The Lejeune Bell

In accordance with U.S. Navy Regulations, the national flag is reverently hoisted on the flagstaff in front of Building 1, the Base headquarters, every morning at 0800 during a formal Morning Colors Ceremony. This ceremony is further enhanced and solemnified by the striking of eight bells on the 280-pound brass bell affixed to the flagstaff, on the outboard of which is inscribed USS LEJEUNE 1944. Inboard, it is inscribed WINDHUK, and therein lies a tale, for this was the original inscription.

The U.S.S. Lejeune (AP-74), under the American flag, was a WW II troop transport commissioned for use with the Navy Transportation Service on 15 May 1944 at Norfolk, Virginia. Her name, befittingly, honored John Archer Lejeune, the 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps, likewise the namesake of our base. But, she was not of American manufacture. She began life as the S.S. Windhuk, in 1936, a passenger liner in the service of the Deutsche-Afrika Line, operating between Germany and southern Africa, having been built that year by the Blohm and Voss ship yard in Hamburg. Pressed into service with the German Navy at the beginning of the war, her brief existence as a support vessel was ceaselessly troubled by the presence of British and French task groups in the South Atlantic and their relentless search for the pocket battleship and commerce raider Graf Spee. The Windhuk managed to escape into the harbor of Santos, Brazil, on 7 December 1939, just six days before the British cornered the Graf Spee outside of Montevideo, Uruguay, resulting in the warship’s self-destruction to avoid capture.

USS LeJeune

Finding themselves interned, the crew of the Windhuk unsuccessfully attempted to render the ship unserviceable. She was eventually towed to Rio de Janeiro where, having gained the attention of the U.S. Navy, the ship was purchased from the Brazilian government in 1942, made seaworthy, sailed to Norfolk for further repairs, and converted by 1944 into a much needed troopship. In American service, the Lejeune transported almost one-hundred thousand troops overseas in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters but, at the war’s conclusion and her services no longer required, she was decommissioned in 1948 and stricken from the Navy Register in 1957.

Inevitably, the Lejeune’s final destination was to a wrecking yard, in Portland, Oregon, to which she was sold ($239,769) and cutup in 1966. Only the ship’s bell was salvaged, languishing almost forgotten in a warehouse until 1971, when former Base SgtMaj John Steely, having discovered its existence, began an ultimately successfull effort to obtain the bell to serve as a memorial to the Marines who had trained at Camp Lejeune and died in their country’s service during WW II. His resolute determination and dedication to their memory resulted in the bell’s acquisition by the Base in November 1971, and its attachment to the headquarters’ flagstaff. There, the uniquely inscribed Lejeune/Windhuk bell, bearing the names of both an Allied and Axis vessel, belligerents during WW II, is solemnly struck each morning as part of the traditional Morning Color Ceremony. Its sounding should remind all within hearing, as was SgtMaj Steely’s intention, of those that made the ultimate sacrifice for their Corps and Country.

Posted on: August 21st, 2019
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