Final farewell

by PA3 Etta Smith

On a crisp, clear, mid-September morning, the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba pulls away from the pier and passes quietly through Boston Harbor on a final journey for a former shipmate. As the ship’s crew navigates the harbor, they make preparations to carry out the final wish of a celebrated war veteran.

During World War II, German U-boats sank cutter Escanaba (WPG-77) off the coast of Greenland, on June 13, 1943. While the ships’ crew was lost that day, 103 men in all, two lives were spared. Melvin Baldwin, a boatswain’s mate, and Ray O’Malley, a seaman, were the only survivors of the torpedo explosions that sank the Escanaba into the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

Baldwin died in 1964, leaving O’Malley as the last living survivor of the WWII-era Escanaba.  O’Malley died March 8, 2007, at the age of 86. Now, 64 years later on Sept. 20, 2007, he rejoins his long lost shipmates as he is laid to rest at sea.

This solemn voyage will be the last Peter O’Malley shares with his beloved father.

“This is what he wanted,” said Peter, as he reflects on a conversation he had with his father earlier this year. ‘I want to go with my shipmates,’ Ray told his son in the months leading up to his death.

It was only fitting that the Escanaba serve as the platform to carry Ray to his final resting place.

“Escanaba was his home away from home,” recalls Mike O’Malley, Ray’s grandson.

Escanaba’s motto is ‘The Spirit Lives On’. This could not be more evident than in the way his grandfather lived his life, Mike said.

Ray honored his shipmates and their families each year by attending every Escanaba memorial ceremony held annually in Grand Haven, Mich., a designated Coast Guard city. This national memorial Service is part of the annual festival held the week leading up to Coast Guard Day, Aug. 4.

“The ceremony allowed my dad to connect with the families of his former shipmates,” Peter said. “He was able to tell the children of Escanaba crewmembers stories about their fathers only my dad could pass on to them.”

“My grandfather had a strong connection with his former crew,” Mike said of his grandfather’s vivid stories. “When he would speak of his shipmates, it would feel like only yesterday that he was aboard the Escanaba.”

Mike said he will miss his grandfather’s stories more than anything.

“I know I didn’t get to hear all of them, but the stories he has told I will pass on to future generations.”

Peter and his son also hope to carry on Ray’s commitment to public service. After serving his country for seven years in the Coast Guard during World War II, Ray went on to serve his community as a police officer for more than 35 years. Now, Peter said Mike is torn between a career in the Coast Guard and a career as a Chicago police officer.

“My grandfather lived a honorable life, a life of selfless public service,” said Mike.

Off the coast of Boston, the steady hum of the Escanaba’s engine room becomes quiet. The time has come for Peter and his son Mike to say goodbye to their adored family member

Following a 21-gun salute, Peter and Mike carry Ray’s remains to the stern of the Escanaba. As gentle sounds of the bagpiper surround the somber duo with the melody of Amazing Grace, Peter and Mike release the clay urn over the railing of the Escanaba.

Ray has arrived at his final destination.

A ceremonial American Flag is folded with the casings from the gun salute tucked inside, and handed to Peter. He clutches the flag to his chest, tears streaming down his face, and bids a final farewell to his father. Breaking the momentary silence, Taps is played through the ships speakers, and the current crew of the Escanaba offers a final hand salute to their lost shipmate, Ray O’Malley.

“It was hard for me to let him go,” said a tearful Peter, “but this is what he wanted.”

As the Escanaba returns to homeport, the ships motto holds true: ‘The Spirit Lives On’.

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