I’ve never been a big reunion-goer, making only a few of my high school and college class get-togethers over the years.
But I made one exception: the annual reunions of crew members of the USS Sproston, which I was assigned to after graduating from the naval Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., in the spring of 1959.
The Sproston was a converted World War II Fletcher class destroyer specially equipped to detect and sink enemy submarines. Since it was peacetime, we didn’t actually sink any, but we spent a lot of time training to do so.
Based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the Sproston was part of Destroyer Squadron 25, known as the “Pineapple Fleet.” Hawaii was a paradise, of course, but other regions of the Pacific demanded our attention. Deployments to the Western Pacific lasted six months or more, and I made two of them during my nearly three years aboard the Sproston.
Various ports of call in Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and, best of all, Hong Kong (which was the essence of the Orient to me) were the highlights of a WestPac cruise.
Sproston was commissioned in May of 1943, and saw action in the Aleutian Islands and the Southwest Pacific. She fought during the invasions of the Philippines and Okinawa, earning five battle stars during the war.
After seeing action in two other wars – Korea and Vietnam – and earning four more battle stars, the Sproston was decommissioned in 1968 and sold for scrap. It was a sad ending for such a gallant ship.
But hundreds of her former crew members remained, and they constituted the Sproston Reunion Group. We gathered every September in cities across the nation to tell sea stories (usually the same ones over and over) and renew old friendships. A portion of these men were my shipmates, an ancient word denoting a relationship that no landlubber can ever understand.
But over the years the Grim Reaper took its toll of these men, and the reunion group dwindled in size. Fewer hotels expressed any interest in hosting us. Our reunion in Kansas City last month was the final muster.
Doug (there were two Dougs in the Sproston wardroom) and Al were there, both of whom went on to command their own destroyers. Ray, the “gun boss” on the Sproston, also showed up. Jim, my third executive officer who made vice admiral – the group’s ranking member — was there as well, along with J.J. and Jerry. I served with several other officers, but most of them are gone now.
Our ship and its reunion group are history, but the memories linger on: the glorious sunrises and sunsets at sea; the battering typhoons that Sproston miraculously managed to survive; a Midwesterner’s wonder at the vastness of the ocean; the sad departures and the happy returns, and the camaraderie of shipboard life; a young man’s introduction to the mysterious East; the sight of destroyers, “the greyhounds of the sea,” slicing through the ocean at 20 knots or more; the pride we took in being a vital component of the mighty Seventh Fleet that helped keep the peace during the Cold War.
As the old song goes, they can’t take that away from me.
Doug Kneibert is a former editor of the Sedalia Democrat.