Scott Rue was driving through McMinnville late one evening when he spotted a pair of bumper stickers on Dave Chambers’ red pickup. One proclaimed, “U.S. Navy, retired,” and the other, “USS IOWA VET.”
“You were on the Iowa?” Rue shouted as he pulled up beside Chambers at a traffic light on West Second Street.
“Yes, I was,” Chambers replied as he hit the gas, rushing one of his dogs to an emergency vet appointment.
Rue, also an Iowa veteran, followed. As the veterinarian cared for the dog, the two former sailors got reacquainted in the parking lot.
“I recognize you!” Rue said when Chambers climbed out of his truck.
“And I recognize you!” said Chambers, who had seen Rue aboard ship when they served on the Iowa together in the 1980s.
Although hundreds of thousands of people have served in the Navy, the list of those who’ve served on battleships is relatively small — maybe 20,000 in the world at this point, the two McMinnville men said.
To run into another battleship veteran, particularly one who’s served on the same battleship at the same time, is rare indeed. And to discover that they live in the same neighborhood in the same town is truly amazing, they said.
They share great memories — working with the experienced sailor who came back to put the Iowa back into service; everyone pulling his weight in the “all hands” effort to load supplies and unload equipment when the ship headed into dry dock; sliding through the Panama Canal with six inches of clearance on each side, so little the ship couldn’t use its engines, but had to be pulled by donkeys; showing off the ship to visitors, from ordinary citizens to USO show stars to President Reagan.
They share difficult memories as well, particularly the turret explosion that killed 47 sailors in April 1989, making it the worst accident in Naval history.
They also share a desire to honor those sailors. In fact, Rue is leading an effort to create an Iowa 47 memorial in McMinnville. (See related story on Page B2.)
The common experiences forge a bond as strong as the thick steel from which the Iowa was made.
“There’s no way to be on a ship like that and not develop close bonds,” Chambers said. “We’ll be friends forever.”
“We’re brothers,” Rue said.
That goes for all the people who served on battleships, from the time they were created until they last plied the seas in the early 1990s. “Serving on a battleship is an amazing experience,” Chambers said.
Chambers and Rue served on the Iowa during her second life, after she was modernized and recommissioned following 25 years docked in reserve.
“A battleship is the powerhouse of the military,” Rue said.
The Iowa was one of four battleships on active duty in the 1980s, joining the Missouri, New Jersey and Wisconsin.
None are active today. The Iowa is now a floating museum docked at San Pedro, Calif.
The Iowa was launched in 1942 and commissioned on Feb. 22, 1943. Eighteen stories tall and 887 feet long, it weighed 58,000 tons. It carried about 1,500 sailors in peacetime and 3,000 in wartime.
“It was built by women,” said Chambers, crediting the female builders for making the ship both sturdy and practical. “They did a lot of things men wouldn’t have thought of.”
It wasn’t women, though, who made sure the Iowa was the only ship in the Navy with a bathtub.
The tub was installed during WWII, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled on the battleship. Left in place during the renovation, the tub — or rather, use of the tub — was a popular prize in shipboard raffles.
The Iowa’s nine 16-inch guns could zero in on a target from 25 miles out.
The barrels were big enough for a man to crawl into, Rue said. When they were fired, he said, “The concussion was so strong, it could blow out windows 20 miles away.”
When he joined the ship, so naive that all he knew about battleships came from the board game, Rue wanted to take a photo of the guns firing. He raised his camera, and the next thing he knew, he was lying on his back, photographing the sky.
Chambers also can recall the first time he heard the Iowa fire its guns. “It wasn’t just a little boom,” he said.
By the time he and Rue went on board, the Iowa proudly carried a few battle scars. A mark on Turret 2’s 16-inch thick armorplate showed where a 4-inch Japanese shell had glanced off. A dent beneath the waterline was a reminder of a German torpedo, also deflected by the Iowa’s armor plate.
“The Iowa is strong,” Rue said. “The steel is strong.”
In 1987, the Iowa was chosen to escort oil supertankers through the Gulf of Iran.
When Iranian forces began shelling the convoy, Chambers said, the Iowa put itself in harm’s way in order to protect the merchant vessels. “We could sustain the hit,” he said, recalling how the crew was at battle stations around the clock.
Both he and Rue were — and are — proud of their ship. When they were on board, they showed that pride by keeping it sparkling.
The bulkheads were painted white with blue trim.
“My commander wanted them to stay white, no dirt at all. Guys would use Wite-Out to get it perfect,” Chambers recalled.
Rue laughed as he recalled waxing the deck and threatening anyone who tried to walk there while the wax was still wet. He also recalled using spray silicone on the brass to keep it shiny.
Everyone on board developed little tricks to keep things shipshape, he said.
When the Iowa was returned to service, Chambers said, many retired sailors returned to train the ship’s new crew. Years after they’d been on board, they wanted the battleship to look and run perfectly.
“Those old-timers meant so much to us,” he said. “They had the experience. From them ... that’s where I learned what the Navy was all about.”
Chambers, who often wears a polo shirt or a flight jacket with Iowa and Navy insignias, was the first in his family to serve in the military.
A native of the rural Marion County community of Jefferson, he joined the Navy after first considering a career as a chef.
“I didn’t want to get stuck in Jefferson,” he said. “I wanted to travel.”
His first assignment was as a boatswain’s mate on the USS Midway. Then he became a yeoman and secretary to the captain on the Iowa. After being commissioned as an officer, he was given command of a fire team.
Later, he served on the USS Nimitz before being transferred to Washington, D.C. After a detachment in Idaho, he ended up at a base in Washington.
Some of his best experiences, he said, came through service missions: rebuilding orphanages, putting in water systems, installing a fence to protect children in a rough Honduran neighborhood. “It made you feel so good to help other people,” he said.
He spent 20 years in the service, retiring after injuring his back while stepping off a landing craft. He later worked for the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
Chambers, who now writes about veterans for an online site, said he’ll always value his time in the military. “The Navy made me grow up,” he said.
He saw it happen to others as well.
“That’s one of the things I loved about the Navy,” he said. “You get kids coming it with nothing in common and watch them develop. Soon you’re all one unit.”
“There’s nothing like having to depend on someone else or having them depend on you,” he said. “You learn to work smarter, not harder; to work together. You become a team.”
Rue, a native of McMinnville, grew up admiring his grandfather, a Navy flyboy who had been stationed at Pearl Harbor.
He headed off to Southern Oregon University after graduating from McMinnville High School in 1985. But about six months in, he said, “I realized I needed to better myself. I figured I couldn’t go wrong in the Navy.”
On the Iowa, he served as a boatwain’s mate. He helped keep the ship running and drove the boats that carried people from ship to shore.
He also wrote a manual for steering the ship from below, were the bridge to be knocked out. Sailors have to train for such a possibility, he said.
He served in Turret 2 until two weeks before the explosion.
Sailors assigned to a turret load primary guns that fire shells standing taller than a man and weighing 1,800 to 2,700 pounds. They also load rapid-fire secondary guns that shoot 5-inch bullets.
It’s inherently dangerous work,” Rue said. “If you drop a bullet, you have 25 to 30 seconds to open the latches and get it out of there before it blows out white phosphorous.”
One of the skills he learned on the ship — painting — has become his career. He runs his own business, All Spectrum Painting.
“I can truly say I’ve painted everything, even a battleship,” said Rue, whose company jacket features a Battleship Iowa memorial patch.
Aboard the Iowa, Rue said, he saw the world and gained new perspectives.
“It’s amazing how much we take for granted due to our lack of knowledge,” he said. “When you see people who are truly starving, with no water, no refrigeration, you start to understand.”
When he finished his tour of duty, Rue said, he walked away from the Navy, expecting to forget. He didn’t want to remember the good times, because that would mean thinking of the bad, as well, he said.
Then, years later, an old Navy buddy contacted him on Facebook. He discovered he actually did want contact with his fellow sailors. ‘
“I got so excited, I did so many friend requests, Facebook cut me off,” he said. He had to explain to Facebook that he wasn’t a spammer, just a veteran looking to connect with his military brothers.
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.