Earlier this month, we hosted a group of retirees from central New Jersey on a tour of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. On nearly every tour we lead, we have visitors who have personal connections to the Yard – they’ve worked or served there, or had family members who did – but this tour was special for the sheer number and depth of people’s connections to the site.
One woman said she used to babysit the children of naval officers at the homes along Admirals Row; another went on a date at the old Officers Club. Two women had fathers who worked at the Yard, and in their spare time (and with a little spare metal), they fashioned jewelry for their daughters in the Yard’s workshops, which they still have – one was even wearing it on the tour!
The visitor who did not happen to bring her jewelry was nice enough to send us a photograph of it and share some of the background. Amy Petti-Fischer’s father Peter worked in the Navy Yard for more than 30 years as a welder, and during that time he fashioned a set of gold bracelets for his three daughters; Amy says she still wears hers, as do her sisters, “with love of my dad.”
“For a time he worked a late shift,” Amy said. “I was pre-school but still remember the sad feeling when he headed out to work. He was very prideful of his job.” Peter began working in the Yard as a teenager, but he passed away at just 49 years old.
Another highlight of the tour was when Sheldon Preville shared his experiences at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. A veteran of the destroyer USS Renshaw in World War II, Mr. Preville read for us a letter he had written to The Tin Can Sailor, a newsletter published by the national association of destroyer veterans. Here’s what he wrote:
My four years of service in the Navy during World War II, have left me with many memories. I would like to share one of them with you.
It was the 5th of December 1942 when the USS RENSHAW (DD-499) was commissioned at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. All deck hand were participating in the loading of stores and ammunition, before we would get underway. The weather was extremely cold and we all wore our dress blues to keep warm. Under these ideal conditions, the Murphy brothers, another seaman and myself came up with what we thought was a brilliant idea! Following the afternoon muster and with our dress hat and tie under pea coat, one by one we left the loading dock area. We proceeded to the Navy yard gate, showed our ID cards and passed on through.
Our plan was to head for Times Square, where we anticipated spending the evening with four very lovely ladies. Unfortunately, our imagination got the best of us, as it never even came close to happening. Instead, we settled for going to the Strand Theater at 47th Street and Broadway where we saw the movie “CASABLANCA.” It was a great movie, but now it was much too late in the evening for us to get back to the ship. Se, we had another great idea! Since we all lived locally … we went to our homes to sleep. My parents were so excited to see me that they thought the war was over. At 0500 we all met at the Navy yard and once again passed through the gate easily. The closer we got to the ship, the more relaxed we became. We now had more than enough time to get aboard before muster, unfortunately, that wonderful feeling ended very abruptly. The RENSHAW was not where we left her the day before.
Needless to day our thoughts of being AWOL during war time could only mean a court martial, with a dishonorable discharge and surely brig time for many years. Then I had this really sick thought that the Marine Guards would make us watch “CASABLANCA” every night before we sacked out.
With these horrible thoughts in mind, we aggressively tracked down the Navy Yard Dispatch Officer. He informed us that the RENSHAW had moved to another pier and was tied up to two other destroyers and furthermore we had better get there ASAP, as she was just about ready to get underway. We did’t just run, we literally flew; fortunately we got there just in time to make muster.
The movie “CASABLANCA” won the Oscar for the best movie of 1942 and is now shown at least four or five times a year on TV. I’ve watched it over and over again, these past sixty years and each time I do, I get that same frightening feeling of what could have been.
Sheldon Preville, Tin Can Sailor, October-November-December 2002
Mr. Preville was certainly thankful he did make it back to his ship, because after its commissioning, the Renshaw went on to illustrious service in the Pacific, earning eight battle stars. After the war, it was also the vessel that carried President Harry Truman during his review of the fleet in New York Harbor on Navy Day, October 27, 1945.
Thank you so much to these visitors for sharing their stories! We find that these personal connections add so much to the tour experience for all visitors, but we also learn new things about the Yard all the time, and we are indebted to these folks for their generosity, as well as for their and their families’ service to their country. Throughout the summer, we’ll be sharing here more of the memories and stories that these very special visitors to the Brooklyn Navy Yard have shared with us over the years.
And you can hear more voices from the Yard from the ongoing oral history project at the Center for Brooklyn History. If you would like to submit your own stories of the Yard, you can find more information about contributing to the Brooklyn Navy Yard Archive by contacting us.
Editor’s note: Sheldon Preville passed away in 2016.