GUILFORD -- More than six decades later, Robert Boudreau can easily set the scene: A roiling Mediterranean storm, a ship full of sick men and a few dozen rounds of volatile ammunition rolling loose through the bowels of a tossing ship.
The chief petty officer approached, looking for volunteers to secure explosives that could tear the USS Robert L. Wilson in two.
"I'm a damned fool. I just turned 18. I said, ‘I'll do it,'" Boudreau recalled. "He came over and said, ‘Are you sure?' I said, ‘I'll do it.'"
Boudreau is 84 now, a retired Book Press employee living in Guilford. But it was not until earlier this month that his heroism in saving the Robert L. Wilson and its crew of
Boudreau says he wasn't seeking recognition. But he nonetheless wears his new medal with pride, as was pointed out by his wife, Helen.
"He hasn't taken it off," she said with a smile.
Boudreau had joined the Navy at age 17 and, after training in Norfolk, he sailed in a submarine to the Mediterranean Sea. There he was assigned to the Robert L. Wilson, a destroyer.
"We protected the ships taking the American servicemen in and out of the Mediterranean," he said.
Sometime in 1946 -- it is unclear which month -- Boudreau recalls sailing near the Rock of Gibraltar en route to Greece when a furious storm rolled in.
"We couldn't turn back, so
At one point, the crew heard an intense metallic noise: Boudreau describes it as a "roar that sounded like an iron barrel rolling across an iron floor." Explosives that Boudreau calls "powder cans" had come loose from racks and were rolling around as the ship rode the waves.
The young seaman volunteered to secure the explosives, reasoning that "any of my shipmates would have done the same for me if they hadn't been so sick" from the heavy seas.
"I didn't think about it. I didn't have time to even think," he said. "All I could think about was all those guys dying."
He recalls being led to a door which was shut behind him. A certificate of appreciation he received this month in Norfolk tells this portion of the story:
"Seaman Robert Boudreau, with complete disregard for his personal safety, volunteered single-handedly to enter the confined space in the magazine where the rounds were adrift," the certificate says. "Upon entry, he found the high explosives rolling around the deck, striking the armor steel barbette bulkheads. Fuses on these projectiles could arm at any moment by concussion, creating a situation of extreme danger to himself, his shipmates and possibly causing the loss of the ship."
Boudreau isn't sure how long he struggled with 38 loose explosives. He recalls "hanging onto the ship because it was rolling all over, and I'd try to grab them as they'd go by me."
His highly hazardous mission ended this way: He walked to the door, knocked, and was greeted by his commanding officer.
"'I'm damn glad to see you,' he says," Boudreau recalled. "I said, ‘I'm damn glad to see you.'"
The seaman said he was commended by his superiors and promised a medal, which he never received. Boudreau believes he was discharged before he could be decorated.
And that might have been that, except for the fact that Boudreau's daughter, Cindi Rathbun, said
He also mentioned it to Chris Ducharme, a salesman at Brattleboro Subaru, while buying a car at the dealership.
"I'm a former Marine. He saw the emblems on my wall, and we were talking," Ducharme said. "He proceeded to tell me the story of what he did, and I was just so proud of him."
Rathbun, who lives in Spofford, N.H., wrote several months ago to the Navy, asking for more details about her father's story.
"They started working on it. They checked into it," she said. "They did a ton of research. They finally got back to me and said they wanted him to come down and get a medal."
Boudreau agreed to attend an annual reunion of former USS Robert L. Wilson crew members in Norfolk. He did not know he would be the star of the show, and he acknowledges "it was quite a shock" when he was marched to a podium in front of a crowd.
"They were up, clapping, stomping their feet," he said. "I thought, ‘What is going on?'"
He now wears a "Cold War" medal bearing the words, "promoting peace and stability." Boudreau's son, Robb, and his daughter were among the family members who also traveled to Norfolk to witness the ceremony.
"The one gentleman I talked to down there said he actually saved the entire ship," Rathbun said. "I'm so proud of him. He's definitely a hero. It really touched all of us, the whole family."
Boudreau's certificate of appreciation puts it this way:
"Seaman Boudreau, in upholding the highest traditions of the sea service, received official thanks from his commanding officer and division officer and the everlasting gratitude of his shipmates. Today, in the presence of the ship's crew assembled, those of us who followed him as crewmen on the USS Robert L. Wilson DD/DDE 847, we hold this Meritorious Mast on the USS Wisconsin to thank you, Shipmate Robert Boudreau, for what you did that day. You are a true Cold War Warrior."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.