'Friends last a lifetime. But shipmates are forever'
As Veterans Day nears, the daughter of a World War II sailor learns
about a ship -- and what it means to her father and his crewmates.
By Debbie Garlicki Of The Morning Call
When I was a child, the large horizontal photograph of a gray ship
slicing through gray waters hung on the basement wall near the wash
basins where my father, much to my mother's dismay, gutted trout.
The photo aroused my curiosity, but I never asked about it.
Grade school, junior high and high school came and went. So did
college. I moved from Pittsburgh to begin a career on the other side of
The photo of the USS Enright DE-216 and my childhood stayed behind.
It would be almost 40 years before I'd understand the small part the
ship played in a big war and the enduring role she had in the life of my
father and his shipmates.
And why he carried a faded photograph of her, like a lover, wife or
child, in his wallet.
Mystery of the map
When the country called the Garlicki residence in the Polish enclave
of Lawrenceville, it didn't get a busy signal.
My grandfather had fought in World War I; my father and one of his
brothers were in the Navy; two other brothers served in the Marine Corps
and Air Force during the Korean War; and another brother was in the
My father knew military service was inevitable. A strong swimmer who
loved water and wanted to travel, he joined the Navy. That same day, his
draft papers for the Army arrived in the mail.
Grandma liked to tell the story of how she knew where my father was
during the 38 months he was a sailor.
They devised an ingenious plan. Before my father left for places he
had only read about in history books, he and my grandmother sat down
with a map and numbered places where they thought he might travel. The
number "1" would be Hawaii, "2" the Philippines, "3" Africa and so on.
When my father later wrote to his mother, he would include clues to
his whereabouts. "Wish Aunt Mary happy birthday on the 10th," he would
Grandma would consult the map, look for 10 and take some comfort in
having a general knowledge of her son's location.
Time passed, and Grandma sold her house and moved to an apartment and
then a nursing facility. She died in 1998, and her belongings were sold
and distributed among family.
We don't know what happened to the map. But my father still has a
white Navy cap and a P coat embroidered with a dragon in Shanghai.
Sailors once more
In 1994, my father excitedly told me in a telephone conversation
about an invitation he received in the mail. After more than 48 years,
the crew of the destroyer escort Enright was having a reunion in
"Are you going?" I asked.
He seemed surprised that I would even ask.
Of course he was going.
He wondered if Louie Mahr, Ivan McCombs, Steve Myers and the rest of
the crew would be there. I could tell he was eagerly awaiting the June
My father was one of 42 men who traveled from all over the country
for the event. He told me how they laughed about the old times, talked
about their lives after the war and shared memories of their trips to
Northern Ireland, the Mediterranean, Tokyo Bay and China.
In civilian life, they were dentists, lawyers, carpenters, plumbers,
cranemen, mail handlers. For the four-day reunion, they were sailors,
one and all.
How good it was, my father said, to see Louie, Ivan, Steve and the
The significance of the occasion ranked up there with a wedding or a
Already, Dad was looking forward to next year.
It must be like anticipating a high school reunion, I thought. How
wrong I was.
Giant in the fog
Two weeks later, the telephone rang in my apartment.
"Debbie, this is Louie Mahr," the caller said.
Why was that name familiar? Then I remembered: Louie. Louie from the
"Louie, how are you? Where are you?" I asked.
"I'm in Whitehall," Mahr said.
I almost dropped the phone.
For 12 years, I had lived only a few miles from one of my father's
best friends from the Navy. And none of us knew it.
Mahr said he had seen my name in bylines in the paper. He mentioned
to his wife, "I was in the Navy with a guy named Garlicki from
Pittsburgh." He wondered if we were related. Probably not, said his
wife, Joan, because Pittsburgh's pretty far away.
At the reunion, my father told Mahr that his daughter worked for a
newspaper, The Morning Call in Allentown. Louie was shocked. He told my
father how close he lived to Allentown and how he always wondered if the
Garlicki in the byline was connected to his old Navy buddy.
Mahr invited me to his house to watch a videotape of the reunion.
Blue eyes twinkling, he told me about the day in April 1944 when a
Portuguese merchant ship struck the small but stout Enright.
The Enright was escorting a convoy from Ireland when radar and sonar
alerted the crew something was amiss.
Cloaked in fog in the Atlantic Ocean, the Enright turned to try to
avoid a collision but was rammed port side about 300 miles from New York
The merchant ship ripped a 64-foot hole in the 306-foot ship, peeling
away metal as if it were a sardine can.
"When that thing came out of the fog, it looked like a giant coming
at us because they sit high in the water compared to the destroyer
escort. I said an Act of Contrition," Mahr said. "I thought that might
Anybody, he said, who tries to say he wasn't afraid that day is
The ship lost one man, Carl Mims, who fell or was knocked overboard.
In the chaos that followed, Mahr was on deck with my father when he
saw something floating away from the ship. "Chester," he told my father,
"there goes your accordion."
My father's mouth hung open when he saw his squeezebox in its case
bobbing in the waves. It had escaped through the massive hole.
Then my father pointed to something else in the water.
"Louie, there goes your trumpet," my father said, as Mahr saw his
trumpet and case following the accordion.
On board ship, Mahr and my father would entertain their mates by
playing polkas and songs such as "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" to
lift their spirits and remind them of loved ones.
As Mahr told me more about their experiences, I wondered what it was
like seeing each other after almost five decades. Joan Mahr remembered
the moment well.
Arriving for the first reunion, Louis Mahr entered the hotel lobby.
My father was sitting by the door. "
He recognized me right away after all those years," Mahr said.
"Louie!" my father exclaimed. "Chester!" Mahr called.
The men ran to each other and hugged.
"That's the first time I saw grown men cry," Joan Mahr said.
Ivan McCombs of Wheeling, W.Va., entered the lobby and was overcome
by seeing his old friends. He forgot about his wife, who was sitting in
the car outside.
"They always say, "Friends last a lifetime,"' Mahr told me. "But
shipmates are forever."
I was beginning to understand.
'Like kids again'
The men opened mental time capsules at that first reunion. They
decided to make it an annual event.
One of the most memorable ones was in 2003 in Albany, N.Y., where
they climbed aboard the restored USS Slater DE-766, the last of 563
destroyer escorts of World War II that remains afloat in the United
McCombs' wife, Alma Jean, remembers how history was rewound that day.
"When the guys got on the ship, they immediately went to their old
positions," she said.
Ernie Cox, of Mauldin, S.C., who had trouble walking, left his
daughter wide-eyed when he slid down a handrail to the lower deck. "It
was amazing," Alma Jean McCombs said. "They were like kids again."
At reunions in New Jersey in 1996 and Virginia in 1999, Mahr and my
father pulled out their instruments and played tunes that took crew
members back to the Enright.
Back to being 18 years old. Young, vital, seemingly invincible.
Embarking on adventures with strangers to unknown places from which
return wasn't guaranteed.
Planning a surprise
Epiphanies come without warning. When they do, they knock you
In 2004, on a return trip to Allentown from Pittsburgh, I told my
husband I thought it was time I go to one of the Enright reunion
Maybe it was my father turning 80. Maybe it was my own middle age.
Whatever the reason, I felt an urgency to do this before it was too
late. How many more reunions would there be? I asked myself. How many
more reunions would my father be able to attend?
I would go, I decided. And I wouldn't tell him. I'd surprise him by
showing up at the banquet.
He would know that I understood -- finally -- what the Enright and
her men meant to him.
The men organizing the reunion in New London, Conn., near Mystic
Seaport, pledged to keep the secret.
As September approached, I envisioned a Hallmark moment and my
father's face when I walked into the room.
Hurricane Ivan had other plans.
An empty chair
I was packed and ready to go when I got a telephone call from
shipmate Albert Green in Connecticut. My father, he said, wasn't able to
make it to the reunion.
Amtrak Train 42 out of Pittsburgh couldn't depart because of flooding
on the tracks in Harrisburg. I was beyond disappointed and debated
whether I should still go to the banquet.
"Go," my husband said. "Do it for yourself. Do it for your dad. Do it
for the guys."
Heavy-hearted, I drove toward New London. Signs flashed by on
Interstates 287 and 95.
Checking in at the hotel, I asked where the hospitality room was for
the Enright reunion. I had heard that the men gathered there before they
got ready for the banquet.
I walked shyly into the room and announced who I was. The men warmly
greeted me and shook my hand. They expressed their sorrow at my father's
absence, but their gratitude that he had sent "his representative."
Mirth and reminiscing filled the banquet room.
Mike Crosby of Hancock, Maine, a communications officer on the
Enright, articulated his feelings about this, his first, reunion and the
shared emotion. "We," he told those assembled, "are a team. The officers
give orders, but it's the crew that makes things happen. I had a great
experience on the Enright.
"The whole thing for all of us was special because it was a justified
war. It was one that had to be fought.
"The Enright didn't win the war, but she helped, and it felt good."
After the Allied invasions of D-Day, the Enright escorted troops from
New York to Cherbourg on the Normandy coast.
The Enright was in jeopardy more than once.
At the reunion, the men remembered how the ship almost didn't make it
into New York after her scrape with the merchant ship. She listed at a
12-degree slant into the harbor, where she stayed in dry dock for 30
She was supposed to be headed for Normandy. The USS Rich DE-695 went
instead. The Rich struck a mine, an explosion blew off her stern and she
sank. Of her crew, 27 were killed, 73 wounded and 62 listed as missing.
Mahr remembered a night in June 1945 when Japanese aircraft dropped
four bombs that barely missed the Enright.
The 15 men who attended this reunion were thankful that fate or faith
spared their ship. They knew, however, that the Enright was battling
another enemy -- time -- and was continuing to lose her crew to it.
After dinner, attention turned to a small round table with an empty
seat. Atop the white linen tablecloth were a red rose in a vase, an
inverted glass and a folded napkin. A candle flickered.
The empty chair represented shipmates who had died. The rose was in
their memory. The memorial service started. The men, their wives and
their grown children bowed their heads in prayer.
"Lord, these shipmates were part of a ship that was the best. Make
them welcome and take them by the hand. You'll find without a doubt they
were the best in the land. ... Let them know that we who survive will
always keep their memory alive.
" Ivan McCombs read the names of shipmates who had died in the last
year. One of them was Paul Bielinski of Mount Marion, N.Y., who
spearheaded the first reunion. After each name was read, Albert Green of
Hackensack, N.J., rang a bell.
One went off in my head. I understood why my father cherished the
reunions, the unshakable loyalty of these men and how not even death
could break the connection they forged during war and rediscovered
Sailors, dogs: Keep off grass
In the hospitality room after the banquet, the shipmates traded
stories. I learned more about them and about my father. It was a rare
opportunity to see a different side of him. Children, both growing or
grown, don't think much about the lives their parents had before them.
Long before these men became husbands, fathers and grandfathers, they
were part of another family.
The ship with its 198 crewmen and 15 officers was a self-contained
city. It was a home on water for men who depended on each other for
"You broke down in the middle of the ocean, nobody could fix you but
yourselves," said Green, who wears a "plank owner" pin on his Enright
baseball cap, a distinction for the original crew.
Their memories are of sounds, smells, tastes, sights.
Mahr remembered steering inside the quartermaster shack when my
father, who was a cook, delivered coffee for the grateful lookouts on
the bridge. "It was strong," Mahr said, "but it kept you awake."
They drank coffee and caught up on ship gossip.
"He was like a news reporter," Mahr said of my father.
"He knew everything that was going on on the ship."
The men laughed about "flying fish" that would jump on the deck and
remembered the playfulness of dolphins that swam alongside the ship.
Although serving in the Navy enriched their lives, it didn't fatten
their waistlines or their wallets.
"We would lose 10 pounds at sea," Green laughed. "But we would make
up for it at port."
John Seila of Broomall, Delaware County, weighed 135 pounds when he
left the Navy.
Mahr, who was 17 when he enlisted, said they made $77 a month.
When the sea tossed the ship, my father couldn't cook, so the crew
ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The men said they can still
taste the crackers that replaced bread, which got moldy too quickly,
boiled potatoes, corn pone and mystery meat they called hot dogs.
Ketchup was rationed for civilians, but sailors could get all they
wanted. Albert Green still loves ketchup.
Ivan McCombs' favorite memory was his first night at sea. There was
no bunk for him, so he laid his bed roll in the mess hall. McCombs, who
grew up on a 160-acre dairy farm where he still lives, had never seen
"I was scared to death," he said. He eventually fell into a restless
sleep that was interrupted by an angry sea. Stainless steel lunch trays
that had not been secured slid off shelves and startled him awake.
Willard Evans of Nutley, N.J., who has faded tattoos of an eagle, an
American flag, an anchor and "USN" on his left forearm, remembered the
booming sound the ship would make when it reared out of the water in
violent storms and slammed down "like a sledgehammer."
Mahr said he will never forget the fetid smell of the Yangtze River
in China that was a depository for all manner of waste.
Recalling rowdier times, their faces took on a youthful exuberance.
"Did your dad tell you," Mahr asked, "that in Norfolk, Va., people
had signs on their property -- "Sailors and dogs keep off the grass?"'
Steve Myers, of Cleveland remembered sleeping on beaches when he was
on liberty. Bob Frye of Albany, N.Y., recalled drinking with Mahr and my
father, losing track of time and missing a bus to the ship.
The 2004 reunion hadn't even ended when Green announced the 2005
destination would be in Lancaster. "We're here, and we hope we can
continue," he said. "Of course, it's up to us and how we feel, our
health, next year. But we'll go on as long as we can."
Before the reunion ended, the men and their wives signed "missing
you" cards for shipmates who weren't able to attend.
'He was our savior'
At September's banquet in Bird-in-Hand, Ivan McCombs stood before 12
shipmates. The piece of paper in his hand shook slightly. "
A lot of our crew are having physical difficulties," he said, his
voice quavering. He went down the list.
A regular attendee had leg problems and couldn't travel. Another
broke his hip and was in a rehabilitation facility. A shipmate who used
to come to the reunions and push his wife in a wheelchair had a broken
arm and a hip replacement. Prostate cancer and a wife's death prevented
someone else from coming. A crew member with Alzheimer's disease was in
a nursing home. Yet another had an eye operation and was thinking of
moving from his home. Eleven others were unaccounted for.
"I guess most of you know that Harry Wingers passed away," said
McCombs, a hitch in his voice.
Wingers, of Milwaukee, died a week before the banquet.
Gale Dobson, of Boyers, Butler County, who was attending his first
reunion with his wife of 58 years and his daughter, lightened the mood
by quipping, "You guys haven't aged."
He said he hopes to return. "If the good Lord's willing and the
creeks don't rise, I'll be at the next one," he said. "I had a lot of
fun, fellas. Been nice seeing you again."
McCombs, who hasn't missed a reunion, was optimistic but realistic.
"It's been a good run," he said. "I don't know how long we can keep it
For the 12th year in a row, the bell tolled for the dead.
McCombs walked to the table where no one sat, cupped his hand around
the flame and gently blew out the candle.
It was time for me to tell them a story. When my husband and I were
in Ireland in 2001, we were at a medieval dinner with a large group of
tourists from Holland who were having a fine time, no doubt fueled in
part by copious amounts of mead.
My husband left the table. Upon his return, he said he had a chat
with one of them about World War II. The man said he had been in the
Dutch resistance. My husband told him that my father served on the
As we were leaving Bunratty Castle, the man approached me, grabbed my
arm and looked earnestly into my eyes. "Tell your father thanks, he was
our savior," he said.
The Washington, D.C., monument to World War II veterans stands as a
testament to the country's gratitude. But kind words from strangers
often speak loudest.
McCombs said people will sometimes walk into the hospitality room at
the reunions and say simply, "Thanks."
"Chokes you up," he said.
A photograph in a wallet
As the reunion ended, the men said their goodbyes and told one last
Ann Kelly, wife of shipmate Tom Kelly of Yorktown, Va., chuckled.
"The stories change a little bit every year."
And every year, the stories provoke as much laughter as when they
were first told.
Ann Kelly looked at the men who were patting each other on the back
and hugging. "They grew up together," she said. "They went in as boys
and came out men."
My father pulled out his wallet and showed John Seila a photograph of
the Enright encased in a crinkled plastic sleeve.
George Driscoll, the brother of late shipmate Frank Driscoll of
Hoosick Falls, N.Y., had given it to my father after Frank died.
"Manila Harbor, P.I." had been scrawled on the back.
Below, George Driscoll had written: "4/25/98 Chester, Frank carried
this picture in his wallet for years. He would want me to give it to
you. That ship was his pride. That is Frank's handwriting above."
Steve Myers then pulled a less sentimental object from his wallet.
The men howled. It was a card that said, "Gone to P. Please leave my
drink alone. This card compliments of a former DE [destroyer escort]
Myers uses it at his local VFW club.
In the motel lobby, Tom Kelly and Ivan McCombs started planning next
year's reunion in West Virginia.
Scrapped, not forgotten
Time turned hair to silver. It wrinkled skin and weakened bones.
Mahr lost the sight in his left eye and can't play the trumpet
anymore because of an arterial operation. "I can't even play taps," he
Macular degeneration, an incurable eye condition, prevents my father
from reading the Destroyer Escort Sailors Association newspaper.
They have their good days and their bad days. At times, they mourn
the losses, but they wake each day, thankful for what they have.
Destiny dealt a crueler blow to the gray lady that provided shelter
from the storms and became a vessel for lifelong friendships. In 1978,
the Enright was stricken from the U.S. Navy Register. She was scrapped
or, as one history of American ships puts it, "deleted" in 1989.
No obituary was written, no eulogies spoken.
The shipmates know that it doesn't matter where the parts were
scattered. Having left an indelible mark on the men and their
descendants, the Enright and her spirit live on.
"Three years, three months and 23 days in Uncle Sam's Navy," said
McCombs, who remembers those numbers as well as his Social Security
number. "It burns in your memory."
USS ENRIGHT DE-216
Named after Robert Paul Francis Enright of Bradford in McKean County,
Pa., a 25-year-old ensign killed when his destroyer was sunk in the
Battle of Midway on June 6, 1942. Buckley Class Destroyer Escort
Size: 306 feet long by 36 feet 10 inches wide
Displacement (weight): 1,400 tons unloaded, 1,740 tons full
Speed: 24 knots
Crew: 198 men, 15 officers
Christened on May 29, 1943, at Philadelphia Navy Yard.
Commissioned on Sept. 21, 1943.
Received one battle star for World War II service.
Reclassified APD-66 on Jan. 21, 1945, converted to high-speed troop
transport at the Boston Navy Yard.
Decommissioned on June 21, 1946.
Transferred to Ecuador on July 14, 1967.
Renamed escort destroyer "25 de Julio" (E-12).
Stricken from U.S. Navy Register on March 31, 1978.
Scrapped in 1989.
Sources: "Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships,"