In honor of San Pedro’s 125th birthday, I’m offering a couple of historic poems that speak volumes about our town and, despite their age, haven’t lost relevance.
The first is “To Their Memory,” written in 1924 by Minna Irving as a tribute to the 48 sailors who died in an explosion aboard the battleship USS Mississippi during gunnery practice off the coast of San Pedro on June 12 of that year. As part of the Pacific Battle Fleet, the Mississippi called San Pedro home from 1919 to 1940; when the rest of the fleet relocated to Pearl Harbor, the Mississippi went to the Atlantic and escaped that disaster.
The funeral for the Mississippi crewmen at San Pedro’s Trona Field was one of the largest events in town up to that time. In a sad postscript, an almost identical accident occurred during the war off the Gilbert Islands; another explosion in the same turret killed 43 sailors on Nov. 20, 1943.
The poem has added poignancy today with the addition of the USS Iowa to our waterfront. The Iowa suffered an eerily similar peacetime tragedy in 1989 when an explosion in No. 2 turret during gunnery practice off Puerto Rico killed 47 sailors.
I don’t know where the poem first appeared, but this version comes from Harvey Beigel’s classic Battleship Country, which details the long history of the Pacific Fleet in San Pedro.
The “Missy” is the proudest ship
That rides the billow’s crest,
In gunnery she’s unexcelled,
Her skippers are the best.
Five years she’s held the “Iron Men”
For athletes none can beat,
And in efficiency but few
Approach her in the fleet.
A greater pride is hers today
Though it is dimmed with tears,
For in her log a list of eight
And forty names appears —
Her seamen, unafraid who met
Man’s ancient grisly foe,
And passed with steadfast shining souls
To join the watch below.
Calm were the blue Pacific swells,
Clear was the azure sky,
Peace spread her wings above the world,
No enemy was nigh,
The Mississippi’s mighty guns
At target practice roared,
When Death, a silent visitor,
Unbidden came aboard.
Through hatches battered down he went
In Turret No. 2,
Where round the giant guns they served
Stood all the gunner’s crew,
Some thought of home and little ones
Beyond the ocean’s rim,
Some thought of service-stripes to earn,
But no one thought of him.
Within that chamber wrought of steel
He grimly took command,
And turned its deadly forces loose
On that devoted band.
They saw him then—a dreadful shape,
They felt his scorching breath,
And knew him by his shroud of flame
And veil of smoke as Death.
They died as men in battle die,
Each sailor at his post,
Fit mates of Lawrence, Hull, Paul Jones,
And all that hero host,
With Skrynas at the telephone
His last report to give,
While Ensign Erwin stepped aside
That other lads might live.
Horatius at the bridge, El Cid,
Great Charlemagne of old,
Rustem the peerless Persian—they
Were men of god-like mold,
The crew of Turret No. 2,
Who perished at their guns,
When Glory calls the roll reply
With these illustrious ones.
Oh! It is not her battleships
That makes the Navy strong.
The thickness of her armor-plates,
Her batteries in song,
Her might is in her sturdy tars
To flag and service true,
Like those immortal men who died
In Turret No. 2.
I can’t even remember where I got the following poem. It was published on a little notecard, the title simply “San Pedro,” with the copyright 1920. Earl Ihme is the author, and at the bottom it gives his address as 730 W. 21st Street. San Pedrans love their town, but as this poem amply demonstrates, it is not a recent phenomenon. San Pedro was only 32 years old and already affectionately called Pedro.
You ought to live in San Pedro,
Where the ships and the railroads link,
For the pulse is as throbbing in Pedro
As on anywhere else I can think.
Oh, we want to live in San Pedro,
Where the sky and the ocean meet,
Where the khaki and blue as “our hero”—
They are manning our fort and our fleet.
We are happy! — We live in San Pedro,
Where the sky and the sun is a smile,
Where the folks have the aim and the ether
O’ the works that are worthy of while.
Oh, we like to live in San Pedro,
At the door of an opening world;
For the future and flag of our Pedro
They shall yet to be fully unfurled.
Oh, we love to live in San Pedro!
We may move, we may roam everywhere,
We will always be longing for Pedro
For our home and our happiness there.
Some things never change. Happy birthday, San Pedro. spt