U.S.S. Walker

                                      Walkers Last Days


Francis "Hank" Nee
United States Navy

 

Walkers Last Days
By Bill Cochrell

The mighty Walker DD 517, a liberty ship, was built during war time to break the back of the Axis naval might. While she and her crews felt the threat and power of the Japanese navy, she never backed down. She always protected her crew and was never subdued. However, in the spring of 1969, a foreign language rang through the Walker as foreign boots trod her decks, boots made in Europe and worn by sailors of a former Axis power.

DD 517 had recently returned to her former home port of San Diego from Pearl Harbor after her third tour in Viet Nam. The US Navy was under orders to reduce its fleet by more than 100 ships. In San Diego, most of the crew received orders and left the ship. Twenty sailors stayed behind to assist with the transfer of Walker to the Italian navy, Walker being one of nine destroyers to be sold to foreign nations over a period of seven months. Her sale price: $150,000. The Italians would call her Fante.

I am Bill Cochrell, EM2, one of the twenty. The first problem brought to me by my counterparts was one of acquisition. Where could they get some low-cost Italian red to have with lunch and dinner? It was not quite suited to their palate or pocket book, but they made do with Gallo Burgundy. How strange it was to see wine jugs being passed around Walkers mess deck or out on the fan tail during lunch. While the Americans were sorely tempted during meals, and nobody would have minded, we followed the American rules - mostly. I do not speak Italian and I knew of only one Italian, an officer, who spoke English and spoke it quite well.

The language barrier was not so great when talking shop with the sailors. Volts are volts and amperes are amperes. "Alimentation" was finally explained to me via arithmetic: V x A = Power, alimentation. The language was an impediment when discussing outside interests. The barrier was too great to really get to know these guys in a short time. This was exacerbated by another incident.

The IC board was tripping a breaker with a flashing boom. When the Italians asked for help here, I tagged out the breaker for the IC board in two languages and investigated the board with a flash light. I found some insulating bakelite was charred creating a short. I pulled my head out of the board so the officer could get in to see the problem. The explosion burned my forearm holding the flashlight inside, and singed the hair on the Italians head. A half second later, and he would have been blinded. I am not proud of my reaction, though I am sure it was not the first time that the Walker had experienced THIS language. I was ready to take on the entire Italian crew, but could not see through the dark room and the sky rockets in my eyes. From this day forward, they would not let me touch a tool. I had to instruct step by step but "do not do". That is tough for a mechanic. We never found out who or what energized the tagged breaker. Was it an Italian? Was Walker expressing herself?

Finally came the sea trials and the Americans got to watch their trainees perform. We knew we were not ready for battle conditions, and were grateful that no serious emergencies arose. Think about directing damage control without language control, and this to a crew that had wine for lunch. We returned to port that evening at sun down and while tying up, got a little too cozy with the Taylor. Her anchor ripped a hole in our bow.

The last American crew leaves the Walker via the Taylor quarterdeck Having just come from the gun line in Viet Nam, I figured that this was more dangerous than the war zone. I put in a chit for hazardous duty pay citing the wine, language and damage control, the board incident and the anchor incident. I heard that my superiors got a kick out of it and later learned that it was not an Italian in command on the bridge during docking. It was our own Lt. McCloskey. Hmmm. Was the ship being expressive again?

The day for the decommissioning ceremony arrived and the Italians practiced manning the rails that morning. Their petty officer stood on a shed roof on the pier behind the chairs for the audience. On his signal all the sailors were to remove their hats simultaneously. No matter how many times they tried, the hats were haphazard. The solution: The petty officer drilled them one at a time to take their hats off together. 

The 517 flying the Italian colorsThe last American crew leaves the Walker via the Taylor quarterdeck. I wished our Italian counterparts fair sailing that day. I think they are good men and the Walker found a good home. I would much rather see that proud old war horse put to good use than see her sent to the scrap heap or rusting away in moth balls. I sometimes wonder where the Fante has sailed since leaving San Diego and has she come to rest? My minds eye sees the 517 cruising the blue Mediterranean, shivering in rainy English or German waters, or docked in a sunny African port still ready for any sacrifice. If my mind's eye does not see accurately, it is because I do not wish to see the Walker in any other way.
The 517 flying the Italian colors.

Author's Notes:
1. This link, http://www.marina.difesa.it/navi/elenco.htm , indicates that neither the Fante nor the Lanciere is commissioned in the Italian Navy.
2. Some information taken from US News and World Report, Feb. 2, 1970.