RICHMOND, Va. – In 1944, a young Navy band of brothers engaged in an epic sea battle and made naval history when they sank the Japanese battleship Fuso. Now, the aging crew is waging another battle — to honor their captain.
The aging men of the USS Melvin want to have a Navy ship named after retired Adm. Barry K. Atkins, who was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in the Pacific and now lives in an assisted living center in Richmond.
"Oh, I think it would be great," Dr. Edgar A. Hawk, 88, of Indianapolis, then a medical officer on the Melvin. "He well deserves it."
Military historians believe the Melvin is the only destroyer to sink an enemy battleship in World War II in the maritime equivalent of a heavyweight boxer being knocked out by a lightweight.
In the Battle for Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, the Melvin fired a torpedo about 11,000 yards that hit the Fuso broadside, starting an explosive chain reaction that ultimately split the Japanese vessel like a piece of cordwood.
The sinking of the Fuso was an exclamation point to an Allied rout of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the biggest naval battle in history. At the end of the three-day battle, Allied forces reported 3,500 dead to Japan's 10,000, including virtually all 1,400 crewmen aboard the Fuso.
Hawk recalls the 80-degree night as the 24-foot torpedoes were dispatched.
"... Six's gone, seven's gone, eight's gone ... Let's get the heck out of here," Hawk said of the moment the torpedoes were unleashed.
At the same time, star shells — flares fired high over the Pacific by the Fuso — illuminated the skies. "That meant that they were on to us," Hawk said.
"The next thing I know a salvo of shells hits the water," he said. Bursts of orange flame on the horizon signaled the Fuso's engagement, and the Melvin's escape.
"The old man had thrown it on full rudder and we're getting the heck out of there," Hawk said of Atkins, only six years his senior. "He was zigzagging up a storm."
The Melvin put up smoke screens as it steamed north, its fantail fishtailing and its 2,000-ton hulk violently vibrating, one crewman recalled.
"We pulled out the stops getting out of there," said Brinton Turner, now 84, and a retired civil engineer in Palo Alto, Calif.
Atkins remained calm and in command.
"I told the bridge crew not to worry — they won't hit us. But I had no reason to think they wouldn't," he said in "The Last Epic Naval Battle, Voices from Leyte Gulf," by David Sears.
But the Fuso had been mortally wounded. The torpedo ruptured fuel tanks, which ignited an ammunition magazine. The ship broke apart, disgorging sailors into the water, Sears wrote.
"This was a real historic moment," Hawk said.
The Naval War College analysis, released 14 years after the battle, concluded the Melvin was the only one of three destroyers firing at the Fuso that landed its torpedo.
"The Melvin probably was the only destroyer to sink a battleship in World War II," spokesman Jack Green of the Naval Historical Center said, carefully quoting historians.
The center is the first stop for any proposal to name a ship.
"We are fully aware of Capt. Atkins' exploits and he certainly is a Navy hero," Green said. "And he is one of many Navy heroes who would be considered in the future naming of ships."
Alex Parley, 79, retired from a career in public affairs, has tirelessly promoted his former commander. He wrote stirring narratives of the battle, enlisted the aid of a congressman and personally lobbied the Navy.
Getting a ship named after a person or place has become more difficult, said Capt. Kevin M. Wensing, who corresponded with Parley as a special assistant to the secretary of the Navy. The Navy's fleet of about 4,500 vessels after World War II has shrunk to just under 300, with eight to 10 ships named annually.
"Even if a name is not selected for a ship it always impresses me their (crewmen's) devotion and loyalty," Wensing said.
Sue Keener, whose ailing 94-year-old father was not able to be interviewed, said in an e-mail, "They are like a Band of Brothers that went through so much together and the events created a bond and connection that none of us can ever understand."