Painting honors ships, shipmates | Easton Star Democrat

[from the Easton (Md.) Star Democrat]

Painting honors ships, shipmates

Easton man unveils work honoring World War II ship

Published 5/31/98

John Harrington with the painting he presented at the reunion in Norfolk, Va., of the three USS Samuel B. Roberts ships – USS Copeland, USS Paulcarr and USS Sammie B.

Queen Anne’s Editor

EASTON – John Harrington likes to call them the Magnificent Teenagers. And they were teenagers, just 17 or 18 or 19, called to fight in the last Great War, a world at war for the second time in one century.

They were teens who had to grow up fast at a place called Leyte Gulf, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur slugged his way into the Philippines in October 1944. For three brutal days, Oct. 23-25, the Battle of Leyte Gulf raged. It was the longest, and last, great surface battle of the war. On both sides, Japanese and American, many ships were sunk, many men died.

It was long ago – over 50 years – but never forgotten by a group of men now in their 70s and 80s, Navy war veterans all. John Harrington of Easton was among them as they gathered in Norfolk, Va. two weeks ago to remember their fallen comrades and a ship that was sunk during the Battle of Leyte Gulf – the USS Samuel B. Roberts. Their ship.

At this reunion, Harrington had a special task – to unveil a painting depicting the three USS Samuel B. Roberts ships along with two other ships named to remember those who had served aboard and were connected to the “Sammie B.”, as Harrington likes to call his former ship. These are the USS Copeland and USS Paulcarr.The ships named after the Sammie B.’s captain and gunner’s mate.

Designed and painted by Don Young of Los Almos, a crewmate of Harrington’s who also survived the sinking, the painting was presented during the reunion to the commanding officer of the third, and current,USS Samuel B. Roberts, newly arrived last month from service with the George Washington battle group. It will hang on the ship until decommissioning or go on to the next Sammie B.

Nothing could have touched the survivors’ hearts more, said Harrington. “Grown men were crying” at the sight of the painting.

The idea for the painting originated with Harrington.

“I started thinking about this painting when an article in the ‘Surface Warfare Magazine’ showed the USS Copeland, Carr and third Sammy B. side by side.”

Harrington’s idea was a painting to show five ships, named for officers and enlisted men all connected to each other through the Sammie B. To his knowledge, it is the first time since about 1860 that a painting such as that as mentioned above – ships all connected through service – had been commissioned, said Harrington.

In 1944, Don Young happened to be on the same gun mount as Harrington as the ship went down. He too, was rescued after almost 50 hours in shark-infested waters. Young went home, to a new life, and lost touch with his crewmates.

Just last year, after all these years, Young discovered the survivors group, and they welcomed him back.

Perhaps you could call this meeting fate, perhaps divine intervention, but a fortuitous event for Harrington. “What we have done could not have been done without him,” said Harrington. Harrington sent Young drawings of what he thought the painting should look like. Then he waited.

“It’s just like having a baby,” Harrington said, referring to the excitement of the final result. “This painting is the culmination of every dream I, as a Navy man, hold dear.”

“No Higher Honor” is the motto on the painting. That’s the motto of the third Sammie B. “Those words came from our commanding officer, Capt. Copeland, who said ‘I can think of no higher honor than to command such a group of men.'”

Remembering those who died in the service of their country is important to Harrington and his former crewmates. Just a few years ago, they were all on hand in San Diego, Calif. at the unveiling of a monument to three ships that sank during the battle, killing 523 men – the destroyers USS Johnston and USS Hoel and their own destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts. At the memorial, Harrington had the honor of reading a poem he wrote to remember those men, “A Monument to Remembrance,” speaking as if in their place to all those assembled.

Last year, a monument was raised near there to honor the 1,000 who died from all 13 ships of Taffy 3, one group of ships supporting MacArthur’s invasion, of which the USS Roberts was part. Other memorials have been raised, one for the carrier Gambier Bay, another for the carrier St. Lo, both sunk during the battle.

Such recognition and remembrance comes through perseverance. “Veterans who want to make things happen, can make things happen,” he said.

“It isn’t the easiest thing to do. Sometimes people don’t like to remember, some didn’t enjoy remembering.”

Over the years, Harrington has tried to reestablish contact with crewmates and their families. In conducting his search for “lost” crewmates, Harrington found a special recognition program, which even local veterans organizations didn’t know about, called the Presidential Memorial Certificate.

Started by the President John F. Kennedy in 1962, families of deceased World War II veterans from all branches who have been honorably discharged may receive a certificate, signed by the current President, to honor the veteran. The individually lettered and embossed certificate is suitable for framing.

“So few know about this,” he added. “This is a beautiful thing, from a grateful nation.” He requested and received certificates for 93 who served on the Sammie B., but is having a hard time locating the families. “It’s extremely hard to find families after 54 or more years,” he said. “It may take me the rest of my life.”

(Those wishing to order a certificate may send the veteran’s name, family address and daytime telephone number to: Office of Presidential Correspondence, Attention: Code VA-NCS, The White House, Washington, D.C. 20500; or call 202-565-4964. It is free.)

The certificates are written out in name only, no nickname, no rank. “Everything is equal,” he said. “Men and women.”

He shuffled through some papers. “This is a letter I got from someone. Her husband just died. He never talked to his children about what he went through. They never knew.”

He begins to read another letter, from the now grown daughter of a man who died on the Sammie B. on one of those fateful days in October 1994, so long ago. She was one year old when her father was killed. She never knew the whole story behind what had happened to her father, why a ship could mean so much, and why this battle is seared like a brand into the minds of the survivors.

Reading it, it’s just too much, and the emotions overwhelm Harrington – he can’t continue. He passed the letter to his visitor. “You finish it,” he said, his voice cracking. “It still breaks you up, it still breaks you up.”

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