In the late 1950s, John Conigliaro technically went AWOL from military service after spending a night in jail and missing a ride on his ship, the USS Antietam, the first to support an aircraft arrival and departure at the same time. But it turned out fine for the U.S. Navy veteran, who went to Hyperspace Rocket Designs & Tea Bar in the Town Mall of Westminster to acquire a model of the vessel as a memento.
Conigliaro, 84, returned to the shop on Monday to share stories of his time in the Navy. It was a deal he struck with store owner Rhianwen Phillips, 21, of Finksburg, who told him he could have the model for free, provided he returned to talk about his service.
The model is a proud memento of his 1957-1959 service on the ship, he said.
“They were so nice about it,” Conigliaro said, “they gave it to me for free and they are going to put it together for me for free … they couldn’t have been any nicer.”
The regular cost for the model of the USS Antietam is above $60, Conigliaro said.
Conigliaro’s story goes that in 1957, he and a friend were waiting for a ride from a crewmate from Baltimore to Naval Station Mayport near Jacksonville, Florida, where the Antietam was moored. They were in uniform waiting at an agreed-upon roadside spot when a car full of Marines stopped to ask if they were hitchhiking, which is illegal and especially unacceptable for uniformed members of the military. Conigliaro told them they were not, but the Marines stuck around to be sure.
Conigliaro’s ride never came and he was jailed that night alongside his friend.
“I don’t know what happened with him, we didn’t really know him. I should have never trusted him,” Conigliaro said.
Conigliaro called his parents to bail him out of jail and they helped him get to Florida by train. But by the time he arrived, the Antietam was gone. It returned to dock the next day, in a stroke of good luck. Once onboard, Conigliaro feared the worst when summoned by the captain.
Because of his clean record and stellar job performance, the captain said his explanation was reasonable and Conigliaro was permitted to complete his service with an unblemished record.
“I was so happy when he said that because we were AWOL — I could have been in trouble,” Conigliaro said. “You’re not supposed to miss your ship.”
Conigliaro retired from the service with an honorable discharge, and now lives in the Manchester Manor retirement community in northeastern Carroll County.
The veteran shared that story and others at Hyperspace Rocket Designs and Tea Bar on Monday afternoon. Several shoppers stopped by, but the audience was mostly made up of Phillips and family members who work at the store.
“This was a really big deal,” Phillips said of Conigliaro’s visit. “Especially considering how old he is and what great a part the Antietam played in developing aircraft technology.”
Conigliaro said he came closest to seeing combat while on board the USS Antietam during the Lebanon Crisis of 1958. Although the Antietam was called to assist in the conflict, the ship received word it would not be needed while en route.
“The Korean War was before me and the Vietnam War was after me,” Conigliaro said. “So my time was peace time, and I’m not complaining!”
The USS Antietam was the first aircraft carrier to have an angled deck, which is a standard feature for ships today. Conigliaro said the ship was mostly used for training purposes. Its crew of about 2,000 picked up and dropped off crews of pilots from Pensacola, Florida, so they could perform training exercises over the Atlantic.
Conigliaro set his sights on the rank of yeoman, but was assigned boatswain mate when his service began. Shortly into his time on the Antietam, a yeoman position opened and Conigliaro attained the desired promotion. Yeomen serve as administrative staff and boatswain mates are in charge of grunt work, such as painting the ship in Conigliaro’s case, and he said the difference was night and day.
Monday’s event was intended to honor Conigliaro and was the first of its kind for the business, Phillips said.
The model is a mostly accurate older design, and Phillips said her methods for tracking down the model ship are a trade secret, although she is always happy to help customers find items they have a personal connection to.
“I am excited that I’m going to pick it up in a week,” Conigliaro said, “because it’s a ship that I lived on for a couple years. When you get older you reminisce and you think of things like that.
“The ship is going to go right above my fireplace on a shelf. And that’ll be a good memory until I die.”
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Author: Thomas Goodwin Smith – Baltimore Sun
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