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Navy Wives Sew Own ‘Medal’ for Princeton Crew

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The wives of the U.S. Navy cruiser Princeton, which encountered an “influence mine” in the northern Persian Gulf and became the only U.S. ship put out of action in the war, are fashioning a huge purple heart to send to the crew of 420.

They also are beginning to think about a huge homecoming celebration.

The purple heart in a few days will be on the way to Dubai, where the $1-billion Princeton is undergoing six to eight weeks of temporary repairs before what may be a slow voyage home for permanent repairs.

“It’s a queen-size sheet, to which we’re attaching metallic heart-shaped purple sequins, one beside each guy’s name,” said Julie Patten, wife of Fire Controlman 2nd Class Robert Patten. She was interviewed with two other wives at the Princeton’s home base, the Long Beach Naval Station.

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Patten said the homemade purple heart seemed appropriate because the wives learned that many crew members received bumps and bruises when the explosion jolted the ship, even though the Navy officially listed three wounded. The explosion damaged a propeller and cracked the ship’s superstructure.

Having to retire from the action just before it reached its zenith was “a bit frustrating” to the crew, said Mary Ellis, wife of Fire Controlman 2nd Class Mark Ellis.

Ellis said that when her husband called her last week, a few days after the explosion on Feb. 18, he said he and his crew mates “were disappointed not to be participating” in Naval operations any longer.

But the wives were relieved, she said, adding: “The day we’ll feel they’re really out of danger is the day they sail into Pier 7 here in Long Beach, whenever that is.”

Ellis said the conversation marked the first time she had talked to her husband since New Year’s Day, when the Princeton stopped in the Philippines en route to the Persian Gulf. That call cost her $300 but, she said, “it was worth it. In this call, we told each other we loved each other and we were both OK. It’ll be awhile before I get the bill.”

Kim Collins, wife of Storekeeper 3rd Class Andy Collins, said her husband “sounded excited and scared at the same time” when he called. “He was talking faster than normal, and he told me the ship had come six to seven feet out of the ocean when the mine exploded.”

Ellis’ husband was in the shower when it happened and he told her that he and a few others were “bumped around quite a bit.” Patten’s husband, at a duty station, said he was thrown on his back and hurt his elbow “pretty good.” Collins’ husband was unhurt.

The Princeton, Navy officials have said, did not actually strike the mine. An “influence mine” lies on the sea bottom, exploding when triggered by sound, water pressure or magnetic field of a ship, they said.

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Patten, assistant ombudsman for the ship’s family support group, said the worst moment for her came when she received a telephone call, about two hours after the explosion and well before the first public broadcast of the news, telling her simply that the ship had been hit by a mine and that she would be called with further details as soon as possible.

She said she then suffered “15 minutes of sheer panic” before getting a call disclosing that there had been only three injuries, one of them serious.

Volunteers spent much of the rest of the day calling the 200 wives and hundreds of parents and children of crew members through the support group’s “family tree” telephone system, Patten said.

This week, in a morale-boosting gesture toward family concerns of the Princeton crew, the Navy arranged for one sailor, whose wife was about to give birth, to fly home for the delivery. Air Control Specialist Steve Shoemaker, 27, arrived just hours before his wife, Letecia, gave birth to their daughter, Jessica, at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach.

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The Princeton, a 2-year-old ship whose only major voyage before the Persian Gulf deployment had been to the Soviet port of Vladivostok last September, has one of the most active family support groups of any ship, the wives said. Assisted by the family center at the Naval Station, it has a hot line to give immediate news, puts out a newsletter every three weeks and distributes a “familygram” sent periodically from the ship.

Recently, the wives said, groups and individuals outside the base have been making all kinds of gifts to ship families. The Long Beach Civic Light Opera has donated 1,000 tickets for an upcoming performance.

“We’d like to tell everyone, ‘Thank you for your prayers,’ ” Patten said. “I know many do pray for our troops, and we appreciate it. We feel it’s the reason our husbands are safe.”


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