Surviving USS Card crew reunites in Astoria with a donation to the Columbia River Maritime MuseumThey battled Hitler's U-boats in the stormy Atlantic.
But these days, the former crew members of the USS Card are less interested in reliving their wartime exploits than simply sharing the company of friends.
Thirty-one of the vessel's surviving crew gathered Friday in Astoria to help donate a wooden name board from the ship to the Columbia River Maritime Museum.
The men, most in their 80s, gathered in groups for pictures under the sign, one of the last remaining relics from the World War II escort carrier, which was scrapped more than 30 years ago at an upriver shipyard.
The Card was one of a series of unfinished cargo ships that were converted into makeshift aircraft carriers at the beginning of the war and pressed into service protecting Allied supply convoys from attacks by German submarines.
Friday's presentation to the museum included a copy of the Presidential Unit Citation the ship was awarded in 1943.
"We're honored to add it to our collection," museum curator Dave Pearson said.
The museum doesn't have any immediate plans to put the name board on display, but will keep it on hand for possible future use, Pearson said. The museum currently features displays about the World War II escort carriers, many of which were commissioned in Astoria, including a model of the U.S.S. Gambier Bay.
The crew of the Card, who travelled from all over the country, gathers by their ships name board, which they donated to the Columbia River Maritime Museum Friday.
LORI ASSA - The Daily AstorianThe Card's name board was never installed on the vessel. After the ship's conversion into an aircraft carrier, it and a second sign were stored in the forward hold. During the war they served as makeshift tables for captured enemy sailors held below deck, said Morris Lillich of Clatskanie, former chief quartermaster on the Card who helped organize Friday's event.
FriendshipLast week's reunion was the 20th for the Card crew. They've gathered at locations around the country, and this year's was the second in Portland.
"They used to be interested in seeing the sights. Now it's just seeing each other," Lillich said.
"We've become a family, we have a lot of feelings for each other," said Joe Macchia of Arizona City, Ariz., president of the U.S.S. Card association. "When we see each other, it's just a joy."
The reunions used to draw almost 300 crew members and wives. This year brought together 60 people, including some widows of veterans. The youngest of the group is 77, most of the rest are in the 80s, and some of them joke that they'll eventually be holding their reunions in a telephone booth.
"Some do get emotional from time to time," Lillich said. "They notice someone hasn't shown up this year and ask 'why isn't Joe Blow here?'"
One Card veteran who was there was Roy Lovelady of Austin, Texas. He flew a TBF Avenger bomber as one of the Card's pilots.
By the time Lovelady joined the ship's squadron, the escort carrier groups had switched to nighttime operations, when they were most likely to catch the German subs on the surface. The planes patrolled in pairs in flights that normally lasted four hours. When night operations were first ordered, however, the Card wasn't properly equipped, and the pilots were sometimes forced to take off in the evening and stay airborne until the morning's first light.
Lovelady remembered one flight that lasted 13 hours.
Taking off and landing from an aircraft carrier was tough enough during daylight. How do you do it during the night?
"It was just something we got used to," Lovelady said.
Macchia wouldn't let his former crewmate off with such a modest response.
"These were the best pilots in the world," he said.
Lovelady and the other escort carrier pilots had to land on decks that pitched up and down in the stormy Atlantic seas, guided by tiny landing lights barely visible from above. The pilots had little more than 100 feet of space to land on - if they missed one of the three braking cables laid across the landing deck, they plowed into the planes parked at the bow.
Crashes, and anti-aircraft fire from U-boats, took a heavy toll.
"We would leave for a cruise with a full squadron of 20 planes, and would come back with three or four crippled planes," Lillich said.
DangersThe duty could be a dangerous one for the ships. Lillich remembers one engagement that had the carrier dodging torpedoes as one of its escort destroyers was hit and sunk.
But the "baby flattops" inflicted much heavier losses on the enemy - with radar, sonar buoys and other specialized weapons, the carrier groups got sub-hunting down to a science. The Card was officially credited with destroying 11 U-boats during the war, but Lillich said the carrier scored 26 sure kills, and several more probable sinkings.
"They were turning out a new U-boat every week - and we were sinking them," he said.
German sailors were often rescued from those U-boats, and were usually put on board the Card and held below deck until the carrier returned to port. A number of the enemy sailors emigrated to America after the war and become U.S. citizens, and some of those same sailors, whose vessels had been sunk by the carrier, have actually attended Card reunions, Lillich said.
The Card was decommissioned from the Navy after the war, but continued in service with the Military Sea Transportation Service and saw duty during the Vietnam War shuttling troops and warplanes to the conflict. In 1964, an enemy frogman placed an explosive charge on its hull as it lay at anchor at Saigon, blowing a hole in the ship and sinking it in 20 feet of water. The carrier was raised, repaired and sent back into service.
In 1970, the old vessel was finally retired for good and a year later sold for scrap. It was dismantled at Port Westward, near Clatskanie.
The second name board, which was damaged by water when the Card was sunk in Vietnam, remains in Clatskanie. Lillich hopes to eventually have it put on display there for the visitors who still visit the town to see where the ship was scrapped.