How a 90-Year-Old Boatswain’s Mate Celebrated the Navy CPO Birthday Aboard the Ship That Inspired Him to Enlist

Coming Full Circle:

How a 90-Year-Old Boatswain’s Mate Celebrated the Navy CPO Birthday
Aboard the Ship That Inspired Him to Enlist
By Seaman Matthew Fairchild,
USS Constitution Public Affairs CHARLESTOWN, Mass. (NNS) —

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The U.S. Navy chief petty officers’ (CPO) birthday comes around each year on the 1st of April, and is always a special day for any chief serving at sea or ashore. For one retired chief and his family, this year’s CPO birthday meant much more.

At age 90, a newly-pinned, retired Chief Boatswain’s Mate named James Drown was invited to perform morning colors with USS Constitution’s CPO mess aboard Old Ironsides in observance of the 121st birthday of the Navy CPO rank. Drown was accompanied to the event by many of his family members, who watched with pride and excitement in their eyes as he helped raise the American flag at the aft end on the spar deck of America’s Ship of State. “My father, as a chief, inspires me and inspires the people around him,” said Wayne Drown, James’ son. “I cannot really think of a better man that I want to strive to be like.”

Drown, who enlisted in the Navy on June 7, 1942, decided to do so for a variety of reasons.

“My aunt was going with a Sailor from an old tin can at the time, and he really put the idea (of enlisting) into my head for the first time,” said Drown.

Then, with tears slowly filling in his eyes, Drown began to reflect on his first visit to USS Constitution. The Somerville, Mass. native explained how excited he was to first step aboard Old Ironsides, and how he was overcome by a curiosity of how one of the Navy’s original
ships operated and sailed. “I came down (to Charlestown) to see how the ship was built and to see the rigging and how everything worked together, and from there I knew the Navy was going to be a career path for me,” said Drown.

During his active duty career, Drown served aboard the Mount McKinley-class amphibious force command ship USS Eldorado (AGC-11) and the Heywood-class attack transport USS William P. Biddle
(APA-8).

During his nine years of active service, Drown was twice commended for heroic actions performed in the line of duty. He received his first commendation at quarters ‘for prompt and effective action in discovering, reporting, and putting out a potentially dangerous fire
in the ship’s hole’ aboard Eldorado.

Drown was also recommended for the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroic action as coxswain of a volunteer lifeboat crew from Eldorado that engaged in the rescue of survivors from the stern section of the tanker SS Fort Dearborn on March 17, 1947. Fort Dearborn was steaming from San Francisco to Shanghai when she broke in two during a gale and eventually sank. Thanks to the efforts of Drown and his fellow first responders, 32 of Fort Dearborn’s crew of 44 were
rescued.

“The reason for any success that I had was because I had a very good chief aboard the Eldorado,” said Drown.

For Drown, USS Eldorado will always be a ship that he will never forget. Drown referred back to not only the duties he conducted aboard Eldorado, but also his fellow Sailors that he served with and remained friends with for quite some time after the conclusion of his naval career.

“[USS Eldorado] was the ship I went through the war with, you know,” said Drown. “Me and my guys served with each other and continued being friends for a long time after as well.”

Drown finished talking about his active duty career with a brief statement about the work a boatswain’s mate would conduct aboard a ship during World War II, most of which are not too different from the duties still conducted aboard modern Navy vessels today.

“You know, we chipped paint, painted,” said Drown. “Things have not changed much, and it was easy because the guys I was working with made it easy.” On paper, Drown was actually advanced to the rank of chief petty officer shortly after entering the Navy Reserves in 1948, however, knowing his time in the reserves would be brief, he never informed anyone that he had made chief until recently when he stumbled across the paperwork and told his daughter.

“It was just a piece of paper lying around – it was out there in the open,” said Drown. “So I told my daughter, ‘Jamie, just for the fun of it, see what you can find out about this’.”

Thanks to help from family members, Drown was finally pinned chief petty officer in March 2014 by Capt. Steven M. Benke, commanding officer of the Boston University-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) Boston Consortium. The pinning ceremony was a privately-held event, with Drown’s friends and family in attendance to watch him receive his gold fouled anchors – a mere 66 years after earning his initial promotion.

“I was very proud,” said Drown. “I had admired the chiefs back when I was in (the Navy), and me making chief had a lot to do with the things they taught and told me.”

A month later, Drown was an honored guest aboard Old Ironsides, the ship he first admired as a young man, to help celebrate the 121st birthday of the Navy CPO rank, and Constitution’s CPO mess made certain to welcome him with open arms.

After assisting the CPO mess with morning colors, Drown was guest speaker at an all-hands CPO heritage training event, where he was able to meet with the remainder of Constitution’s Sailors. Following the training, he was then treated to a special CPO birthday meal from the ship’s galley, complete with a cake-cutting ceremony in which he and the command’s youngest CPO performed the honors.

“The way I see it, we all are going to be there someday,” said Constitution Command Senior Chief Nancy Estrada. “So when I am 90 years old, that would be how I’d want an active duty command to welcome me.”

At the end of Drown’s visit to Constitution, he was overwhelmed with joy and speechless when asked ‘What does Constitution mean to you now as a chief?’ All he could do was continue to marvel at the ship that helped influence him to join the Navy nearly 72 years ago.

“Every time I came down to see how it was built, it was always very impressive to me – just to see it,” said Drown.

Advice from a 90-year-old WWII veteran chief boatswain’s mate is something that does not come around very often in a Sailor’s career. The advice and guidance that Drown imparted on Constitution’s crew during his visit was some of the same advice that he had once received from a chief during his active duty career:

“Just go, go, go and never stop,” said Drown. “If you love (the Navy), then never stop earning new things of your trade and always keep working hard to reach your goals.”

USS Constitution, the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat, actively defended sea lanes against global threats from 1797 to 1855. Now a featured destination on Boston’s Freedom Trail,
Constitution and her crew of U.S. Navy Sailors offer community outreach and education about the ship’s history and the importance of naval seapower to more than 500,000 visitors each year.