Special to The Post-Star
WHITEHALL - During its lifetime on the high seas, the imposing Navy destroyer USS Harlan R. Dickson DD708 carried thousands of men to exotic ports all around the world.
This week, more than 100 veterans who served on her broad decks met in Saratoga Springs for a reunion. On Friday, however, they toured the Skenesborough Museum and learned about Whitehall's place in Naval history.
Bruce Manell, a local history buff who is writing a book on the subject, addressed the group informally and discussed the painstaking research that leads him to believe that both the Navy and the Marines were first organized in Whitehall.
Manell was invited to speak to the group by Jim and Beth Saunders of Argyle, who are hosting this year's reunion.
The USS Harlan R. Dickson was built in a Brooklyn shipyard and launched in 1944. Several men who served on her very first crew, referred to as "plankers." were on hand Friday.
"It was 375-feet long. I'll never forget that," said Charles Ginex, of Whiting, NJ. "We never could figure out what the 'DD' stands for, but I always said it meant 'demolition derby.'"
The Dickson, built near the end of World War II, didn't see battle action, Ginex added - but there were adventures nonetheless.
"The Japs knew we were coming, so they surrendered," he said. "I remember one time, the captain snuck a girl on board. I think we took her to Cuba. That captain, he was a gentleman's gentleman."
Bruce Ercolani, who served aboard the destroyer from 1961-1963, said by that time the ship was based in Newport, R.I.
"We traveled to the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf," recalled Ercolani, of Ausable Forks (Essex County), "I got to visit Greece, Italy, Cuba and was on Jamaica when they received their independence."
America's independence and the role played by patriots in Whitehall was the focus of Manell's address to the group. He reviewed Benedict Arnold's history in the area, and told of how the first ship in the Navy's fleet was stolen from the British.
"The Brits were getting ready to sail down Lake Champlain," Manell said. "Benedict Arnold and a few men snuck into Fort Ticonderoga early one morning, woke the men who were sleeping and took them prisoner. They took a boat and cannons, too."
The cannons were shipped to Boston, he said, where they were desperately needed. Several other boats were stolen from Crown Point and added to the fledgling armada.
"For the next year, the colonists ruled Lake Champlain," Manell said. "The Brits and the French controlled the shore, but we had the lake."
Ray Peacock, of Saratoga Springs, another "planker," said he met up with Ginex, his shipmate in 1945, for the first time at the group's initial reunion in 1991. The pair now see each other every year.
"We men are all that's left," said Peacock. "The Dickson was taken off Navy records on June 1, 1972, broken up for scrap and sold for $46,000. That hurt. It hurt a lot."