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The R.I. Life: Ship tour brings back memories for a World War II gunner from Cranston

By G. Wayne Miller
Providence Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- Melvin Kahn stepped out of his car and with the help of his cane walked onto Conley's Wharf, where an enormous gray ship that seemed to have materialized from a distant past was newly moored. Four-hundred-and-forty-one-feet long, 57-feet wide and of hulking, towering height, the ship owned the waterfront.

Kahn pointed to the stern of SS JOHN W. BROWN, one of only two Liberty ships of the nearly 3,000 built during World War II that survive in seaworthy shape. Most were cut up long ago as scrap or lie at the bottom of an ocean. German submarines found Liberty ships, which moved at a ponderous pace, rewarding and lucrative targets.

"I was a gunner," Kahn said. "My job was right there, as you see it: on the very stern of the ship. I was a gun captain of the five-inch/38."

photograph of Melvin Kahn

Melvin Kahn points to a starboard side bunk, the kind he slept on when he served aboard Liberty ships in the early 1940s. The Providence Journal / Frieda Squires

The weapon fit the image of a gun as remembered from a war movie: a formidable and menacing machine, its precision-bored gray-painted barrel aimed now in the direction of vehicles traveling Interstate 95, on the near horizon. Kahn and his kind operated it from an exposed seat, an ancient concept now in warfare. Today, servicemen in the quiet safety of Air Force bases on U.S. soil pilot drones that kill terrorists on the far side of the planet.

Kahn, a Cranston native and resident, served with the Navy on four Liberty ships, though none of the 11 that were built here in Providence in a shipyard that has disappeared into time. For three years he crossed the Atlantic, over and back, over and back, on ships in convoys that brought fresh equipment and troops to the Allied effort.

He saw depth charges explode and torpedoes fire and fighter planes strafe and ships go down. Some took friends to graves that could never be marked.

"There was a lot of action that I've seen," he said. "Sometimes it gets to you."

It gets to him when he remembers, which he has tried not to for 65 years.

"I wanted to forget," he said.

He had not set foot on a Liberty ship since 1945, when the war ended and he walked ashore with the urgent intent to marry his girlfriend, a young woman his age whom he had met in a Providence movie theater after boot camp in Newport. Kahn, who later made a living in the sheet-metal business, had enlisted one noontime on a break from his first job.

But there he was, about to ascend the gangplank of the BROWN, built in Baltimore in 1942 and operated now as a living museum by Project Liberty Ship, a foundation based in Maryland. He would visit the ship this morning and return two days later with his two sons and four grandchildren for a six-hour cruise. He would likely not have the chance again. Kahn is 86.

"Before I go," he said, "I want to make sure they know what my experience was."

Age slowed his movement but familiarity guided him up the gangplank onto the main deck. He walked steadfastly to the stern, a trip he'd made on much younger legs so many times so long ago. Beneath the gun, he found the quarters where members of the Navy's Armed Guard (which crewed on merchant ships such as the Liberties) had slept, when they could.

George Macey, also 86, a Maryland resident who volunteers on the BROWN, welcomed him. They shook hands.

"Melvin Kahn."

"George Macey."

"How are you, George?"

"We're a dying breed," Macey said, matter-of-factly, correctly.

"Every ship I was on, this was my bunk," Kahn said.

Bottom bed, starboard side.

"Not a good idea," said East Providence's Gerry Greaves, 85, who also crewed on Liberty ships, though not with Kahn. "Everybody steps on you on the way up!"

Kahn nodded agreement and said: "One thing I liked about sailing on Liberty ships: We had a place to sleep with bunks, not hammocks. In the fleet -- the tin cans, the destroyers and all -- they used hammocks. And we had very good food. We got served, which was wonderful." His eyes widened. He remains grateful for these small amenities.

Succumbing to something more powerful and disturbing, his delight quickly passed.

"We were like the suicide squad," Kahn said. "Sitting ducks -- that's exactly what we were. The only thing we had for protection was our guns and the destroyers that circled the convoys. If there were any submarines in the area, what they used to do was throw depth charges. Sometimes, it was in the middle of the convoy and the ship used to lift up 15, 20 feet when the charges went off."

"They rattled the ship, I'll tell you," said Macey.

Kahn left the quarters and advanced up a stairway to the gun deck. Assisted by two men, he made a final ascent to the massive gun itself. He stood, contemplating it.

"Twenty-four hours a day, practically," was his relationship with this death-delivering steel, Kahn said. He and his fellow gunners worked shifts of four-hours on, four off, but their commitment seeped into their down time, such as it was, even when they were not under attack.

"After we got through firing the guns, we had to strip them down and clean them. And when we were not firing them, they still had to be stripped down, because moisture gets in the muzzle."

Not for the first time, he had slipped into speaking in the present tense.

He was asked about the last time he had beheld this gun. It was 1945, and the Germans had surrendered, the Japanese soon following.

"The war was declared over and I got down and I kissed the deck. I actually kissed the deck, I felt so good. I knew I was going to get married. I was engaged for over two years and I had promised my girlfriend I'd marry her after the war. And that's exactly what I did."

Kahn married Mae Woolf, of Providence.

On October 21 they will celebrate 65 years together.

The sun beat down and the Upper Bay smelled of modern industry; on Route 95, the traffic kept flowing.

A crew member held Kahn's cane as the old gunner took his old gunner's seat, in the open air to the left of the weapon. He looked through the sight: metal crosshairs that seemed more yesterday than the ship itself.

"Here's your trigger," the crewman said.

"It brings back memories," Kahn said. "It brings back memories."

Any he would share?

"No," Kahn said, falling silent.

Originally published September 27, 2010, in the Providence (Rhode Island) Journal

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