Standing the watch at Sea in 1958

4 months ago

When people think about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, they think of the United States Army. Most are unaware that every time the Unknown Soldier was brought home it was aboard a US Navy vessel. In May 1958 the USS Blandy (DD-943) was sent to Naples, Italy on a special mission: to bring the Tans-Atlantic Unknown Candidate to a rendezvous point off the Virginia Capes with the cruisers USSS Boston (CAG-1) and USS Canberra (CAG-2) for the final selection of the World War II Unknown Soldier.

As the Centennial committee developed different projects to highlight the complex story of the Unknown Soldiers, we met three Sailors who served aboard the USS Blandy in May of 1958 and were on that mission. This is just a small look into their experience as they were dispatched from Casablanca, Morocco to Naples for this mission.

On May 13, 1958 sailors Thomas Spivey, Thomas DeMichele, and Frank Ostland maned the rails at 0815 with the ship’s crew in the harbor of Naples, Italy. As the national ensign was lowered to haft mast, and the Unknown Candidate was carried aboard all three felt the immense weight of their duty. DeMichele and Spivey were “plank owners” on the Blandy, having been aboard during her shake down training in January 1958 as 18 years old sailors. No amount of preparation at Navy Basic Training could have prepared them for this special journey and the duties they faced.

“When we as a crew found out we would be carrying the body of the Unknown Soldier, the ship’s crew took on a response that was unbelievable. The sensitivity, pride, the “what will my role be” shared by all was just beautiful. Our role, not all, but many crew members, was to take turns standing guard, one hour at a time over the casket of the Unknown Soldier. “DeMichele

The Blandy’s commanding officer, Commander William Cafferata set a special twenty-four hour honor guard watch for the Unknown Candidate while aboard the ship. The Blandy got underway at 1133 steaming towards Gibraltar, arriving on May 15th only to stay long enough to take on fuel before again continuing her mission.

Eighteen-year-old Seaman Ostland knew he was at a unique time and place in his nation’s history, and he recognized the importance of the mission. He was one of the Sailors chosen to stand the watch over the Unknown Candidate, and he remembers it was “one of the proudest moments of my life” as he stood with his rifle at parade rest standing alone beside the casket. He rotated with the other Sailors, each guard standing a one hour post all the way across the Atlantic

“While standing watch over this Unknown Soldier, my solemn thoughts were whose son, husband, or father this could be. This person has given his life for our freedom. This was a great honor to stand watch over his remains and know that he is returning to a final resting place in his home country.” - Ostland

Seaman Spivey remembers standing special watch beside the coffin of the Unknown Candidate with an M-1 Carbine. He knew the rifle was a Carbine because of an incident while docked. A fellow sailor stood his watch next to the ships gang plank on dockside in Naples, Spivey vividly remembers sitting in the mess deck when the sailor on gangplank watch came in for a cup of coffee. The guard laid his riflem down, and then went for coffee. Another shipmate saw rifle and then proceeded to break the rifle down. By the time the dockside guard had finished his coffee the rifle was in parts and neither one knew how to reassemble it. This caused Spivey concern because it was the same rifle that he would be using while standing watch with the Unknown Candidate later when underway.

Spivey remembers that “It was a humbling honor to escort the remains of the unknown service man in that flag draped casket” and considers it his most memorable moment in the service with the Navy.

This feeling was shared by many, and DeMichell remembers “I will have to admit the first few minutes of my watch I had tears in my eyes as I prayed for the soldier who gave his life to keep United States of America free.”

On May 26, 1958 the USS Boston (CAG-1) was sighted at 0610 about 10 miles west of the Blandy’s location according to the ships log. The USS Boston was on a similar mission: bring the bodies 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 point and began to commence preparations for the “high line” transfer of the Trans-Atlantic Candidate to the Boston. This complicated operation required the ships to travel in the same direction, at the same speed, while moving the casket between the two ships. The high line operation would take 26 minutes to complete, and there was a collective sigh of relief when it was over.

Once the transfer was complete the Blandy took up station off the stern of the USS Canberra (CAG-2) where the final selection of the World War II Unknown Soldier would take place. When the selection ceremony ended, the Blandy then maneuvered along side the Canberra to receive via highline the World War II and Korean War Unknown Soldiers. This transfer took even less time to complete, starting at 1303 and ending with all lines aboard at 1317.

A ship’s honor guard was again posted beside the two caskets as the Blandy headed towards the Naval Gun Factory on the Potomac River in Washington, D. C. The US Coast Guard Cutter Ingham (W-35) took up escort station with the Blandy as the two vessels entered the Chesapeake Bay

Reaching the Potomac River on May 27th, the Blandy and Ingham steamed past Mount Vernon at 1119, where they rendered appropriate honors to General Washington in accordance with Naval Regulations. At 1235 the Blandy moored at Pier #1 of the Navy Gun Factory, now called the Navy Yard, and secured for the night. Ceremonies welcoming home the World War II and Korean War Unknown Soldiers would commence the next morning at 0920 on May 28th. The crews of the Blandy and Ingham completed their mission at 0930 when the two caskets were carried down the Blandy’s gang plank to American soil.

”I have an uncle who fought in World War II and came back alive and to think this soldier could be responsible for his safe return. It’s sad they couldn’t find a name or family connection to this soldier, but coming back as an unknown soldier means we all can claim him as part of our family and remember him with prayers on this 100th anniversary of his resting place. God bless all who served and gave their lives for the United States of America.” - DeMichele

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