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In a small, scale model: A long ago ship come to life

As I write this I am looking at one of the most unusual and now most treasured gifts I could have asked for.  It’s a small, finely detailed model of a ship.  And no, it’s not an aircraft carrier, a battleship, a destroyer, or a minesweeper.  It’s a survey ship called the U.S.S. Sumner.  My Dad served on it during World War II and his memories of that ship, and his time as a member of its crew, were some of the most precious of his life.  My Dad died 25 years ago and I have tried over the years to keep some of the memories of this quirky, but beloved little ship alive.

 Of course, there isn’t much left to go on.  The post war draw down was fast and the Sumner was scrapped in 1946.  Save for some photos, and a wonderful ship’s

portrait painted by one of my Dad’s shipmates, tangible mementoes of this wonderful ship are few.  But, Saturday, I got the surprise of my life.  A very dear friend of mine, who without my knowing it, had been scouring the Internet and making phone calls for months, found a company willing to make a model of this obscure little ship.  To my delight, he had found a company, and yep, they had the specifications for the Sumner.

 The detail is astounding, and when I compare it to the grainy black and white photos taken almost 70 years ago, I am startled by the notion, that I am seeing this ship in 3D, in color, for the first time.  Her unusually long prow, her four sounding boats, and sleek lines, all at once seem real. 
 
 Everyone who has ever been to sea, even in a rowboat, knows that every vessel, no matter what the size, crew compliment, power source, or fire power, has a personality.  When sailors talk about the ships they’ve served on they always phrase their memories in terms of “how she always got us through,” or “how she was held together with chewing gum and bailing wire,” or how “she was, or wasn’t a happy ship.”  And sorry, I don’t mean anything sexist, but ships, even when they’re named after men, are almost always referred to as she.

The Sumner was just a little ship in a big war.  But she had personality.  She had one five inch gun facing aft and a mix of various machine guns.  Her best speed was 11 knots.  She was no warship.  My Dad thought putting the ship’s five inch gun on the stern showed that the Navy had a sense of humor since the only time they would be shooting at the enemy was when Sumner was running away.  The Sumner began life in the First World war as a submarine tender.  This meant she was big, with plenty of room for stores, fuel, and shops.  In those days she was the U.S.S. Bushnell.   But at the start of World War II she became the Sumner.  And she was a roomy ship.

 In fact, she was there for the start of World War II.  Sumner was anchored at Pearl Harbor on December 7th and thanks to her out of the way location and apparently having ignored orders to put ammunition below deck (ignoring housekeeping orders was common aboard that ship) was able to get a shot at the Japanese planes as they made their attack runs.  This noncombatant amazingly claimed three enemy aircraft.

 During the war, her crew, a slightly nerdy, but at the same time, rather daring bunch, roamed the Pacific laying baselines, clearing anchorages, and doing surveys.  The work of the Survey Navy as they called themselves was essential in planning Marine Amphibious landings during the war.  One time, in a deed that still smells like a good movie, a team from the Sumner was assigned the task of marking a Pill Box on Okinawa, (before the invasion that is) with fluorescent paint so the Battleships could get a bead on it and knock out this potential threat before the Marines landed the next morning.

 Sumner was also at Iwo Jima, and while continuing surveying duties under combat conditions, and taking a direct hit from a dud artillery shell, her extra space was used to handle wounded Marines.  Her last act, just after the war was over, was surveying Bikini Atoll in preparation for Operation Crossroads.  This was an extended series of tests of American Atomic Weapons.  It was at Bikini that she got her orders to head to Norfolk and the scrap yard.

 I grew up on stories of the Sumner; the Captain who was a champion sailboat racer and explorer; the Lieutenant (JG) my father so admired who, though an outstanding officer, made no secret of his dislike for everything military, and vowed he was getting out as soon as the war was over (he retired a Captain); and the story of the machinist mates who smuggled a nearly frozen Chinese child aboard in Shanghai, nursed her back to health, and with the Captain’s help, placed her in a Catholic orphanage.  What can I say, this ship had personality.  And now in my mind, thanks to this little model, and just a little imagination, she is once again plying the warm waters of the Pacific.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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