Decommissioning plans were put on hold when the Missouri was directed to participate in the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Captain Kaiss showed President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush around the battleship after the ceremonies. (George Bush Presidential Library and Museum)
It was just an average day in the U.S. Navy, but for Captain Albert Lee Kaiss, it was a day a dream came true: On 13 June 1990, he took command of the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63) for the second time.
Captain Kaiss’s 1986 tour as the recommissioning commanding officer of the Missouri had been cut short because of a medical problem, but unforeseen events put him in the right place at the right time. The battleship’s current commanding officer had decided to retire, and there was no planned relief in the pipeline. With Kaiss once again “fit for full duty” and fully qualified to command, the problem of a relief was resolved, and Lee returned to his ship.
Two other Iowa-class battleships were in the process of being decommissioned, and the Navy planned for the Missouri to follow suit. But first the “Might Mo” was to make an around-the-world cruise, visiting various World War II ports of call. The cruise was to include Tokyo Bay, site of the 2 September 1945 Japanese surrender on board the Missouri.
July 1990 was a busy month for the Missouri as she participated in Fleet Week in San Francisco and Sea Fair in Seattle before returning to Long Beach to prepare for her world cruise. On 3 August, Captain Kaiss received word of the battleship’s planned deactivation in six months, and he was allowed to advise the crew of the pending announcement.
Captain Kaiss introduces Diane Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco, during the recommissioning of the USS Missouri (BB-63) in May 1986. His tour as commanding officer was cut short, but four years later, he would get a second chance. (National Archives)
World events, however, would intervene. Iraq invaded Kuwait before the week ended. The Pentagon reversed itself and announced it did not have firm plans to decommission the USS Wisconsin (BB-64) or the Missouri. Both battleships were destined to see action in the Persian Gulf.
The Wisconsin was sent immediately to the Gulf, and the Missouri was placed on 72-hour deployment stand-by. The battleships were a perfect fit for the Gulf. Each was fitted with 32 Tomahawk missiles, and their 16-inch guns had a range of 26 miles. These self-sufficient ships carried 2 million gallons of fuel, enough to provide for their own long-range cruising and still be able to refuel any assigned escorts. Their large helicopter decks could support the H-53, which allowed for round-the-clock logistical support for any ships in company. In addition, the remote pilotless vehicle (RPV) modification gave them self-control and direction for over-the-horizon naval gunfire support. In other words, the battleships could do their own gunfire spotting.
There was only one obstacle: removal of the no-fire restriction for the 16-inch guns that was instituted after the center gun explosion in the Iowa’s Turret Two a few months earlier. The Chief of Naval Operations had called for a complete recertification program, which meant that all 16-inch gun crew personnel had to attend specialized training and meet new qualification requirements.
The retraining program became a priority, and when the Missouri sailed for the Gulf on 13 November 1990, all gun crews were in the final phase of recertification and the guns were authorized to fire on a limited basis. This limitation was removed prior to the ship’s arrival at Bahrain on New Year’s Day 1991. The U.S. Navy had two fully capable battleships on line and ready to respond for the first time since the Korean conflict.
The Wisconsin, with Captain Dave Bill commanding, had been in the Gulf for several months and had developed a Tomahawk strike plan. Even though Kaiss was senior, the Wisconsin became the Tomahawk strike commander based on her experience, and the Missouri became the shore bombardment commander.
On 17 January, the United Nations offensive began. The Missouri was the first ship in the Persian Gulf to fire her Tomahawk missiles in support of the offensive, and over the next seven days she placed 28 missiles on designated targets. On 5 February, she fired her guns in support of U.S. Marines on the border between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, placing 16-inch rounds on concrete bunkers used as defensive positions by the Iraqis. The gunfire was so effective that large numbers of Iraqi troops surrendered the next morning.
The Missouri then joined up with the task group that was to conduct assaults on Failaka Island and Kuwait City. When the USS Tripoli (LPH-10) and Princeton (CG-59) were damaged by mines, the Missouri’s flight deck was used to support the Tripoli’s H-53 helos so they could continue their mine-sweeping mission, allowing the operation to continue after a minimal delay. The Missouri then brought her 16-inch guns to bear against targets on Failaka Island. After several days of bombardment, the Marines were in control of the island.
When the Coalition decided to feint an amphibious landing on the coast of Kuwait, the Missouri placed several hundred rounds on coast targets, holding two Iraqi divisions in place.
In all, the Missouri fired more than 800 16-inch rounds, blew up 12 mines, launched 28 Tomahawk missiles, and was fired on by an enemy Silkworm missile that was destroyed in flight by HMS Gloucester. With victory in Kuwait declared, she sailed for home, arriving at Long Beach, California, on 13 May, having been deployed for six months to the day.
After her return, word came from Washington that the Wisconsin and Missouri were to be decommissioned. The Defense Department needed to reduce costs, and battleships are expensive assets. President George H. W. Bush, however, had a different plan. He directed that the Missouri be the centerpiece of the 50th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1991. She would host the President and the official party during the event and also be the symbol of the end of World War II.
Being selected for this role was a moment of great pride for the crew. Planning and preparation for the event took several months, and every member felt they were part of the event. As the only battleship sailors left in the world, they were special. The Missouri had to shine.
On the first day of the transit to Pearl Harbor, however, the ship encountered heavy seas. The second day brought 20-foot waves, and the Missouri took water over Turret Two. These large waves damaged the fixtures on the main deck and lifted two of her boats out of their davits. What had been a showpiece topside area was now a shambles.
The fourth day brought sunshine and calm seas, but the Missouri was only one day out of Pearl. Captain Kaiss turned to the chief petty officers for help, and the entire Missouri crew rose to the occasion. Within 24 hours, no one could tell the ship had experienced heavy weather. The battleship spirit carried the day.
Seven December 1991 in Pearl Harbor opened with an early morning ceremony at the USS Arizona memorial, with President Bush reflecting on the courage and spirit of the American people on this day 50 years earlier. The ceremony concluded with the President and First Lady each placing a lei on the waters above the resting place of the sailors lost in the USS Arizona (BB-39). The silver trays used to hold the leis were part of the presentation silver of the Missouri.
After the ceremony, the President and his official party arrived on board the Missouri. By request of the President, Captain Kaiss was the senior officer present, which helped focus the visitors on the attributes of this magnificent platform and her superb crew. Security was tight, but President Bush interacted with the crew, and they appreciated this gesture. He addressed the nation from the surrender deck and then toured select areas of the ship. His favorite was the bridge, where he tried the captain’s chair, waved to the sailors on the main deck, and commented on the size of the gun barrels on Turrets One and Two.
During the visit the flag of the President of the United States flew from the mainmast for the third time in the battleship’s history. Every crew member came topside to view the flag and reflect with pride on the moment. For years afterward, Captain Kaiss liked to point out that this is what battleships and their sailors were all about.
Departure from Pearl Harbor was bittersweet. The pride of a job well done was offset by the knowledge that completion of the transit would bring the end of the Missouri’s days at sea. For Captain Kaiss, it would be the last time both he and the Missouri were at sea as part of the active fleet. Retirement was the next step for the great ship and her commanding officer. Decommissioning was the last milestone of the world’s last dreadnought.
On 31 March 1992, at Long Beach, more than 7,000 people gathered on the pier at the naval station to say goodbye to the Mighty Mo. Crew members who had been detached after the return from Pearl Harbor paid their own way back just to stand as part of the crew during the ceremony and be recognized as part of this ship’s history. The Marine detachment that had so proudly served as part of the crew returned to carry the colors one last time. Hundreds of Missouri veterans from three wars returned for the final farewell. The day was full of fond memories, old shipmates, pride in jobs well done, and sadness.
The guest speaker at the decommissioning ceremony was Missouri Congressman Ike Skelton, who always had been a supporter of the Missouri and had been present at her recommissioning. His remarks highlighted her war record and the incredible performance of her crew throughout the years. They captured the feeling of the moment, but only crew members who had served in the battleship during her proud life really understood what was happening. A part of their lives was being rolled into history, and one the greatest of ships would not fight another day. It was time for the final curtain.
Captain Kaiss turned and addressed the executive officer, Captain Ken Jordon, “XO, haul down the commissioning pennant and the colors. Upon completion, march off the crew.”
Sailors lower the colors for the last time at the Missouri’s 1992 decommissioning. As Captain Kaiss went down the gangway that day, he became the last active-duty battleship sailor. (U.S. Navy/Sharie Derrickson)
Captain Kaiss positioned himself so he could see every crew member as they departed. They were the heart and soul of his ship, and he wanted to remember every face. Single file, they streamed off in reverse order of seniority: seamen, then petty officers, then officers. The march-off completed, Captain Kaiss turned to Lieutenant Commander Wes Carrie, the officer of the deck, and said, “Secure the quarterdeck watch.”
Carrie signed the deck log, then he, the petty officer of the watch, and the messenger departed the ship. Only one person remained on board.
Captain Albert Lee Kaiss, with a tear in his eye and the commissioning pennant held firmly in his left hand, took one final look around the main deck and then proceeded down the gangway. As he stepped onto the pier, he became the last active-duty battleship sailor.
Author’s Note: This article is based on a story by Captain Kaiss and was rewritten at his request. Captain Kaiss, who passed away on 25 July 2018, never had it published.
Captain Landersman served 30 years in the U.S. Navy and is retired after 20 years from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. He is a former Convoy Commodore, has a master’s degree and a master’s license. He has published a novel, Shellback, an autobiography entitled Stu’s Sea Stories, and numerous articles in Proceedings.