By Captain Walt Urban, USN (ret)
Liaison Officer, Battleship New Jersey
On June 28, 2018, Battleship New Jersey (BB-62) lost her 16th Commanding Officer, Rear Admiral Richard D. Milligan, USN (Ret.). His death at 81 years old was due to complications from dementia. Milligan and his wife of 56 years, Mary Bourke, ultimately retired to Pawleys Island, SC where he was active in the Red Cross, at his church Precious Blood and on the golf courses in the area. He was well respected by all those who knew or served with him in the Navy.
Prior to attaining the rank of Admiral, than Captain Milligan commanded battleship New Jersey from September 15, 1983 to September 7, 1985. Soon after assuming command, New Jersey was ordered to steam into the Mediterranean Sea, and take-up station off the coast of war-torn Beirut, Lebanon. Lebanon would be New Jersey’s 4th and final war, and as her CO, it was Captain Milligan’s responsibility to ensure the newly recommissioned battleship lived-up to her motto to provide Firepower for Freedom, if needed.
New Jersey would eventually fire over 300 rounds from her 16” rifles (288 rounds on February 8, 1984) in support of Multinational Peacekeeping Forces before returning to her home port in Long Beach, CA in May 1984. Captain Milligan had accomplished the assigned mission, and it was now time to get the venerable battleship ready for yet another operational deployment. A much needed overhaul commenced during the summer of 1984 at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, and it included the removal of center gun of number two 16” gun turret. This was the only time during the 1980’s any of the 4 recommissioned IOWA class battleships had a 16” rifle replaced, and it was a first for battleship New Jersey since 1954. It fell on Captain Milligan to make sure the work was done successfully and without incident. No easy feat when you consider one of these rifles weigh 120 tons, is 68 feet long, and this kind of rifle replacement hadn’t been done in 30 years.
Following her successful yard period, it was time for Captain Milligan to put the battleship and her crew through their paces, and make sure both were ready for whatever commitment would come next. Many of the crew who had been onboard New Jersey as members of her December 28, 1982 recommissioning crew had been replaced by new sailors unfamiliar with duty onboard a battleship. So it was now up to Captain Milligan, his officers and chiefs to train this new breed of battleship sailor.
Refresher Training (REFTRA) commenced in February 1985, and for 4 weeks, the Navy’s Readiness Training Group out of San Diego evaluated the performance of her crew and material readiness of the battleship herself. It was during this time period that I reported onboard to perform active duty for training (ACDUTRA) attached to a Navy Reserve unit based in Trenton, NJ.
Here is where the story gets interesting. At the time I reported onboard the battleship, I was a Captain (promotable to Major) in the US Amy Reserve. I was a battleship aficionado, and managed to procure no cost orders to serve on the Navy’s most decorated battleship. Captain Milligan approved my request, but now that I was standing on the New Jersey’s Quarterdeck, I’m sure he wondered what I would be able to contribute during REFTRA.
To break the ice and to get to know me, Captain Milligan, and several other officers, had dinner the following evening at the famous Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. My knowledge about the Navy and battleships in particular must have impressed him. It was decided that I would fill-in for the battleship’s Public Affairs Officer who was on leave. The battleship was scheduled to embark several hundred VIP’s on a Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) guest cruise from San Diego to Long Beach in two days. My first assignment was to write the Captains’s Welcome Aboard letter. The letter must have hit the mark, because I was given more and more increasingly responsible tasks to perform during the course of my ACDUTRA. Being the only person onboard in an olive drab uniform made my presence very conspicuous, so I’m sure most people had no idea who I was, or what I was doing here.
Captain Milligan was a great ship driver. When we arrived in Long Beach at the conclusion of the SECNAV guest cruise, the CO was on the 0-8 Secondary Con level. He told me he preferred mooring the 57,500 ton battleship from the 0-8 level verses the 0-4 Navigation Bridge because he could see the after part of the ship much better from there. He docked the 887’ 7” long battleship with the same ease that you would parallel park your car. He performed the maneuver of getting the “Big J” underway with the same methodical skill and confidence. When I was on the bridge, especially during underway replenishment operations, Captain Milligan was very much the person in charge of the evolution. New Jersey was his 5th at sea command, and he definitely knew his business.
When it was time for me to depart the battleship, I was in the CO’s Import Cabin for the final out briefing. Captain Milligan looked at me and said, “Urban, you are out of uniform. You really should be in Navy Service Dress Blues.” We discussed the subject for a few minutes, and it was suggested that I investigate an inter-service transfer. He offered to send a letter of endorsement on my behalf, if I decided to pursue it.
When I returned to my Army Reserve unit, I did extensive research on the process involved applying for an inter-service transfer. I assembled the required documentation, and in my package to the Navy’s Bureau of Personnel was a letter from now Admiral Milligan. I was subsequently notified that I was selected to become a Public Affairs Officer, at the rank of Lieutenant Commander, US Navy Reserve. I believe Admiral Milligan’s letter had a considerable amount of influence on the Navy’s decision.
After departing battleship New Jersey in February 1985, I only saw Admiral Milligan on two subsequent occasions. Once while I was on active duty assigned to battleship Wisconsin, and another time in July 2013 when both he and another former (BB-62) CO, Admiral Douglas Katz, USN (Ret.) were onboard their former command, now a floating museum in Camden, for a 1980’s mini-crew reunion. Hosting both former CO’s was quite an honor. Of course Admiral Milligan remembered my being onboard his battleship in an Army uniform 28 years earlier. He was pleased my inter-service transfer went through, and that he was able to help me achieve my goal. I imagine he helped many people that were fortunate enough to serve under his leadership during his Navy career. It defines the kind of person he was, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
Admiral Milligan was quick to point out that his time as CO of battleship New Jersey was the most memorable and rewarding assignment he had during his 30 year Navy career. Personally, I owe him an incredible debt of gratitude for his willingness to allow me, than an Army officer, to fill an important billet during a highly important training evolution for the battleship.
For this and other reasons, Richard D. Milligan will always be remembered as someone who definitely made a difference in my life. Rest well, skipper! The battleship New Jersey community and the Navy misses you.