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Final Voyage of a Legend: It's Mothballs for Mighty Mo : Navy: The 48-year-old battleship will be decommissioned at a ceremony Tuesday. Its captain is retiring at the same time.

March 26, 1992|CHARLES HILLINGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONG BEACH — Old Glory flew from atop the mast of the USS Missouri for the last time Tuesday morning as the 48-year-old battleship made its final voyage before being taken out of service officially next week.

It was a short trip, less than a mile from Pier 6 at the Long Beach Naval Station to Pier Echo at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard on Terminal Island.

One tug pulled and two tugs kept the huge, 46,500-ton ship (its empty weight) on course during the hourlong maneuver.

The Naval Shipyard pier will be able to accommodate a larger crowd expected to be on hand at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday when the "Mighty Mo," the last active battleship, will be retired--"decommissioned." Next Thursday, the 887-foot-long ship--almost three football fields in length--will be pulled out of Long Beach by tug for a weeklong trip to Bremerton, Wash., where it will be placed in the Navy's West Coast mothball fleet.

"If world events hadn't changed, the Missouri would still be in service. But a ship of this size with its huge manpower--a crew of more than 1,500--is no longer practical, at least for now," said Capt. Albert L. Kaiss, 51, skipper of the historic dreadnought.

"I'm the last battleship captain in the world," Kaiss said. "There are no more active battleships. Next Tuesday I will be the last person to walk off the Missouri when she's decommissioned."

The "Mighty Mo" will be a ghost ship. No one will be aboard as the vessel is towed up the Pacific Coast through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound to the bedroom for inactive Navy ships at Bremerton.

"Some have petitioned the Navy to leave the Missouri here in Long Beach, her home port, but that's impossible," Kaiss said. "Bremerton happens to be the West Coast's inactive ship facility where special care is provided mothballed vessels."

The battleship and the captain are retiring at the same time. "I've had the ultimate command, the absolute premier Cadillac of Navy ships, not once but twice," Kaiss said. He was commander of the Missouri when it was modernized and returned to active duty in 1986 as part of President Ronald Reagan's military buildup. Kaiss was assigned to the "Mighty Mo" again as skipper in June, 1990.

"Many ghosts walk this ship. Douglas MacArthur, Chester Nimitz, 'Bull' Halsey stood here on Sept. 2, 1945, when the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allied Powers, bringing World War II to an end," Kaiss noted as he stood next to a plaque embedded in the ship's teak deck marking the spot of the surrender.

The Missouri, the last battleship built by the United States, was launched in 1944 at the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard. It provided gunfire support at Iwo Jima and Okinawa during World War II, bombarded the coast of Korea during the Korean War and then was decommissioned in 1955.

Thirty-one years later the battleship was recommissioned and sailed around the world on a shakedown cruise.

Kaiss sailed the Missouri to the Persian Gulf, arriving Jan. 3, 1991, and remaining until March 21. "We fired 783 16-inch salvos and 28 Tomahawk missiles at the Iraqis. I'm proud of every sailor who served with me during the Persian Gulf War. We came home with the same number of people we left with and none of our personnel was injured," he noted. "Now we're part of the history of this great ship."

Vernon Walker, 35, a 16-year Navy veteran, has been on the Missouri three years. "You bet I'm going to miss this ship," he said. "There are traditions here--the wooden decks, the 16-inch guns and much much more--that will no longer be part of the Navy."

The battleship's internal spaces have been secured, the ammunition and fuel removed, the steam lines and pipes drawn down, said Cmdr. Larry Doong, 37, the ship's chief engineer. "We'll do a final inspection (today) and Friday, then the decommissioning on Tuesday and she's on her way to the graveyard at Bremerton.

"It hurts. It's sad. Our hearts are not in it. We sure hate to see this ship put to sleep. . . ."

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