By ROBERT L. SMITH
Journal Staff Writer
GLOCESTER - Gordon Black's old crew found him a year ago this month at his Groton, Conn., home.
"Did you once serve on the USS Chapachet?" asked the voice on the phone.
"Oh yeah," Black said.
"We found it," the voice said.
"It," is Chepachet, R.I., a village in Glocester with a name never to be forgotten by Black or any of the men with whom he sailed into the maelstrom of war 55 years ago.
Yesterday, about 50 of those men gathered in the village whose identity had always been a mystery to them. They brought wives and children and memories. They brought, too, an enticing new chapter to add to the annals of town history.
Mighty ships were often named for mighty rivers. But at least one was named for a stream threading a rural town. Town Clerk Barbara Robertson had long known that a Navy ship was named for her village. There was the brass bell bearing the inscription "U.S.S. Chepachet" that she had found in a basement vault 18 years ago, and set in a case in the Town Council chambers. But what kind of ship? Who sailed it?
Answers began to arrive in June. Bill Newsom, a 17-year-old yeoman on the Cbepachet in 1942, wrote the town from Virginia to ask if it had a river. Yesterday, he said he had been searching for the Chepachet River since his Navy days, and had finally found Chepachet, in Rhode Island, after scanning "many, many atlases." Through U.S. Sen. John Chaffee's office, Robertson learned that the Navy had commissioned a ship named for a Rhode Island river in 1942. She knew that the Chepachet River ran through the hometown of the late Rhode Island Congressman John E. Fogarty, who was naming warships in the 1940s. Robertson had her ship and her crew. When she suggested that they hold their next reunion in Chepachet, they accepted, and an unusual gathering was born. The veterans began arriving on Friday, from more than 20 states. They gathered on the lawn in front of Town Hall yesterday afternoon and recalled stories and exploits. They shuffled through old black and-white photos of cocky young men in sailor's blue. "The voices don't change that much," said Black, the only former crewman attending from New England. "The more you hear them, the more memories come back ' "
He was 17 when he boarded the heavily armed oil tanker in Norfolk, VA. For the next 2 1/2 years, he sailed the world calling on Casablanca, in Morocco; on Algiers; on the Philippines - witnessing some of the fiercest naval battles of the Pacific war. "We were like a giant gas station at sea," he said, refueling battleships and cruisers, often in the heat of battle. Over the years, the bad memories fade and the good tend to stay, Black said. "We were all sort of like a family. You grow real close during the battles, " he said.
Robert Maynes, of Pennsylvania, the reunion organizer, reminded his former mates of what they all knew in World War II: that the men on oil tankers did not need life jackets if the ship took a hit. They needed parachutes. Accompanied by local elected officials and representatives of veterans' organizations, the Chepachet veterans remembered crewmembers lost to war and to the years. The brass bell, hung from a tree on the lawn, tolled 53 times.
The men who sailed the Chepachet probably will not come again. Next year, their reunion is in Branson, Mo. After that, it will move from city to city until the sailors - none younger than 70 - fade away. But they left one of their own behind. Among the growing volume of Chepachet memorabilia in Town Hall is a plaque, awarded yesterday, naming Robertson an honorary crewmember of the Chepachet.
Providence Journal, Sunday September 20, 1998