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New Navy destroyer built at BIW named for a living marine and Medal of Honor recipient

Col. Harvey Barnum was on hand to christen the Navy’s latest destroyer that will carry his name.

BATH, Maine — The huge, gray hull of the Navy destroyer towered above the platform at Barh Iron Works. The assembled crowd applauded. Navy admirals, Marine Corps generals, and even the U.S. Secretary of the Navy applauded. Two U.S. Senators and the Governor of Maine applauded with them, as Barney Barnum stood and accepted the cheers.

After a long period of applause, the retired Marine Colonel finally took charge.

“On my command,” he barked, “Cease!”

The applause ceased.

Barnum’s first comment: “Wow.”

The crowd and dignitaries were all gathered to celebrate the christening of the Navy destroyer USS Harvey C. Barnum Jr., named for the retired colonel who had just given that command.

Col. Harvey “Barney” Barnum retired decades ago following a 27-year career in the Marine Corps. That was followed by high-level civilian jobs with the Navy, including a stint as acting Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

Those are not the reasons the new Arleigh Burke-class destroyer bears his name.

Col. Barnum became a legend in the Marine Corps for his actions in combat in Vietnam in 1965, which earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

“The Secretary of the Navy gets on the phone,” explained Barnum during an interview, “and then he said one of the greatest privileges he has is he gets to name ships. And I have decided to name an Arleigh Burke destroyer the USS Harvey C. Barnum Jr. and I was speechless. And those who know me know I’m not speechless very often. “

It's rare to have a ship named for someone still living, something Barnum’s wife, Martha Hill, pointed out.

“For him to be speechless it was really something special happening,” Hill said with a smile. 

Col. Barnum says the battle that led to him receiving the Medal of Honor is still vivid, 58 years later. He was a 25-year-old Marine lieutenant, on his first tour in Vietnam. He was serving as a forward observer for artillery, accompanying a battalion of Marines on a patrol when the company he was with was suddenly attacked.

“I had only been in Vietnam a couple of weeks, first time I’d ever been shot at,” Banum said. “And it was a rude awakening. “

He credits Marine training for helping him cope with the confusion of battle once it began.

“The first thing I did was hit the deck. Anybody who says they’re not scared when being shot at is either smoking dope or lying. But when I looked up, all those young Marines were looking at me. I had only been with that unit four or five days. They didn’t know my name! But I had a silver bar for a first lieutenant on my collar, and they knew officers give directions, they lead. They were looking at me and saying what are we gonna do? We’re in a real ham sandwich here."

That situation was made much worse when the company commander and the radioman were both shot.

"I started giving orders. First thing I did was call my artillery because that’s what I was there for as a forward observer. And then I realized, the company corpsman (medic) was running by me, and he said the skipper’s down the skipper’s down." 

The unit’s commander was mortally wounded, and the radio operator was already dead, Barnum said. 

“Then I realize the leader’s gone, he’s got the radio out there, and we’re cut off from the rest of the unit. I ran out got the company commander, brought him back, he died in my arms. I realized our connection with the battalion was that radio, I ran out, got that (and) strapped it on myself, called the battalion commander, and told him what happened. That the company commander had died and I was taking command of that company. 

The Medal of Honor citation explains how Barnum then led the Marines to attack the enemy and stood in the open to direct fire from helicopters to shoot at the enemy positions.

Martha says she didn’t know about the Medal of Honor when she met Barney more than 30 years ago, but is amazed by what he did.

“And him standing on this knoll, pointing directions to helicopters to land and pick up his men. How did he survive all those bullets aimed at him? God had to have a hand in doing this, and there was a reason for him being there .”

Barney Barnum served two tours of duty in Vietnam, then a variety of other assignments in the Marines during his career. He says he speaks often to young Marines and sailors, as well as other young people, about his experiences and his insights on duty, leadership, and service. That included the first group of sailors assigned to the Harvey C. Barnum, Jr.

“I remind them they have an awesome responsibility because they will man a warship. That ship is a mass of steel and wires and equipment, but they can’t fight the ship. It’s the sailors who fight the ship. So I tell them they have to be best trained. Train, train, train, and then train some more.” 

It’s a message he also shared with the crowd at the christening of the ship that will take his name to sea.

“Right now, that ship is the greatest deterrent for an enemy force to take us on. But if they do, they’re gonna find out a Bath-built ship is a best-built ship. And we’re gonna take ‘em out. “

It’s a tough message for young service members, from one who was tested himself at a young age, two generations ago. 

The Barnum was christened by Martha Hill, who serves as the ship’s sponsor—a significant role in the Navy tradition.

“May God bless this ship and all who sail on her,” said Hill, just before she cracked the bottle of champagne on a piece of steel beside the ship’s bow.

The Barnum still has months to go before she will be complete and ready to sail away. The Barnums say they will be back in Bath several times before then, to check on progress and, they hope, to inspire the young sailors who will take her to sea.

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