The Navy Yacht Club of Long Beach continued an annual tradition last Sunday with an emotional tribute to wounded warriors. The club hosted more than 50 military war veterans for a day at sea, a dramatic gun salute and rendering of honors at the USS Iowa, then returned to the club’s Alamitos Bay headquarters for a luncheon.
Tommy Wheeler CWO3 USN (retired), a Staff Commodore of Navy Yacht Club Long Beach, explained why he chairs the event: “Having served, I understand the sacrifice these veterans and their families made. So many came home with both physical and mental injuries and this event is designed with them in mind.”
After pausing to reflect he said, “I owe them something — and chairing this cruise is something I can do.”
Now retired, the 20-year career Navy veteran first served on the East Coast, where he met his wife, who also is a veteran. In 1986, they moved to the West Coast, where he was assigned to the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. Wheeler was literally the one who turned the lights out when the shipyard closed. In 1997, he was pictured on the Press Telegram’s front page gathering the American Flag and handing it to shipyard personnel to fold one last time.
The cruise to Berth 87 in the Port of Los Angeles requires months of planning. There is coordination with Veteran outreach groups, recruiting boat owners to host, and arranging a barbecue meal for everyone. This year, several boats dropped out at the last minute and Wheeler scrambled to find replacements.
Coordinating the salute with USS Iowa officials requires the most effort. Traditionally, the cruise takes place in September on a Saturday just after Fleet Week, preferably near 9/11.
This year’s event was on Sunday as the trained crew for gun shoots was only available then. According to the Iowa’s museum curator, Dave Way, “It is the rare event when the two five-inch guns are used. The USS Iowa tour even offers a special ‘Naval Gun Accidents’ exhibit that traces history from the Civil War to the 1989 incident on the Iowa where a 16-inch gun turret exploded killing 47 crewmen.”
The convoy included eight boatloads of yacht club members, along with disabled vets and their escorts from the Long Beach VA hospital rehabilitation group, the West Los Angeles CAL VET rehabilitation center, the Sergeant Santiago Bravo Foundation and The Old Guys Rule group also from the Long Beach VA Hospital.
Bravo shared that 22 active duty personnel and veterans take their lives every day in the United States and events like this provide those who serve an opportunity to socialize with others with similar experiences, a step towards treating depression.
As the fleet of power and sailboats passed in review, the USS Iowa honored their arrival with a perfectly timed cannon salute. Staff Commodore Wheeler had planned for this to be his last year as chairman, but he said, “When I saw the smiles on the faces of all those on board when the guns went off — I knew I’d be chairing this next year.”
The boats headed back with the sailboats hoisting sails, providing those on board a special treat. The hearty barbecue lunch was prepared with member Hap Wood grilling burgers and hot dogs while other members prepared a buffet, and the custom-made cake that read “Home of the free — because of the brave.”
There is some debate over how many years the event has been hosted because honoring those who have served our country is so much a part of the yacht club’s DNA. Besides the annual Wounded Warrior event, the club hosts a Duffy Cruise for women veterans.