket up the ladder and onto the missile deck. First Class Petty Officer Welsh, carrying one of the unknown the caskets with his shipmates felt a strong sense of respect and reverence for the remains along with a deep sense of pride and patriotism. Wearing the powder blue and silver Congressional Medal of Honor around his neck, Navy Hospital Corpsman First Class Charette sat directly in front of the Korean War Unknown Soldier’s

Rear Admiral Lewis S. Parks began the ceremony with introductory remarks followed by an invocation of Lieutenant Commander Ross H. Trower, a Lutheran Navy chaplain and former chaplain to the 1st Marine Division in Korea.[4] Immediately after the completion of the invocation, Rear Admiral Parks introduced Hospital Corpsman First Class Charette who took a wreath from a floral stand in front of the speaker’s podium, walked around the flag covered caskets and placed it on the casket on the far-right casket.


The joint service color guard near the aft of the ship fought to hold their colors in a stiff wind that blew across the gray steel deck. Proudly holding the Marine Corps Flag to the left of the podium was Corporal Tim McKenna. His good friend, Corporal Bill Desmond stood in the same formation fighting to hold the American Flag straight in the cross wind. The June issue of Readers Digest reported that Corporal Desmond held the Stars and Stripes “like the rock of Gibraltar.”

Both Marines felt the solemnity of the moment and sixty years later still talk to each other once a month about their time aboard the Canberra and that special memory they shared holding the flags against a nagging wind.

After Corpsman Charette made the selection, he stepped back and smartly saluted the coffin. He later reflected on the ceremony:

It was a very formal occasion. Yes, lots of brass there. It was windy and you could hear the flags covering the caskets flapping, ”I will tell you I chose the one on the right. I just went to it, no sign, no system. I just picked the one on the right,” Charette said[5]

The ceremony concluded with the “Sea Chanters” choral group of Sailors in their dress white uniforms forming behind the caskets to sing the Navy Hymn that began with this verse:

“Eternal Father, strong to save,

Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,

Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep,

O hear us when we cry to thee

For those in peril on the sea!”

Petty Officer First Class Karl Bach was one of the initial members of the Navy Band Sea Chanters. He is the fourth Sailor from the left, second row standing in front of Corporal Tim McKenna proudly holding the Marine Corps flag in the picture above. The “Sea Chanters” practiced with the Navy Band in the Sail Loft of Building 105 at the Washington Navy Yard, the final destination for the Blandy. Petty Officer First Class Bach remembers flying from Anacostia NAS, Washington, D.C. to Norfolk Naval Base and boarding the Canberra before the ship sailed on May 26, 1958. For Petty Officer First Class Bach singing before dignitaries and special events became a routine occurrence for the Sea Chanters, but on the aft of the Canberra he understood the deep, soul touching meaning of the Navy Hymn as he sang the words into a salty damp breeze to close the ceremonies. It was a moment in time he has never forgotten.


When the last notes had been sung and only the sound of the flags snapping in the wind and the waves lapping hurriedly against the steel hull of the ship, the honor guard in their dress Navy white and the Marines in their deep blue uniforms gave one final salute and moved to the front of the ship behind the admirals, captains and military officers of all the branches. The ceremony had concluded.

The Blandy at three hundred yards to the stern of the Canberra and traveling at 5 knots began to steam forward toward a parallel heading on the port side of Canberra. After all dignitaries and participants moved forward on the ship, Marine Corps and Navy pallbearers returned the selected Unknown Soldiers from World War II and Korea to the preparation room.

To view the entire document click HERE

[1] Information on the Boston related by Art Hebert, Secretary USS Boston Organization

[2] Operation Order COMCURLANT No. 2-58 April 9, 1958

[3] If a sailor has qualified for a rate, but has not yet become a petty officer, he is called a designated striker, and is identified by a striker's badge that displays the sailor's rating, along with his group rate marks.

[4] The chaplains of four faiths were onboard for the burial at sea of the candidate for World War II who was not chosen

[5] The Ledger Newspaper by Bill Rufty November 10, 2011

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