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Thursday, May 21, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Memories On Board Battleship

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

A World War II "K Ration" might seem the most inglorious of souvenirs, but Mel Schmuck cherishes his.

Not because it contains a pack of cigarettes - he doesn't smoke. Not for the crackers and the chocolate bar - they've been stale for decades. And certainly not for the entree, a now partially corroded tin of "beef and pork loaf."

There's just one reason Schmuck, 75, will forever hang on to this modest memento: He got it on the "Mighty Mo."

"When we were called to our battle stations, we grabbed an armload of K Rations, because we never knew when we'd get back to the mess hall," said Schmuck, of Poulsbo. "Somehow I was able to squirrel this one away."

The battleship Missouri, scheduled to leave Puget Sound Saturday for a permanent home in Hawaii, commands to be described in big numbers: It weighs 45,000 tons, fired 2,700-pound shells 23 miles, contains 90 miles of piping and carried a wartime crew of as many as 3,000.

But numbers, no matter how large, can't measure one important attribute of this warship: how many memories it carries. Some are tragic, some triumphant, some touched with warmth and humor, and all float readily to the surface whenever the great ship is back in the news.

Frank Jackson, a Green Lake-area resident, was just 20 years old when he was assigned to the 887-foot USS Missouri, and his first impression boiled down to a single syllable: "Wow."

An electronics technician, Jackson was one of the first crewmen on the vessel, helping to install communications equipment and other electronics gear while it was still in a New York shipyard in 1944.

"It was all state-of-the-art. In every way, it was the best we knew how to do," said Jackson, 74. "It was really an honor just to be on such a marvelous piece of machinery."

The cleaning was nonstop

Another early Missouri crewman, Fred Miletich of Port Angeles, recalls being impressed by how the cleaning on the ship never stopped.

"When you have that large a complement of men in such close quarters, it's important to keep everything as clean as possible," said Miletich, 76. "If you didn't, disease could go through ship in a hurry."

And Gordon Dickinson of Poulsbo has the unusual memory of being a prisoner of war - so to speak - on his own ship.

It happened when Dickinson volunteered to join a landing party going ashore from the Missouri in North Korea. He needed a pair of combat boots, stored in one of the watertight "voids" inside the hull of the ship. While he was digging around for a pair his size, someone unwittingly closed the hatch behind him, leaving him in darkness.

"I pounded on pipes with the boots. Of course no one could hear me through that thick steel," recalls Dickinson, 71.

Eventually, he gave up, fell asleep, woke up later and banged again. Finally, after what seemed like days, someone opened the hatch. "I was starving, dehydrated and everything else and said, `How long have I been in there?' Turns out it was about four or five hours."

In campaigns from World War II to the Korean War to the Persian Gulf, the Missouri has carried more than 17,000 individual sailors, said Herbert Fahr, of Plainview, N.Y., head of a nationwide group of USS Missouri veterans.

Fahr estimates about 500 men are still alive who were on board for the ship's proudest moment, Sept. 2, 1945. On that cloudy morning in Tokyo Bay, Japanese officials signed the unconditional surrender that ended World War II.

According to a ship's newsletter Schmuck has saved through the years, the documents were laid out on a simple mess table covered with green cloth, because a handsome wooden table brought from a British ship proved too small.

With every gun on the Missouri still manned in case of a surprise attack, General Douglas MacArthur, Allied Supreme Commander, presided over the 23-minute signing.

Had MacArthur looked up about 50 feet, he might have caught a glimpse of Miletich or Jackson among the hundreds of unofficial observers lining every vantage point.

A chief carpenter, Miletich had been instructed to hang a framed admiral's flag on a wall near the ceremony site. Just as he finished, officials began to gather.

"I had my khakis on and my assistant was in dungarees. But I asked him, `You want to stick around and watch this?' and he said `Sure.' "

The two climbed up to a "tub," an enclosed platform on a yardarm above the deck. Nearby was a Russian photographer and Navy commander, also looking for a viewpoint.

Miletich had never seen so much Navy brass in one place, and remembers the whistle tone that signaled MacArthur's arrival.

"He came with his aide around the outside of Turret 2 and up to the surrender deck, and there was no doubt in anybody's mind who was in charge."

Meanwhile, Jackson was also sneaking a peek. At the time, he was heading a radio-room crew on which each man had his assigned duty post. But bending the rules a bit, he found a way to let each crewman glimpse the proceedings.

"There were six of us there, so I let them go up one by one for three minutes each. I told them, `What we have right here is history in the making.' I don't think I'm going to get in trouble for that now."

Jackson remembers an almost overwhelming sense of relief that the fighting that had started with Nazi aggression in Europe and spread around the globe was finally over. "All of this conflict had dominated my life since I was 8 years old."

On the Missouri, Jackson serviced equipment used by the ship's commanders, including Adm. William "Bull" Halsey. "My job was to make sure the radio never quit. You feel like you're right in the heart of the battle. And for a 20-year-old kid, that's really something."

Witnesses to tragedy

Although the Missouri escaped the war relatively unscathed, those aboard saw plenty of tragedy.

Jackson's voice still chokes when he recalls seeing a Japanese bomber strike the carrier Franklin in March 1945, causing a burst of ammunition and fuel that turned the carrier's aft end into a sheet of fire. More than 700 crewmen died.

"You see terrible things in war, but this was too much, too close," he said.

Jackson also got a close look at a near-tragedy on the Missouri when a kamikaze plane bore down on the battleship. Jackson was in a radio room on the 10th deck, 110 feet above the water.

"I knew his mission in life was to hit the bridge, and the bridge was right below me." But the plane came in too high, passed about 40 feet above Jackson, nicked a crane and crashed in the water behind the ship, where its bomb exploded. It gave the Missouri a jolt, but minimal damage.

Another kamikaze actually struck the side of the ship just below deck level, but the bomb it carried didn't discharge; despite a fire that was ignited by fuel in its wing, damage was comparatively minor.

"I don't know if you believe in angels," said Jackson. "But I felt there must have been angels protecting us."

Angels may have helped, but there were other factors in the ship's favor, according to Paul Stillwell, author of "Battleship Missouri, an Illustrated History."

For one, Stillwell said, the Missouri was the last American battleship to enter the war, by which time Japan's surface fleet had been severely depleted.

Japanese air attacks were still common, and kamikaze missions were a potent threat. But Stillwell said the suicide pilots were usually more attracted to aircraft carriers, whose wooden flight decks and huge stores of aviation fuel provided inviting targets.

The Missouri's own design helped to protect it as well. Sensitive areas, such as the "citadel," behind the bridge, from which the ship could be commanded, had their own steel shields up to 18 inches thick.

Those who served aboard the Missouri were generally delighted with the assignment, recalls Dickinson, on board during the Korean War.

First of all, he said, it had been an easy choice for him to go into the Navy rather than the Army, "because I didn't want to be stuck fighting a war in a foxhole somewhere."

Even so, he was amazed at the extent of amenities on the big ship. "We had a barber shop, a first-class medical facility, an exchange where you could buy ice cream and everything else, just like you were living on shore."

A special treat for the crew

One cool October evening in 1950, Dickinson got a special treat when comedian Bob Hope performed on the ship off the Korean coast. "I was setting up the mikes, and I got a chance to meet him face to face. Since I was already a big fan, that was fabulous."

Sailors' thoughts often turned homeward, said Schmuck, whose oldest child was born while Schmuck was serving on the Missouri in the final days of World War II.

He distinctly remembers the most joyous day on the ship. It wasn't the actual signing of the surrender, it was almost three weeks earlier, when word arrived that Japan had decided to give up.

"There were cheers all over, and a lot of clapping on the back," Schmuck said. "Our thoughts were, `OK, it's over. We've won. We're still alive and we're going to go home.' "

But no matter how much time has passed since then, those who served aboard the "Mighty Mo" in war will always feel an affection for it, and it's not just based on sentimentality, says Miletich.

"The fact is, when you're at sea," he said, "You count for your safety not just on yourself and your shipmates, but also on the ship itself, the way it's designed and its ability to defend itself. Over time, you come to love it for that."

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Dates in USS Missouri history:

-- June 11, 1944 - After three years of construction, the USS Missouri is commissioned at the New York Naval Shipyard.

-- June 12, 1944-August 1945 - Assigned to World War II service in Pacific, the ship plays key roles in such battles as Okinawa and Iwo Jima.

-- Sept. 2, 1945 - Japanese officials sign unconditional surrender, ending war in the Pacific. (Allied victory in Europe had already been won.) -- Sept. 29, 1945 - Assigned to naval shipyard at Norfolk, Va., for overhaul, used to train reserve crews and midshipmen.

-- March 1946 - Assigned to Mediterranean on goodwill mission.

-- September 1947-March 1948 - In New York Naval Shipyard for overhaul; later used for training.

-- Jan. 17, 1950 - Runs aground in Hampton Roads, Va. The grounding, which occurred because of a navigation error, kept the ship on a sand bar 15 days.

-- Aug. 19, 1950 - First tour of Korean War.

-- March 28, 1951 - Assigned to Atlantic Fleet to train midshipmen and officers.

-- Aug. 4, 1952 - Assigned to second tour in Korea combat zone.

-- April 6, 1953 - Returns to Norfolk as training ship.

-- Feb. 26, 1955 - Decommissioned and assigned to Bremerton Group, U.S. Pacific Reserve Fleet. -- May 1984 - Towed to Long Beach Naval Shipyard for modernization. -- June 1986 - Recommissioned in San Francisco; departs for around-the-world shakedown cruise.

-- January-February 1991 - Assigned to Persian Gulf, fires missiles at Iraqi positions.

-- November 1991 - Returns to Long Beach; is sent to Hawaii as host ship for 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor attack.

-- March 31, 1992 - Decommissioned at Long Beach; towed to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, moored at the Naval Inactive Ships Maintenance Facility.

-- Sept. 2, 1995 - An estimated 5,000 people attend a ceremony aboard the Missouri in Bremerton marking the 50th anniversary of Japan's surrender. The ship is open to public tours during summer of 1995.

-- Aug. 21, 1996 - Navy announces Missouri will be permanently docked at Pearl Harbor.

-- January 1998 - The ship is open to the public for three weekends for a last view at Bremerton before preparations begin for the move to Hawaii.

-- May 1998 - Navy Secretary John Dalton formally transfers ownership of the vessel to the Hawaii-based USS Missouri Memorial Association. Plans are made to tow the Missouri from Bremerton May 23.

Source: USS Missouri

Memorial Association

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. They signed surrender document .

.

Those who signed the instrument of surrender that formally ended World War II on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay Sept. 2, 1945:

. 9:04 a.m.: Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, Japan . 9:06 a.m.: General Yoshijiro Umezo, Japanese armed forces . 9:08 a.m.: General Douglas MacArthur, Allied Supreme Commander . 9:12 a.m.: Admiral Chester Nimitz, United States . 9:13 a.m.: General Hsu Yung-Chang, China . 9:14 a.m.: Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, United Kingdom . 9:16 a.m.: Lt. General Kuzma Nikolaevich Derevyanko, U.S.S.R. 9:17 a.m.: General Sir Thomas Blamey, Australia . 9:18 a.m.: Colonel Lawrence Moore Cosgrave, Canada . 9:20 a.m.: General Jacques LeClerc, France . 9:21 a.m.: Admiral C.E.L. Helfrich, The Netherlands . 9:22 a.m.: Air Vice Marshal Leonard M. Isitt, New Zealand .

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More facts about the Mo

Maximum girth

With its 108-foot beam, the battleship Missouri was made to be as wide as the 110-foot Panama Canal could accommodate, allowing just a foot of clearance on each side. Even so, it scraped the sides of the waterway, crushing some metal ladders on the ship and knocking some chunks of concrete off the canal walls.

Maximum exposure

One of the most unusual activities aboard the Missouri came on July 4, 1989, when Cher recorded a music video of the song "If I Could Turn Back Time." Navy officials were led to believe Cher would wear a jumpsuit, as she did in rehearsal. For the shooting, however, she wore a skimpy combination of mesh and thin leather straps. Though officials were uncomfortable, they decided stopping the show would be more embarrassing than letting it go on.

Two kinds of sailors

Naval historian Paul Stillwell, who interviewed more than 100 former Missouri sailors for a book about the ship, said one crewman captured the spirit of all by telling him: "There are only two kinds of sailors in the Navy: those who have been on a battleship and those who wish they could."

Sent from surrender

Each man aboard the Missouri was allowed to send up to five pieces of mail bearing a special postmark created to commemorate the surrender date. Postal clerks worked from 5:30 a.m. to midnight that day, handling some 15,000 pieces of mail.

See "Mo" go

A civic salute to the ship will be held starting at 3:30 p.m. Saturday on the Bremerton boardwalk, adjacent to the ferry dock. The event, organized by the city of Bremerton and local chamber of commerce, will feature a choir, Marine Corps color guard and remarks by veterans who served aboard the ship.

Also along the boardwalk, the museum ship USS Turner Joy will offer a vantage point from which to watch the Missouri depart, at about 4 p.m. For the occasion, admission rates at the Turner Joy will be lowered, starting at 2 p.m., to $3 for adults, $2.50 for seniors, $2 for children.

Two chances to see more "Mo"

A two-hour documentary titled "Mighty Mo - The Battleship USS Missouri" will be shown at the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport at 7 p.m. June 11. Directed by Chris Davenport of Bainbridge Island, it includes combat and archival footage. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted for the Bremerton Naval Museum.

A one-hour television special, "Mighty Mo: The Many Lives of the USS Missouri," with news anchor Hugh Downs, will air at 10 p.m. Saturday on ABC.

Visits allowed in Astoria

The Missouri is expected to arrive in Astoria, Ore., Tuesday. It will be open to the public, its exterior decks only, for five days beginning Thursday, May 28, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Updates on the Web

During the Missouri's trip to Hawaii, daily reports on the ship's position and weather conditions will be posted on a World Wide Web page, www.ussmissouri.com.

Final resting place

In Hawaii, the Missouri will become a floating museum, expected to open in January at Pearl Harbor, near the memorial to the battleship USS Arizona, which was sunk in the Japanese attack Dec. 7, 1941. Several interior spaces on the Missouri will be open to the public.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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