IN?HONOR … Saluting area war veterans

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts.

‘Shipping’ out

When Robert Harrington reported to the Buffalo Federal Building on Jan. 15, 1952 – his 20th birthday, he had to be re-examined and given a complete physical. After spending all day standing in lines and signing papers, Harrington ended his day with a cramped hand and sore arms from all the vaccinations he received. He says the Navy was fair, though; they divided the shots between his arms, giving him four on the left side and five on the right.

He spent the night in Buffalo and caught an early train to Bainbridge, Md., for his next eight-week training jaunt. But then there was a hiccup. While at boot camp, he came down with a case of the measles. He feared that he would be grounded, not allowed to join his squad. He was relieved when he found out that he would soon be well enough to rejoin his company and complete his training.

With boot camp completed, Harrington knew he was no longer a “boot.” As he walked out of the basic boot camp facility he blended in with the other sailors and no longer felt like a new kid. Now, he wanted to know what ship he would be assigned to. The Navy had just commissioned six new destroyers, and everyone wanted a place on one of them. But on the east coast, the Navy had 300 ships attached to its Atlantic Fleet, so there was no way to guess where Harrington would end up.

Harrington had to read it twice when he found he was assigned to the U.S.S. Tutuila (ARG-4). He knew that a letter A meant “Auxiliary ship,” a ship attached to a fleet for some kind of service. The second letter, R, meant “Repair,” and that’s all he needed to know. He was assigned to a U.S. Naval Auxiliary Repair ship! That was an important job, and one that Harrington was proud to have. He would be working on all sorts of Naval combat ships, which meant he would get the experience of boarding and exploring more than one ship. He also got the job of “shipfitter,” which was a special honor. Only a few men were chosen to be shipfitters, assigned to work on the Navy’s combustion engines and other mechanical systems that kept the ships 100% ready for their missions.

Being a ship fitter took Harrington all over. He saw many ships and met scores of other sailors. In addition to these perks, his was a rewarding job. He felt proud to pull up alongside a ship that needed repairs, fix it, and send it on its way to do its duty. Another benefit was the excitement; Harrington was always only a radio call away from heading off to who-knows-where!

Free time

After extensive sea duty, the Tutuila returned to her home port in Norfolk, Va. Because Harrington had just returned from time at sea, he and his fellow sailors had each earned three-day liberty slips. After calling home and hearing the weather would be nice for his 21st birthday, Harrington decided to make the 12-hour drive and celebrate in his hometown with old friends.

It was common for sailors on leave to take road trips together, sharing company and expenses during the trek. For that weekend, Harrington had sailors fighting for the available seats in his car, which the other sailors knew was parked and ready to go in the harbor’s parking lot. Shipmates piled in – one from New Jersey; one from Warren, Pa.; and others who had friends and homes along the way. They all bought a seat in Harrington’s car for $15 each. The ride was a blast. Harrington heard stories from fellow sailors about their families, friends, and Navy jobs and the men joked and laughed for the whole ride.

It was lucky, too, that Harrington chose to drive with companions during road trips. Once, a rear spring on the car broke. A welder was riding in the back seat, and they were up and on their way in no time. On another trip, a steam fitter riding shotgun handled an overheated radiator. They stopped every 20 minutes to refill the radiator, but they made it back! A few times, trips came close to a carload of sailors all being listed AWOL (absent without official leave). Once, Harrington drove a few men home for a shipfitter’s cousin’s wedding. What should have taken 12 hours took 24. The men arrived at the wedding, straightened their wrinkled clothes, had a drink, said hello, and jumped back in the car to report for duty before their passes expired! Being late while the ship was still in port could mean all kinds of trouble for the sailors: extra duty, longer watches, loss of liberties and a good chewing-out by senior officers. If the ship had left the port and sailors missed it, that meant time in the brig, office hours, demotion, loss of pay and more. That infraction was one that every sailor feared and none could afford. It could ruin a sailor’s career. Looking back, Harrington realized just how risky those road trips were.

To the U.S.S. Maury

After almost two years on the Tutuila, Harrington received orders to report to the commanding officer of the U.S.S. Maury. This ship surveyed harbors that U.S. Naval ships were to sail into, making sure the floor of the ocean was smooth and had enough depth so that the ship wouldn’t scrape against it. With the Navy building longer, larger ships with lower-reaching bottoms, it was absolutely necessary that sailors always checked to make sure ports and channels had enough breadth and depth for the ships to navigate safely through them. Because of this concern, the Panama Canal had to be widened for our super carriers to get through. It was also important to have a list of the ports capable of handling these larger ships in case of unplanned docking when storms whipped up or ships broke down. Survey ships like the Maury had another important job – we needed to know not only which waters were safe for our ships, but which waters could support the navigation of enemy ships. On the Maury, Harrington’s duties were similar to those on the Tutuila: work, maintain and repair Naval ship equipment as needed.

Home is a paintbrush

The day came for Harrington when he knew he didn’t want to make a lifetime career out of the Navy, as much as he enjoyed the time he spent as a United States sailor. When his duties were completed and his contract fulfilled, he came home to Dunkirk and landed a job with Fitzgerald Cadillac Oldsmobile on Lakeshore Drive. In 1955, he married Elizabeth Sherman in Sheridan, at the St. John Bosco Roman Catholic Church. Together they had three children, Robert Jr., Sherry and Deborah. Of course, they made their home on Harrington Road.

While Harrington was employed at the car dealership, he realized that he had an innate talent he had never pursued: art. The hold that art came to have on his life first made its grip known when Harrington painted his name on his mailbox. A friend saw Harrington’s work and asked if he would paint a name on the friend’s boat. One thing led to another, and Harrington soon found out that he could make money doing what he loved. Painting and lettering became a full-time occupation for Harrington, and he opened his own sign shop on Harrington Road. He had jobs from Dunkirk Ice Cream, painting their signs, equipment and trucks. He got jobs up and down Central Avenue, with the steel plant and with schools. His hand-painted signs could be seen all over the businesses of Dunkirk.

Then Harrington took on other challenges. He didn’t want to just paint signs. He wanted to paint landscapes, seascapes, people and still lifes. He entered local and national juried shows and began to sell his paintings, making quite a name for himself in artistic circles. He has been featured in many publications, including a two-part article all about his life and art in the Aug. 18 and 25 Sunday editions of the OBSERVER.

Harrington is retired now and just doing what he loves. This local hero-turned-artist spends his days painting and with his family, which has grown to include 10 grandchildren.

Harrington did his duty for his country, on call when needed to keep our fleet sailing and 100 percent ready to deal with enemy forces during the Korean War. If a person took time to read our Declaration of Independence, he or she would see that our forefathers meant for our country to always take care of those who cannot defend themselves, and to stop aggressive forces that are out to do harm. That is just what our Navy is prepared for, and it is people like Harrington who keep our fleet in sailing, fighting, floating shape. For Harrington’s dedication and ability, for his service to our country, we say thank you. Robert J. Harrington, shipfitter, is our hero of the week.