A New Plaque for Old War : Former Crewman on Deck for Another History-Making Rite

Times Staff Writer

For the second time in nearly 44 years, Bob Schwenk witnessed history in the making aboard the battleship Missouri.

The first time was the official surrender of the Japanese government as the ship lay at anchor in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945. The latest was the laying Monday of a new bronze plaque to mark the exact spot on the deck where the documents were signed that ended the most destructive war of all time--and propelled the giant dreadnought into the history books.

"We knew we were coming home," said Schwenk, 63, a Long Beach retiree who remembers standing high above the main deck watching the surrender ceremony nearly a half century ago when he was a husky young machinist's mate.

This time, Schwenk was on the deck where the khaki-uniformed Allied generals and admirals and the formally dressed Japanese delegation had stood so long ago. He was surrounded by his old shipmates and the officers and sailors of the current crew, who turned out in their dress whites to unveil the new plaque.

The original bronze plaque was cast a month after the Japanese surrender in World War II and was viewed by millions of visitors over the years. One of them was President Harry S. Truman, who chose the battleship named for his home state as the site of the surrender.

Even after the Iowa-class battleship was decommissioned in 1945, droves would visit the vessel in mothballs at the Navy yard in Bremerton, Wash., for a chance to see the weathering plaque. People would hop across the plaque for luck.

With the Missouri's return to active service in 1985, sailors shined the plaque with such vigor that it began to wear. When Schwenk and some of the others of the USS Missouri Assn., a group of the ship's former crew members, met for their annual reunion in Long Beach last year, they decided that the plaque needed replacing.

Association President Ralph Barry said that the original pattern for the plaque was obtained from the Navy in Washington, D.C. A chip was taken out of each of hundreds of pennies donated by members of the ship's association, the American Battleship Assn. and the present crew to help create the bronze for the new casting at a South Carolina foundry.

The result was a duplicate of the original plaque, this one with letters standing out in brilliant relief. The lustrous original rested Monday on a green felt tablecloth flanked by a copy of the Instrument of Surrender. The original plaque is due for permanent retirement in the Navy Museum in Washington, D.C.

The ship's skipper, Capt. John J. Chernesky, said the plaque is a reminder of the "common sense of the purpose that binds this ship together." He became the first person to officially hop across the new plaque, which is encased in a clear plastic bubble.

Distinctive in his USS Missouri baseball cap, Schwenk was full of nostalgia Monday, so much so that a lieutenant walked up and asked him if he was "re-fighting World War II" as he talked to a reporter.

He recalled sailing into a harbor south of Tokyo immediately before the surrender with sailors toting rifles along the rail to guard against Japanese suicide swimmers. The ship kept all eight boilers lighted that evening, he said, just in case the Japanese surrender proved to be a hoax and the ship needed to escape to sea.

He said memories of the ship's band playing patriotic songs that night still thrills him.

"I still get goose bumps all over," he said.

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