USS Washington BB56
August 2 - 5, 2004
By John M. Nichols
Shipmates Gather on the Muddy Banks of the Mississippi
Dubuque, Iowa was the gathering place for the 27th reunion of the crew of the WWII Battleship USS Washington. Situated on the bank of the Mississippi River, Dubuque is the oldest city in Iowa and provided a beautiful setting for the bi-annual reunion of shipmates, wives, family members, and friends of the USS Washington. The warmth and hospitality of the city of Dubuque was evident throughout the entire week of reunion activities. Paul Meyer, a long-time resident of Dubuque and frequent attendee of the reunions, acted as tour guide and city historian for all those interested in learning more about the host city. The reunion was held at the Holiday Inn Galena-Dubuque and it proved to be the perfect spot for the event. Situated in the center of the historic downtown area, the Holiday Inn was within easy walking distance of many restored buildings, restaurants, and other tourist attractions. Turnout was great again this year, with some shipmates and wives joining the festivities for the very first time!
The 27th reunion began as they usually do on Monday with the distribution of registration packets. John "Brownie" Brown and his wife Gladys staff the first table greeting old friends and welcoming new ones. Other members of the reunion committee pass out tour information, reserve banquet seating, and answer questions. Howard Wright, President of the Associates Unit, was on hand to meet and greet the associates. The lobby was full of men wearing black BB-56 caps waving to friends they haven't seen since the last reunion in 2002. The lobby chairs were gathered together in small groups and the stories started flowing like black coffee in the galley after a midnight watch! The Hospitality Room opened on the fourth floor and some of the shipmates viewed books, letters, and pictures of past reunions and of their time on the Washington. Stories were shared with other shipmates and family members.
At 1500 hours, the shipmates gathered together in the Grand Ballroom for Introductions by Division. On a ship as large as the Washington, it is not uncommon for men serving at the same time to never bump into each other while at sea. But you always know the men in your division! These are the guys you work with every day, the guys you depend on, the guys who understand what it was like to serve aboard a fast battleship. As the divisions are called out, members stand and greet each other. It is always exciting to see two "old salts" that had passed each other in the lobby only moments before without a hint of recognition, now grinning as they recall each other's name, rank, and some experiences while on liberty that remain a mystery. The division with the most shipmates present this year was the "E" Division. After all the divisions have been read, a muster by state begins. There is a common bond among sailors from the same state. No matter how far apart they might have lived from each other, the same state was as good as the same town. As the state names were read off, sailors stood to see who might be living in the next city or just around the block. The sailor traveling the farthest again this year was Alfred Rodrigues, from Hawaii. Afterwards, Brownie concluded the meeting by reading announcements, introducing other members of the various reunion committees, and passing on final reminders such as, "If a guy goes to the bathroom, someone make sure he comes out!" The crowd always enjoys Brownie's sense of humor. These meetings never break up quickly, there are too many stories to share and talking continued until well into the evening.
General Quarters sounds early on Tuesday as the shipmates and families fill the galley in the Blue Moon Room to partake in a grand buffet breakfast. The food on the ship was never this good or this plentiful! Lots of black coffee was available to get things going in the morning. At 1000 hours we gathered together for the most solemn moments of these reunions; the memorial service for the shipmates and wives that have been lost since the last reunion. The service opened with the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of the Star Spangled Banner lead by Nathan Bannick. The chaplain offered prayers for those that have been lost, a total of 61 shipmates and 24 wives. Some inspiring poems were read, and the chaplain closed with prayers. Andrea Spies sang a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace, and the service was concluded.
At 1700 hours the crew departed to board their ship for the evening: the Spirit of Dubuque. The Spirit of Dubuque was docked only a short distance away in the Port of Dubuque and the new Riverwalk area. The Riverwalk area is also home to the Diamond Joe Casino Gambling Boat and the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. Shipmates boarded the Spirit of Dubuque for a gentle cruise down the Mississippi and a fantastic buffet dinner. A little rain couldn't dampen the fun of the evening as the smooth waters and live entertainment made the time fly by. At the end of the day the ship returned to port, and the busses brought the sailors back from the river cruise.
Wednesday was corporate meeting day as the shipmates held their Group Corporate Meeting and the associates held their Associate Unit Meeting. These meetings are an important and necessary part of every reunion. Elections are held, treasury reports are heard, and general business is conducted. The Associate Unit is an extension of the reunion group, composed of wives, children, grandchildren, and friends of the shipmates. The goal of the Associate Unit is to carry on the memory of the USS Washington and her crew well into the future.
After the corporate meetings, the Ladies lunch was held in the Dubuque Room. The room was abuzz with the soft voices of the Washington ladies and the sounds of great food being enjoyed by all. This luncheon is a chance for the ladies to connect with each other and share the stories of their lives with the men of the Washington. Some of the ladies are widows attending the reunion on their own, but no one is alone here. There is a special bond shared by all the ladies whether they are attending their first reunion or their twenty-seventh. The men are proud of their wives; and though they may not say it often, you can see it in their eyes. Thank you to the ladies for getting your men to the reunion and taking care of them so well.
At 1500 hours the buses pulled up in front of the Holiday Inn to take the shipmates and wives to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. The museum is a new attraction dedicated to the history, exploration, and wildlife of the Mississippi River. The museum was a great combination of displays, hands-on exhibits, video presentations, and aquatic life. After the museum's self-guided tour, some of the shipmates returned to the hotel while others choose to stroll through the Taste of Dubuque food extravaganza that just happened to be next to the museum on that very night! Here you could get a taste of the local delicacies from many of the fine downtown eating establishments while listening to some great music. A fun conclusion to a long day.
The last day of this 27th reunion started with a meeting of the Site Committee. Suggestions were made as to the location of the next reunion. The reunion travels around the country giving the shipmates and their families an opportunity to see the USA; many make it a part of their vacation. No finals decisions were made.
At 1100 hours the busses arrived once more. For this afternoon's event there was a choice of destinations including a shopping trip to a nearby mall, an outing to the dog track, or an excursion to the Diamond Joe Casino Gambling Boat for an afternoon of gambling. The gambling boat is a converted but still seaworthy riverboat boasting 749 slot machines, 19 table games, and many other opportunities to take your money. More than a few of the shipmates dusted off their gambling skills and managed to leave with more money than they started out with. While it wasn't the same as a game of craps on the floor of one of the lower decks, it was fun!
The final event of the evening was the Dinner Banquet in the Blue Moon Room. The dinner banquet is the highlight of every reunion. Here old friends get together for a great meal, speeches, and entertainment. The men were dressed in suits and sport jackets, and the women looked grand in their dresses and skirts. Dinner was a fine cut of prime rib, vegetables, and ice cream for dessert. The Mayor of Dubuque, Terry Duggan, thanked the shipmates for visiting Dubuque and shared some humorous family moments with the audience. Brownie thanked the various committee members and they all received a round of applause. Two of the USS Washington officers shared some of their memories when they were young ensigns. A Naval Historian, James Klopp from Wisconsin, was in attendance with a large photo of the USS Washington collecting signatures of all the shipmates. The large, signed photo was then presented to John "Brownie" Brown to be added to the extensive collection of ship's memorabilia.
Excitement filled the room as names were drawn for a multitude of prizes. Many of the evening's guests walked away with home made wall hangings, picture frames, photo books, pictures from WWII, and books. The talented ladies handmade some of the items and James Klopp donated many of the pictures and books. Brownie brought us all together with a few of his favorite jokes and then the ship's song was played, as it is every year. Homer Wickham, a member of the USS Washington band, entertained the crowd with a favorite tune of his played on his violin. A few final speeches, and then the evening concluded with some swinging dance music supplied by a DJ. Dancing continued well into the night.
It is always difficult to say goodbye after the banquet. Some of these shipmates and their wives have been friends for over 60 years. But they all shake hands, hug, and look to the future, to the next reunion. You never know who will read an announcement in the paper and show up to a reunion for the very first time! Each reunion is a special event.
Thanks to the Dubuque Chamber of Commerce and especially Sarah Murphy for helping the reunion committee to organize and throw a great reunion event. Thanks also to the staff of the Holiday Inn, the service was wonderful. The shipmates appreciated the use of the lobby area for story telling and all the other amenities. Thanks to John and Gladys Brown for another wonderful reunion, you guys are the best.
And a special thanks to all the shipmates who shared their personal stories with me. I always learn something new and I return home with a deep respect for what you did. You certainly are the "Greatest Generation".