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Sea veterans from Laffey refurbishing destroyer

Sea veterans from Laffey refurbishing destroyer

By Jessica Johnson

The Post and Courier

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The bunks that former destroyer Laffey seamen sleep on are a little thicker and lined with medicine bottles, but the camaraderie is as strong as they remember.

Twelve guys, most members of the USS Laffey Association, spent their days last week restoring the 65-year-old ship and spent their nights camping out in their former Navy ship sleeping quarters, now updated with air conditioning.

Twice a year, Laffey Association members come from across the country to repair the old ship, part of the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, situated just east of the aircraft carrier Yorktown. The association provides the food, Patriots Point provides the materials and the former shipmates do the work.

“It’s all a labor of love,” said Charlie Hall Jr., Patriots Point media and public relations manager. “It’s their ship.”

The men’s work helps keep the steel destroyer in shape. They are saving it as they once did in the service.

World War II veteran Ari Phoutrides was serving as a quartermaster on the bridge on April 16, 1945, the day the Laffey got its nickname: “The Ship That Wouldn’t Die.”

During the Battle of Okinawa, Japanese bombers and kamikaze pilots attacked the destroyer and other naval ships. The Laffey took five kamikaze hits and four bombs. A fifth bomb nearly hit the ship, but Phoutrides saw it coming. Men were busy blasting at attacking planes coming from one side. When a plane carrying a bomb came from the other, Phoutrides first saw the speck in the sky.

“It got bigger and bigger and bigger,” he said.

When he realized it was a plane carrying a bomb, he struck an officer to get his attention, pounding on his thick vest.

Then by some miracle, Phoutrides said, a gunner swung around and took two shots, striking the plane on its nose just 100 yards from the ship. It was one of nine planes the destroyer hit.

Phoutrides, 83, loves to tell the story. He drew a map of the attack afterward, he served as the official recorder, and he calls the 32 men who died that day heroes.

Phoutrides jokes to Sonny Walker, the Laffey Association’s president, that after the attack, Walker turned the destroyer into a cruise ship. Walker served as a radioman 1960-63, traveling in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Red seas.

Cruises continued until 1975 when the Laffey was decommissioned and spent a brief period waiting for the cutting torch before the association was able to save the ship and bring it to Patriots Point for preservation in 1981.

Former sailors of the Laffey will meet in Charleston on Oct. 8 for the ship’s annual reunion, but a paint-flecked Phoutrides of Portland, Ore., said he prefers the work sessions. During repairs, tourists stop to listen to the men as they talk about their days on the ship.

“They learn about the ship. They know it has a story,” Walker said. “It’s not just a piece of steel sitting there.”

Just 30 association members are left. The remaining men bring sons and grandchildren and pass on the paintbrush, their stories and the desire to keep the ship in shape, Walker said.

Phoutrides’ son, Stephen Phoutrides, came to the work session for a second time, and said he enjoys the friendships formed between the former sailors most.

“The bonds are so close … because they cared about something bigger than themselves,” Stephen Phoutrides said.

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September 18, 2008 Posted by | Post & Courier | Leave a comment