Family & Friends
By Jack Burke, F66456
Last summer my wife and I attended a rather unusual christening. This baby was more than 500 feet long and weighed approximately 9,000 tons. We were at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine, to witness the launching of the USS Mason, an Aegis guided missile destroyer. We probably never would have had the opportunity if FMCA hadn’t held its 2000 annual summer grand international convention at the nearby Brunswick Naval Air Station in Brunswick, Maine.
When we knew we would be attending the Brunswick convention, I wrote Bath Iron Works, asking if I could tour the shipyard. I explained that I had served on a Bath-built destroyer, the USS Abbot, and that I was interested in seeing its birthplace, if possible. The company’s public relations representative replied that they receive thousands of requests to tour the yard and typically refuse them. However, for an old Fletcher-class destroyerman, they would make an exception. Needless to say, I was thrilled. On the last day of the convention, while my wife and thousands of other FMCA members toured motorhomes, I put on my work boots and showed up at the main gate of Bath Iron Works to tour the shipyard.
My guide took me from one end of the yard to the other, showing me all of the shops, and pointing out the components, many the size of a small house, which were built upside down. This makes sense when you realize that the piping and wiring in ships are on the ceiling, so this method saves workmen much time and back pain. As we watched one of the company’s giant flatbed trucks moving a finished section to the building ways where the completed hull would eventually slide down into the river, I couldn’t help but be impressed with the size and precision each section represented. Constructing a ship this way is like building a giant jigsaw puzzle, where each part, small and large alike, must fit precisely to the adjoining section.
As we watched, my guide told me that the ship being built, the USS Mason, would be the last destroyer that Bath Iron Works would launch in the traditional fashion. From now on, the company would use a new $240 million land-level transfer facility. I couldn’t believe it. Ships have been launched from building ways since the time of the Phoenicians. It was explained that this change was necessitated by economics and time. It’s possible to build 85 percent of a ship in drydock, using the new facility, my guide explained, while building ways can only support about two-thirds of the final weight. Good news for the taxpayer, but another blow to tradition.
Before my visit ended, I was asked if I would like to attend the launching of the USS Mason. “Yes!” I answered, without a second thought. And so began my second visit to Bath Iron Works and the shipyard. Later, when I told my wife about this wonderful opportunity, she seemed a little less than excited. But things worked out in the end.
The launch date was set for Saturday, June 23, 2001. That gave us a week to travel from our home in North Carolina and settle down for a day or two in Maine before the launch. That Saturday morning dawned with light showers and mist. When we drove into Bath from our campground just before lunch, the bridge over the Kennebec River was shrouded in mist, and the masts of the ships could barely be seen. While we were having lunch, Neptune, god of the sea, negotiated a truce with the weather gods and the mist disappeared. Now with the day clear, Neptune was ready to receive her newest child.
This vessel honors two previous ships bearing the same name. The first ship was named for John Young Mason, Secretary of the Navy for U.S. Presidents John Tyler and James K. Polk, and was in Navy service from 1920 to 1941. The second ship was named for Ensign Newton Henry Mason, who was shot down in aerial combat during the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942. The second Mason served the Navy from 1944 to 1945 and was the first to have a large number of African-Americans among its crew. Today more than 20 percent of all men and women serving in the Navy are African-American, from seaman to admiral.
For this special occasion, Bath Iron Works had invited the public to watch what it called the “Last to Slide” launching. The atmosphere was festive, with what seemed like thousands of onlookers milling about. The shipyard had set up refreshment booths and several ship’s crews were selling hats, T-shirts, and jerseys. The shirt I bought read, “First In Pride, Last To Slide.” It was like a giant party as we all waited for the right time: slack high water. That’s the moment when the tide is at its highest and the river is at its deepest. That would happen at 3:25 p.m. on this day, and at that time the Mason would be launched.
As we gathered, the ship sat on keel blocks waiting to slide into the salt water. As I looked up at her sharp clipper bow, she was beautiful in a special way, with sleek lines and a look of functional competence. This vessel was ready to join that long gray line of ships that stretch back to the founding of our country and its Navy. Here was a worthy descendant of the USS Constitution, ready to follow John Paul Jones’ call: “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.”
Allan Cameron, president of Bath Iron Works, introduced the many dignitaries who were present for this momentous occasion. Among them were seven surviving African-American members of the World War II-era USS Mason, seated with their successors, the crew of the newest ship. We heard from Rear Admirals William Cobb and James Johnson; Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England; U.S. Representatives Thomas Allen and John Baldacci (Maine); and U.S. Senator Susan Collins. Finally, the principal speaker, Rear Admiral David L. Brewer III, was introduced. His was the most difficult job of the day, since he had to speak eloquently, inspire us all, and finish at 3:23 p.m., give or take a few seconds. He was on time, and the chaplain quickly blessed the ship and all who would sail on her. All was ready for the launch.
The ship’s crew was in attendance, dressed in their whites; the guests were seated; the launching platform dignitaries were ready; and most importantly, the launching crew was ready. Hidden from sight below the building ways, they would be responsible for releasing the ship once she was christened.
The ship’s sponsor, U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, stepped forward. As she smashed a bottle of champagne across its bow, the senator proclaimed the traditional words: “In the name of the United States, I christen thee USS Mason.”
With those words, the huge ship came to life and ever so slowly began her baptismal trip to the sea. Gradually she picked up speed, as if eager to get into her natural habitat. Then, with a great splash, the ship was home, coasting across the Kennebec River, until the securing cables and tugs slowed her down and prepared to bring her back alongside the fitting pier.
The USS Mason is the United States’ 37th destroyer in the Arleigh Burke class, an Aegis destroyer of awesome size and power. Destroyers trace their lineage back to the 18th-century frigates, such as the USS Constitution, which is now moored in Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, Massachusetts. It is a long and proud tradition.
Although the USS Mason had been launched, there was still much work to be done before she was ready for sea. But this was a day for celebration. We attended a reception following the launch, congratulated those we had met during our visit, and had one last look at the new “baby” before heading for the road again. For us, this truly had been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
F.C. Dohrman: 1922 – 2001
F.C. Dohrman, F26124, who served as national vice president of FMCA’s South Central Area from 1990 to 1993, passed away on November 30, 2001, in Warrensburg, Missouri.
Mr. Dohrman was born on July 14, 1922, in Higginsville, Missouri. He lived in Sweet Springs, Missouri, for most of his life, where he was a farmer. He also founded the local Sweet Water Restaurant. His farming interests led him to collect Allis-Chalmers toy tractors.
Mr. Dohrman was active in Sweet Springs, and over the years served as mayor, city councilman, and administrator of the community hospital. His second wife, Millie, noted that he enjoyed helping the town build a new library and rebuild the public swimming pool.
Mr. Dohrman and his first wife, Hildegard, were married in 1943. The couple joined the Family Motor Coach Association in 1977. He often talked about the good times and trips he enjoyed in conjunction with FMCA, Millie Dohrman said. He and Hildegard were forced to stop traveling when Hildegard’s health deteriorated. She passed away in 1997. F.C. and Millie were married in 1999.
In addition to his wife, Millie, Mr. Dohrman is survived by one son, Mike, and his wife, Connie; one daughter, Sharon Miller, and her husband, John; one stepdaughter, Marsha Tyler, and her husband, Tom; and two stepsons, Terry Zimmerschied, and his wife, Tami, and Alan Zimmerschied and his wife, Michelle. Mr. Dohrman also leaves three grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and six stepgrandchildren, in addition to several nieces and nephews.