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Trail-Plus - January 21, 1994

Launching of a Legacy


Lennie Bemiss and her husband, Bob, are in San Diego, Calif., today, to watch as a guided-missile frigate -- the USS England-- is decommissioned.

What enemy ships and hostile aircraft couldn't accomplish, the United States government has done: The 30-year-old ship has be- come a victim of military cutbacks.

The ship was originally built by the Todd Shipyards Corporation in San Pedro, Calif., in 1962. The company is the same shipyard responsible for constructing the famed Monitor during the Civil War more than a century ago.

It is the second Navy ship to carry the name USS England. For Bemiss, the decommissioning signals the end of an era. But for the Estes Park woman, her family; and the U.S. Navy, the legacy will continue.

The story of the USS England begins on an island in the Pacific Ocean in 1941.

When John England woke that particular Sunday morning, he was filled with anticipation. In just a few days his wife was due to arrive in Hawaii for a long-awaited visit. But that wasn't the only reason he was excited. She was bringing his 3-week-old daughter -- a daughter he had never seen.

So that he would have more time to spend with his family during their visit, England -- a U.S. Navy ensign -- offered to work in the ship's radio room that day for a friend.

The date was Dec. 7, 1941. England's ship was the USS Oklahoma and it was moored in Pearl Harbor.

Just as England was destined never to meet his daughter, Victoria, he would
also miss his 21st birthday on Dec. 11, 1941.

He died trying to save others

Having successfully rescued three of his shipmates immediately after the Oklahoma was hit by Japanese torpedoes in the attack on Pearl Harbor,
he returned to the radio room. England never made it topside to the deck again.

It would be nine days before the ensign's family in Alhambra, Calif., would learn of his death.

Bemiss, his sister, was a junior in high school at the time.

While England received no special commendations for his rescue efforts on the USS Oklahoma, ultimately he received the highest honor that can be awarded posthu mously to a Naval officer. In 1943 a destroyer escort, DE-
635, was christened the USS England, honoring the young ensign's memory.

At the time the ship was launched, only nine destroyers had ever been named to honor Navy officers. All but England were admirals.

Bemiss' mother, Thelma, cracked the ceremonial bottle of champagne
against the ship's bow in San Francisco Harbor on Sept. 26, 1943.

Bemiss served as the maid of honor.

She still treasures the remnants of the ribbon-wrapped bottle she saved after the ceremony.

Ship sinks six subs in 12 days

During World War II -- with only 10 weeks' sea experience and a ship wherein only 20 percent of its crew had ever stood on deck before-- the 306-foot England was to earn its place in Naval history by destroying six Japanese submarines in 12 days.
     'There will always be an England in the United States Navy.'

       -- Adm. Ernest J. King Chief of U.S. Naval Operations in 1944

It was one of the smallest fighting ships in the Navy.

Lennie Bemiss displays a book telling the story of the original USS England DE-635

The record is one that has never been challenged.

Naval authorities credit the wily talents of the ship's officers and crew, along with their new-fangled hedgehog missiles, for the success - of the mission.

Armed with three 3-inch 50'caliber guns; three 21-inch triple torpedo tubes; 40-millimeter anti-aircraft batteries; and depth charges, the England wiped out an entire submarine scouting line set by Admiral Soemic Tayoda, commander of the Japanese fleet in the Philippines.

It was one of the most important scouting lines of the war in the Pacific. As a consequence, as Tayoda maneuvered his forces to try and outguess the U.S. Navy, he failed to receive communications which might have made the difference between victory and defeat in the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

After its monumental feat in May 1944, Fleet Adm. Ernest J. King, then Chief of Naval Operation's, sent a message to the ship that read, "There will always be an; England in the United States Navy."

Crippled by bomber May 9, 1945

A year later, however, during the allied campaign in Okinawa, the USS England was ambushed by three Japanese Val dive bombers.

All of them had their sights set on DE-635.

The first plane was quite a distance ahead of the others. And while the ship's guns succeeded in knocking off a wheel, killing one of the pilots and setting its engine on fire, the plane struck the ship under the bridge on the starboard side of the superstructure.

A bomb on the plane shot through the ship to explode, creating a tremendous fire. Flames instantaneously enveloped the ship's bridge.

All of the visible fires were extinguished within 45 minutes. Internal flames in less accessible compartments, however, burned for many hours.

In all, 24 enlisted men and three officers were killed in the attack. 10
men were missing and 25 more were listed as wounded.

Crippled, the ship crept into Kerama Retto late that night and repairs began the next day.

The England remained at Okinawa until May 22, when she sailed for Leyte with the battleship Colorado and destroyer Bebas.

Along the way, the repair ship USS Dixie provided emergency aid, and the England then continued on to Philadelphia.

She arrived in port July 16, 1945.

Once back in friendly waters~ the England was scheduled for conversion to a high-speed transport, but the war ended and the ship was decommissioned Oct. 15, 1945.

She was stricken from the Naval registry two weeks later.

The USS England DE-635 was eventually scrapped, but part of her bridge was preserved and placed at the Naval Academy Museum.

Because of its meritorious vice, the USS England received another elite honor: the Presidential Unit Citation for Heroic Service.

Seventeen years would pass before the next England launched.

England left a lasting mark

John C. England was typical of many who served their country during World War II.

He was known for his kindheartedness and benevolent nature, not to mention his quick smile.

England was president of his graduating class at Alhambra High School (Calif.) in 1938, acted in the senior class play, was a member of the Light and Shadow drama club and the Senior Hi-Y. He was voted "Yell King" in his senior class.

In spite of the departure of the USS England, the ensign will continue to live on in the hearts of many.

In addition to having two Naval vessels named in his memory, in 1959 he was one of five outstanding Alhambra High School alumni to have a street in his hometown named for him.

A trust fund established by England's family at the same school continues to aid graduating seniors whose "excellent character, integrity and school and community service embodies the ideals of Ensign England."

On Navy Day in 1956, England was honored yet another time.

He was chosen by officials of the state of Oklahoma to represent all those who served on the USS Oklahoma.

On Friday, Jan. 21, 1994, the USS England Guided Missile Frigate 22 will be decommissioned in its berth at Pier 13 in San Diego Harbor.

It will be the end of an era, but not the end of a Naval legend.

For the legacy of the USS England is the fiber of which this nation's history is made.