Mullen had shepherded the ship from Philadelphia without incident until that night, when a gust of wind pushed one of the tugboats into a sandbar. The men on that boat dropped their rope before another boat was ready to take over, leaving the Barry to its own devices for a few nail-biting minutes.
“The wind was blowing hard and cold, and with no rudder and no propellers, the Barry was like a big sail,” Mullen, 76, recalls. “I nearly took out the South Capitol Street Bridge.”
Now, the D.C. government is replacing the bridge, also known as the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, with a fixed-span bridge, trapping the Barry. So, the Navy decided to scrap the ship now, while it could still be towed away in one piece. The Barry’s formal departure ceremony will be Oct. 17, though it won’t be towed away until this winter, says Navy Yard spokesman Brian Sutton.
“We estimated that it was going to cost us around two million dollars if we were going to restore the ship to where it really needs to be,” Sutton says — hard to justify when “we only get about 10,000 visitors a year.”
Few argue with the logic of the decision, but the Barry’s departure is still unfortunate, former crewmembers and fans say. For three decades, the destroyer gave schoolchildren a window into the historic events it participated in, including the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War. The beloved landmark also provided the Navy Yard with its last real link to the sea.
“When she leaves Navy Yard, she’s going to be taking a whole lot of history with her,” says Barry veteran Carl Caivano, 69. “I’ll be sad to see her go.”
The USS Barry was launched in 1955 from Bath, Maine. With two steam turbines propelling her to speeds up to 33 knots (about 38 miles per hour), she was a fast, sleek, multi-purpose ship.
“Thirty-five miles per hour may not seem like a lot in a car, but when you’re on a ship and you are throwing up a pretty good rooster tail behind you, that was a great feeling,” says former Barry sailor Peter Kehrig, 61. “When she turned, the entire ship would heel over to one side. Just like on a motorcycle, you live for the curves.”
In addition to being fast, the Barry was heavily armed with guns, torpedoes and anti-submarine missiles. She rarely had occasion to fire them, though her speed did come came in handy during the Cuban missile crisis.
Throughout the 13-day standoff, the Barry crew kept tabs on Russian submarines, pinging them with active sonar as if to say, “I see you,” Navy historian Curtis Utz says. The crew’s tensest moment came later, after most people thought the crisis was over. The Russians were removing their nuclear missiles from Cuba, and had agreed to let the U.S. Navy count the missiles on their way out.
When a Russian ship tried to sneak by without being counted, the Barry caught up with it, Barry veteran Eugene Cody, 70, recalls. Reluctantly, the ship came to a stop, and U.S. military personnel boarded the vessel and inspected its cargo.
“We were sitting side-by-side, 1,000 yards between us. They were under a cover, but you could tell there were long-range nuclear missiles on the deck,” Cody says. “I was looking at those missiles and thinking if anything happened, it would have obliterated the whole upper northwest quadrant of the Caribbean.”
Three years later, Barry was dispatched to Vietnam, where it shelled Viet Cong encampments on the Saigon River.
The destroyer didn’t see much action after Vietnam, but it was still an exciting place to be, recalls Kehrig, who served on the ship in 1982.
“On a destroyer, you think of yourself being the pointy end of the spear,” he says. “You’re the fastest and have the longest legs — meaning you can go far without refueling.”
Nicknamed “tin cans” because of their lack of armor and tendency to get tossed around in heavy seas, destroyers required crews with strong stomachs.
“Being on a destroyer at sea is living in constant motion. Walking down a ladder is an experience of feeling 200 pounds on one step and 80 pounds two steps later,” recalls Caivano, who served on the Barry in 1969. “At night, during storms, shoes left out by the bunks moved back and forth along the floor in the red light, like some kind of ghost soft-shoe routine.”
Caivano developed chronic seasickness and ended up being honorably discharged. Still, he remembers his time on the Barry fondly.
“Standing watch on a moonless, overcast night when we were totally surrounded by dark — it felt like traveling into a black void. When the sun started to rise again, it was almost like a religious experience,” he says.
In 1982, Barry’s crew got word that the ship was being decommissioned.
“We were disappointed, but we knew times were changing. Steamships like Barry were being replaced by gas turbine ships,” Kehrig says. “All of us, but especially the guys down in engineering, knew we were going to go on to do something way less fun.”
Barry might have been scrapped then if it hadn’t been for Admiral Arleigh Burke, who had overseen fleets of destroyers during World War II and served as Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, D.C. After Burke retired, he decided that Navy Yard needed a display ship, and recruited Mullen.
“He called me up and said, ‘The Marines have the Iwo Jima Memorial and the Army has Fort McNair. I’m tired of the Navy not having anything here, and sailors retiring out the back doors of buildings,’” Mullen recalls.
After docking the ship in Navy Yard, Mullen, a crew of 30 sailors and many volunteers spent months scrubbing rust off of the hull, giving it a fresh coat of paint and installing displays.
When Display Ship Barry opened to the public in 1984, it was an instant hit. In 1990, 500,000 people visited the ship. It became a regular stop for tour buses and groups, and many Navy officers retired on her stern.
As a third grader, Andrew Battaile, 43, visited the ship the year it opened.
“It was larger than life. It just seemed enormous,” he says. “You could walk on the deck and see all the guns and imagine eating in the mess hall, and it just all seemed so cool.”
But after Master Chief Mullen retired in 1990, the ship slowly lost its luster. During its final years, visitors could wander for hours without encountering another soul, unless you count the creepy, 1970s-era mannequins manning the ship’s radar.
Still, the decommissioned destroyer was one of Battaile’s favorite places to take visitors from out of town. “It was one of those secret spots in D.C.,” he says.
Prince George’s County resident Marcus Collier, 41, was sad to hear he’d never get a chance to see the ship from the inside.
“I always wondered why it was there, and now I know, it’s going away,” he says.
Sometime this winter, the Barry will leave the Navy Yard for good. Engineers surveyed the Barry’s hull and found it to be sound — but as Master Chief Mullen’s adventure 32 years ago shows, anything can happen when you tow a warship down a shallow, shifting river.
“I can just imagine how awful it would be to have the ship listing to the side in the Anacostia,” says Sutton, the Navy Yard spokesman. “I think I might have a heart attack.”
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