Joint Base Pearl Harbor-HickamCommunity
For whom the bell tolls
Story by Robert Jackson on 04/01/2019
I’ve been standing watch aboard Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow for almost 20 years, near as I can figure, hardly noticed by those who walk past me every day.
Records say I’ve been here since July 1999, standing in the same place through the hottest days of summer and the coldest days of winter. I’ve been soaked by the occasional rain storm and, every now and again, a little bit of snow.
I’ve watched VIPs come and go the likes of General James L. Jones, 32nd Commandant of the Marine Corps, as well as the 33rd, 34th and 35th commandants. I’ve also caught a glimpse of a couple of Sergeants Major of the Marine Corps like Alford McMichael, John L. Estrada, and Michael P. Barrett. There have been other VIPs coming on board for a visit or tour; almost too many to name.
Haven’t figured out who or what I am yet?
I’m the bell that’s posted at the front entrance to the Base Headquarters, Building 15. Surprised? Do not be, fact is, I’m on loan to MCLB from the Naval Historical Center.
Though I stand barely noticed and barely used these days, you may also be surprised to know that at one time I had a very active career aboard the USS Luzerne County (LST-902).
The Luzerne County was launched in December 1944 and commissioned USS LST 902 in January 1945 at Algiers, La. She was a beauty, displacing 1,625 tons, with a speed of approximately 12 knots, and a compliment of seven officers and 104 enlisted personnel. She could also accommodate 16 officers and 147 enlisted.
We did some time in the South Pacific, after the commissioning, discharging troops and cargo to Saipan, Eniwetok and Okinawa. We even sailed to the Philippines to pick up occupation troops and headed Yokohoma, Japan. After that, the Luzerne County headed to Guam to pick up roughly 600 war veterans before sailing back to the United States. This was accomplished between January and December 1945.
After a short stint in World War II we headed back to San Francisco, via Pearl Harbor and San Diego, only to go through a 3-month overhaul in Portland, Ore., decommissioned in and entered into the Pacific Reserve Fleet in August 1946.
I thought we were finished until the Department of the Navy called upon us again to serve. So in January 1952 the Luzerne County was recommissioned and after completing a shakedown and required training, we headed for the Far East to begin supply runs in support of military operations in Korea.
We continued making supply runs and supporting troop operations in and out of Japanese and South Korean ports until called upon to support the French withdrawal and “Passage to Freedom” operations from North Vietnam, in October 1954.
Wouldn’t you know it? After making a few more supply runs and training missions, in November 1955 the Luzerne County was decommissioned again and relegated to the Pacific Reserve Fleet.
Later, in 1963, we were recommissioned again prior to service with the Atlantic Fleet. We were ordered to Little Creek, Va., to train Naval Reserve units for the rest of 1963 and throughout 1964. Sometime in 1965 we joined naval operating forces to help stabilize a crisis in the Dominican Republic.
Not long after that we were reassigned to duty in the Pacific to support naval operations in Southeast Asia. We departed Norfolk in January 1966, transited the Panama Canal, made a couple of other stops before arriving in Saigon in April. We off-loaded an LCU (Landing Craft Utility), before steaming to Da Nang the next day.
Operations for us were constant, almost non-stop, throughout our time in Vietnam. From delivering military stores from Okinawa for delivery to ports in South Vietnam, to hauling cement from Taiwan to Phan Rang, to rescuing a grounded merchant ship or two off the reefs. We did it all until having to sail to Sasebo for repairs and overhaul. Upon completion of the repairs we spent the remainder of the year hauling supplies to Vietnam from Taiwan and Okinawa. We continued to perform these duties until 1969 when the inevitable happened; decommissioned for the final time.
Now that you know where I originated from let me explain what my function is according to naval tradition:
Before the advent of the chronometer, time at sea was measured by the trickle of sand through a half – hour glass. One of the ship’s boys had the duty of watching the glass and turning it when the sand had run out. When he turned the glass, he struck the bell as a signal that he had performed this vital function. From this ringing of the bell as the glass was turned evolved the tradition of striking the bell once at the end of the first half hour of a four hour watch, twice after the first hour, etc., until eight bells marked the end of the four hour watch. The process was repeated for the succeeding watches. This age-old practice of sounding the bell on the hour and half hour has its place in the nuclear and missile oriented United States Navy at the dawn of the Twenty-First Century, regulating daily routine, just as it did on our historic vessels under sail in the late Eighteenth Century.
Safety and communication
The sounding of a ship’s bell found a natural application as a warning signal to other vessels in poor visibility and fog. In 1676 one Henry Teonage serving as a chaplain in the British Mediterranean Fleet recorded, “so great a fog that we were fain to ring our bells, beat drums, and fire muskets often to keep us from falling foul one upon another.” Ringing a ship’s bell in fog became customary. In 1858, British Naval Regulations made it mandatory in that function. Today, maritime law requires all ships to carry an efficient bell.
Navy ceremonies and events
The bell is used to signal the presence of important persons. When the ship’s captain, a flag officer, or other important person arrives or departs, watch standers make an announcement to the ship and ring the bell. This tradition extends to major naval command transitions, often held aboard vessels associated with the command.
Bells in religious ceremonies
The bell’s connection to religious origins continues. Originating in the British Royal Navy, it is a custom to baptize a child under the ship’s bell; sometimes the bell is used as a christening bowl, filled with water for the ceremony. Once the baptism is completed, the child’s name may be inscribed inside the bell. The bell remains with the ship while in service and with the Department of the Navy after decommissioning. In this way, an invisible tie is created between the country, the ship and its citizens. Bells have been loaned or provided to churches as memorials to those vessels; this practice has been discontinued in favor of displaying bells with namesake states or municipalities, with museums, and with naval commands and newer namesake vessels.
Maintenance and upkeep
Traditionally, the bell is maintained by the ship’s cook, while the ship’s whistle is maintained by the ship’s bugler. In actual practice, the bell is maintained by a person of the ship’s division charged with the upkeep of that part of the ship where the bell is located. In such a case a deck seaman or quartermaster striker or signalman striker may have the bell-shining duty.
Back to me, the bell of USS Luzerne County
There you have it; where I came from and traditionally what my function is. As mentioned in the beginning I have been here since 1999. As I recall, the last time anyone heard my ring was during a memorial service honoring those first responders and people we lost during the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Since then I’ve been silent. Still standing watch. Still weathering the heat and cold. Awaiting another time to sound off.
Editor’s note: Information for this article was obtained from the Naval Historical Center at https://www.history.navy.mil/