"Another beautiful Caribbean morning, laden with cumulus clouds towering high above the waters off Puerto Rico. At the moment I'm aboard Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station's crash/rescue boat, putting together a feature story about the vessel's purpose and function. The skipper, chief petty officer Emil Bardowski, is instructing two wannabe bosun's mates in a practice rescue exercise, using various floatation and retrieval devices. Chief Bardowski even thought to bring along a life-sized uniformed mannequin. Its bobbing head protrudes above the water -- pleading to be rescued. We're adrift now, the boat's twin Packard engines in neutral. My intent is to document various life-saving maneuvers, using my trusty 4x5 Speed Graphic camera. In the distance there's a light cruiser anchored in the middle of the roadway.

"From out of nowhere comes a hell-bent Marine Corps jet jockey behind the controls of an A-4M Skyhawk. He flashes overhead, then goes inland in a wide half- circle and re-enters the roadway, passing directly over the cruiser. I judge he's doing close to 250 miles per hour. He then cuts sharply to port and drops down to maybe 100 feet, the port wingtip pointing at a steep angle to the water. He continues banking left as he lines up to approach the cruiser for another fly-by. For whatever reason - known only to the pilot - the plane drops even lower - and lower still. The wingtip touches the water just as Chief Bardowski cries out: 'GEE-ZUS KEE-RYST!'

"The chief - in total disbelief as we all are - races to the cabin and gets underway, full throttle. In the distance we can see a rush of activity aboard the cruiser, and then what appears to be the captain's motorized gig being lowered over the side. The chief enters the debris field, slows down to a crawl, and orders the two seamen to stand by on either side of the bow with a pair of 15 -foot boat hooks. 'Keep a sharp lookout!' he shouts through a bullhorn. 'And use hand signals to put me on course if you spot something.'

"The boat makes a couple sweeps up and down. I decide to climb atop the wheelhouse roof, which vantage point greatly increases my field of view. Between film exposures, I keep looking for signs of life despite the overwhelming odds against that happening. A couple times the bottom of the crash boat makes noisy contact with submerged fragments of the plane. There's lots of back-and-forth exchanges once the gig arrives within shouting distance. After a few minutes the commotion subsides, and that's when I notice one of the sailors lean over the bow and pull something on board with his boat hook.

"I climb down and go forward just as the boat comes to an standstill. The chief's abandoned the wheelhouse and his attention is now focused on tossing a line to the gig approaching from the starboard side. I continue forward, only to discover what proves to be a fuel-soaked khaki pants leg and an equally shredded pair of boxer shorts laid out on the bow deck. The seaman who's trawled this conglomeration from out of the briny is down on his knees, alternately poking and pulling with his fingers. He suddenly gives a tug and comes up with -- it can't be anything else, even to an untrained eye -- a spermatic cord, from which dangles a solitary mangled gonad.

"When it gradually dawns what's in his hand, the sailor springs to his feet and begins frantically scanning his immediate surroundings. Suddenly-- a solution! He quickly scoots across the deck to a ledge running along the inside of the gunnel - upon which sits an open container.

'Plop' goes the gonad.

"Now...let it be known that Chief Bardowski is a seasoned pro - a mix of half bosun's mate, half coxswain. In later conversation, I learn he's driven infantry landing craft during two island invasions in the Pacific. And survived a kamikaze attack while aboard ship. He has many WW11 mementos and souvenirs relating to his time in combat, but none does he hold closer to his heart than an over-sized ceramic coffee mug with its array of 18-karat gold leaf lettering that spells out all the battles he's been through. The mug follows Emil wherever he goes; it can truly be said that the chief and his coffee mug are inseparable. Do I mean to imply joined at the hips? Nay! Higher than that. Try joined at the lips. I repeat - at the lips.

"When the chief meanders over and discovers what lies nestled at the bottom of his beloved mug, he instantly freezes. His unbroken gaze lasts all of 10 seconds. Then, with a lion's roar, he smashes the cup on the deck and turns to face his tormentor. The seaman in turn spins around and runs pell-mell for the wheelhouse -- the chief at his heels. Had the miscreant reacted a few seconds later, he'd never have made it inside and latched the door in time. Make that two missing in action -- almost.

"The nearby gig pulls in the slack line and half-a-dozen swabbies - alarmed by all the shouting and cursing - climb aboard. They coax the frightened sailor to come out of the wheelhouse and then form a protective ring around him. And that's how we make our way back to the dock -- with CPO Emil Bardowski outnumbered and blaspheming behind the wheel, and the gig following in our wake.

"And the Marine jet pilot? Turns out his brother is the engineering officer aboard the cruiser. They'd talked ship-to-shore, and the engineer asked his brother to pay a visit the next time he was airborne and do some fancy aerial gymnastics to impress the crew. Impress them he did - far above and beyond the call of duty.

"I write a first-person account of the crash - it's big news on base. Missing from the narrative are certain unmentionables. Until now, that is. What you've just read is made possible by the inexorable passage of time - more than a half-century, if memory serves. And the passing of Chief Bardowski as his tormented soul.


Over time, Roosevelt Roads (Puerto Rico) expanded to become the largest U.S. naval facility in terms of acreage, sporting over 1,300 buildings and home to 7,000 personnel and their dependents. Then, in 2004, the military suddenly closed Rosey Roads for good - leaving behind the U.S. Navy's costliest ghost town. The sole remaining resident is Kilroy, who refuses to abandon his post.


Send Corrections, additions, and input to: