Racks are still available on World War II ships
70 years later a shipfitter is reunited
In October, my wife asked me if I could help locate an old ship in Pearl Harbor as a favor for someone at work. A work associate was friends with a lady whose father served in WWII as a Shipfitter 3rd Class on a ship that she believed was still in service and located in Hawaii.
Joe McGowan, a WWII Sailor who had served in the Asiatic Pacific Theater, would be visiting Hawaii for the first time since 1945 and she wanted to surprise him with a visit to one of his old ships while here in Hawaii. Joe would be traveling with family to enjoy an island cruise, of the non-Navy type. Now, I have been working in Pearl Harbor for seven years and I have seen many ships, but the only WWII ships I thought were still around were the USS Missouri (decommissioned), the USS Arizona Memorial, and the USS Utah Memorial. There were some old inactive ships anchored at Middle Loch, but I did not remember any of them being WWII era. I told my wife I would do what I could to help out and to get the name of the ship. What came to mind was that there are many new ships named after old ships; my first ship, the USS Constellation (CV 64), was a prime example. Maybe that's what happened, his daughter came across a ship bearing the same name as one her father served aboard and she assumed it was still around after all this time.
A couple days later I got the information that he had served aboard two different repair ships, the USS YR 46 and the USS Briareus (AR 12). Looking into the USS Briareus I discovered it had been decommissioned, recommissioned, decommissioned again, and finally sold for scrap in 1980. I then turned my attention to the USS YR-46, a non-self-propelled floating yard repair ship. After a little research, I discovered it was no longer in service as a repair ship, but had been refitted as a Repair Berthing and Messing Barge and was still in service in Hawaii. That could not be right, todays berthing barges were once vital workshops involved in repairing Navy warships from their World War II battle damage? I checked again and found that more than a dozen of these WWII era repair ships had been converted into YRB berthing barges or YRBM berthing and mess barges are located in Hawaii, California, Washington, and Guam. I did a little more research and discovered that the USS YR-46 had been converted and re-designated as YRBM-49. It was moored across the pier from the USS Hopper (DDG 70) while it was undergoing repairs and displaced crew members were being housed and fed aboard the YRBM 49. I contacted the supply chief from the Hopper to coordinate the visit to which he was happy to accommodate.
Early on November 7, 2014, I met Joe McGowan. I was excited to assist him in revisiting a bit of his history from 70 years ago. I cannot lie, I was a little worried that he would take one look at the berthing barge, turn to me, and say "What the hell it this?". Fortunately, that did not happen. It was a little hike down the piers to get to the ship but, being only 88, he had no problem making the trek to the ship, or up and down the ladderwells for that matter. The supply chief was our official escort for the YRBM, but as soon as we set foot onboard, Petty Officer McGowan took over the tour. As we passed through the refitted P-ways and continued below decks, he described the differences in the layout compared to its original configuration. As we walked around, he described the daily life of a 1940's Sailor and of course had some great stories about his friends, foreign ports, and the working conditions. That afternoon aboard the 70+ year old ship was confirmation that although our ships and missions change, Sailors will always be Sailors. Watching the way his eyes lit up while recalling his memorable events, I recognized the youthful enthusiasm which I see in today's Sailors, and it filled me with pride to be able to serve in the same Navy.
I do not know how many Sailors have lived temporarily on the YRBM-49, or any of the other similarly historic and understated WWII auxiliary vessels, but I assume very few knew what that vessel had been through. It is hard to imagine the amount of Sailors who have served aboard these vessels, the stories shared in their hulls, the ports visited, and the contribution to the fleet.
I have been very fortunate to be able to serve in some great locations and visit many historic ports, but many times I am not aware of the history that constantly surrounds me. I do not want to assume that it is always taken for granted, but we should all take some time to appreciate the historic sites, events, and most importantly, people that have impacted our Navy and our nation. Whether you are a BM2 on a ship in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii or a recruiter in a quiet town in the mid-west, seize the opportunities to learn about our history and share them.