2 tough warriors reunite, and memories, tears flow

Gerald Bowman, 82, remembered the noise, heat and shrapnel banging against the hull when he revisited the destroyer Laffey on Friday.

A little bit of that 20-year-old’s cocky grin returned when the engines started in the bowels of the destroyer Laffey. Gerald Bowman never thought he’d feel the rumble again.

The 82-year-old Bowman first stepped aboard the Navy ship in 1950 as a machinist mate, a sailor in charge of making sure its powerful steam engines ran. He sailed her into the Korean War, toiled in the fierce heat and din as shrapnel rattled the hull from shells exploding in the water.

It was a long time ago and neither of them were expected to be around this long. Bowman has advanced heart disease, and the prognosis is not good. He was cautioned by doctors not to make this trip from Arkansas to Patriots Point.

The Laffey, “the ship that would not die,” was dead in the water at the maritime museum on Charleston Harbor before a $9 million state loan in 2009 financed repairs.

There they stood Friday, with a plaque on the deck honoring Bowman’s visit that showed a photo of him as a fresh sailor. The grin in the photo made the old veteran remark, “That was a cocky young man,” and made Kim Billings, his daughter, say, “Still is.”

As Bowman began to clamber down the gangway into the heart of the ship, Billings said that maybe someone should go ahead of him. But he wasn’t waiting.

His shaky walk had steadied when he reached the deck; he had found that 20-year-old again. Only when he reached his hand to pat the top bunk where he slept did the genial, mischievous gleam in his eye disappear. For a moment he looked a little lost.

He choked up speaking and his wet eyes blinked. Billings had to wipe away tears of her own.

Bowman used to sleep on the canvas mat with one leg wrapped around the chain that moored it to the ceiling, to keep him from rolling to the floor in the pitching seas.

He went next to the engine room, where he tapped the big steam pipe with his knuckle, grabbed valve wheels as he passed and reached up a hand to grip the main valve on the ceiling where he used to do one-arm chin-ups. It was like he couldn’t let the old ship go.

Bowman had open heart surgery in 2011 and wasn’t expected to survive. Doctors told Billings her dad would be better off at the hospital. No way, she said; if he’s going to die he’s going to die on my porch. This is the father who cared for her mom for nine years as Alzheimer’s disease overtook her, the dad who was there through Billings’ 10-hour surgery for breast cancer and didn’t budge. He is, she said, one incredible person.

“He never asked for anything,” she said.

Bowman had no idea his old destroyer was still around. Father and daughter were on the couch one night watching a documentary and there was the Laffey at Patriots Point.

“That’s my ship,” he said. And he began to cry. “I’d love to walk her one more time.”

Billings contacted the Dream Foundation, a wish-fulfilling non-profit for adults with life-threatening illnesses. She and the foundation made it happen.

Bowman worked the Laffey’s engine room under bombardment from the Korean shore for 28 straight days. He scraped oil from its steel deck with a wire brush. He volunteered for a team that rowed wooden lifeboats out at night without lights, to push away live mines from the ship’s path for the next day. Why did he do it?

“At 20 years old, you look for adventure. This was adventure,” he said. “It was tough duty, but we had a good time.” Besides, he said, he thought he was bulletproof.

The old veteran still is.

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