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Former USS Wisconsin Crewmates Celebrate Famed Battleship

USS Wisconsin (BB-64) Operating off Korea, circa January-April 1952. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.)
USS Wisconsin (BB-64) Operating off Korea, circa January-April 1952. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.)

NORFOLK — Mike Hodgis stood at the top of the Nauticus theater during a Saturday afternoon memorial service and clutched his pocket trumpet close to his chest. Every few minutes, the former USS Wisconsin crewmate clicked the trumpet's valves shut in rapid succession as a chaplain read the names of about 120 crewmates and 14 wives of crewmates who had recently died.

A United States flag could be seen from the theater's bay windows, waving in the breeze as more than 200 members of the USS Wisconsin Association gathered for the service as part of their 17th biennial reunion.

Hodgis was a member of the Navy band and played on the ship in the early '50s. He said four of his former bandmates were also at this year's reunion.

As the chaplain called each name, a loved one or crewmate pinned a carnation to one of two wreaths.

As Hodgis waited to sound taps, the chaplain called out a name Hodgis said he knew well: Ray Blouch.

"Ray was one of our saxophone players," Hodgis said. "He was just a riot. We miss Ray, but that's life."

At the end of the memorial service, the chaplain led the group to the fantail of the "Wisky" battleship, where a wreath was cast into the river.

"We do this so that the crewmates' souls can go home," said Mike Olson, who served on the ship from 1988 to 1990.

Olson was a first-class machinist mate and worked in Engine Room One during the ship's precommissioning in Pascagoula, Miss. He calls the battleship his gal, but his wife jokes it's really his first love.

Though it's been more than 25 years since Olson worked on the ship, he said he remembers more about it and his crewmates than any other ship he served on. The years he spent aboard the USS Wisconsin are different, he said.

"It's a battleship," Olson said. "I mean, there's just nothing else like it."

Olson previously attended the reunion alone, but this year he brought his family, including his 33-year-old son Chris Holt, who came on board the ship when he was just 5 years old. Olson has pictures of his son in his rack and standing next to a .50-caliber machine gun on the deck. They plan to re-create the photos while on board.

"It seems like it was yesterday," Holt said. "Even though I didn't serve on this ship, I feel like I have a relationship with this ship just from being that young. But, it's just part of my life, sailor or not sailor."

On Wednesday, Olson and his family helped to sand and repaint fire stations on the ship's deck along with around 20 other association members. Ranzy Wenton, the president of the association, was among them.

Wenton also served on the Wisconsin during precommissioning in Pascagoula. He called his time on board the "fulfillment of a boyhood dream to serve on the ultimate warfighting ship."

One of the most important lessons Weston learned while on the battleship was from Capt. Jerry Blesch: to own your personal and work spaces. Weston said that's why the group members were helping to restore the ship.

"It's like owning a piece of the ship," Weston said. "I want to get it looking good again."

Blesch, who also attended the memorial service Saturday, recounted a memorable moment while navigating the Persian Gulf.

"I got a call from a passing aircraft carrier," Blesch said. "They asked if we could pass closer so that they could see the battleship."

Tom Bradshaw served with Olson and Wenton. He said he started attending the reunions almost 20 years ago when his wife, LaDonna, heard about the event. LaDonna is now the membership chairwoman of the association and a big fan of the battleship.

"If the Wisconsin went back to active duty today, she'd pack my sea bags," Bradshaw said. "She loves the ship that well."

Ray Jaramillo, a Virginia Beach resident, spent about a year and a half on board during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. When he retired in 2012, the ceremony was on the ship's deck.

"Being on board this vessel, you actually felt very safe," Jaramillo said. "It's nice when you're driving through downtown Norfolk to see her and know that she's being taken care of."

One of the names called during Saturday's service was Alan Dean Sr., who served from 1951-53. Dean was the first African American officer to serve on the USS Wisconsin. An exhibit commemorating his service opened in the wardroom of the ship Friday evening.

Dean's daughter, Michaela Heulbig, said the exhibit's curators wanted to "make sure they did right by him."

"I hope that anybody, whether child or adult, can see that whatever obstacles you face, you can get through it and create great things with your life," Heulbig said. "That's the real story."

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