Robert Browngardt, who sailed on everything from a destroyer to an aircraft carrier during a 21-year career with the United States Navy before settling in his home port of Sag Harbor, was honored as a 50-year member of the Chelberg-Battle Post 388 of the American Legion on Tuesday when he received proclamations from town, county, and state government officials.
Mr. Browngardt joined the legion in 1970 while still on active duty and served two terms as the post commander, from 1981 to 1982 and from 2007 to 2008, after retiring from the Navy and moving back to the family home on Palmer Terrace with his wife Judy and five children.
Shortly after graduating from Pierson High School in 1957, Mr. Browngardt set off for the Navy’s Great Lakes training facility just north of Chicago along with his friend, Ralph Rana of Bridgehampton, in the Navy’s buddy program. He remembered that out of his class of only 13 students, five joined the service during a period when there weren’t many jobs to be had in the village.
As a newly minted seaman, Mr. Browngardt was assigned to the U.S.S. Kidd, a destroyer based in San Diego. “Before you knew it, it was four months later and we were pulling into Sydney, Australia,” he said of his first voyage.
Mr. Browngardt, who had been given his choice of duties after joining the Navy, became a boiler technician, and was stationed in the ship’s fire room, where the ship’s power is produced and the temperature can be on the high side. “I liked it, though,” he said because it was neat and clean. “It was like the inside of a watch.”
Throughout his career, he stuck to his specialty, eventually overseeing the boiler room of the U.S.S. Oriskany, an aircraft carrier that generated some 160,000 horsepower.
After four years on the U.S.S. Kidd, Mr. Browngardt was transferred to the U.S.S. Shields, another destroyer, where he was promoted to petty officer first class. He was later assigned to the U.S.S. Columbus, a guided missile cruiser that was a step up in size and comfort from a destroyer, but, more importantly, was based in Norfolk, Virginia, allowing him to be closer to home.
He sailed to the Mediterranean on that ship, before an executive officer, noticing that Mr. Browngardt had served nine years at sea, arranged for him to be assigned to shore duty as a recruiting officer in Bay Shore.
While there, Mr. Browngardt passed the warrant officer exam and was rewarded for his diligence by being sent to Vietnam to serve on the U.S.S. Valley Forge, a World War II era carrier that had been converted into an amphibious assault ship that launched helicopters carrying marines into battle. “It was rough over there,” he said. “I saw a lot of wounded Marines.”
After nearly two years in Vietnam, Mr. Browngardt, who eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant, served on the U.S.S. Puget Sound, a repair ship based in Newport, Rhode Island, at the naval station in Annapolis, Maryland, and on the U.S.S. Oriskany in the Pacific, before winding down his career, serving once again as a recruiting officer on Long Island.
When he left the Navy, Mr. Browngardt launched a 26-year career as an operating engineer in the power plant at Brookhaven National Laboratory and eventually moved back to the home his parents, Arthur and Gladys Browngardt, had purchased in 1926.
He remembers mostly good times about growing up in Sag Harbor, where relatives lived up and down the street, and he and his twin brother, Richard, shared a pony.
But there were hard times too, he said, perhaps none more difficult than January 7, 1945, when his older brother, Arthur, the pilot of a B-25 light bomber named “The Sag Harbor Express,” died when his plane was shot down in the Philippines.
“I remember when my brother was killed, I was swinging on the swings in the backyard with my brother, and an Army guy came up on the wrong side of the house,” Mr. Browngardt, who was 5 at the time, recalled. “We went into the kitchen, and it was the first time I saw my father cry.”