VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — It’s Tuesday, late morning, four days before The Day – April 19 – and it’s pouring outside.
Mike Carr is seated in the lobby of a tattoo place on Virginia Beach Boulevard. He’s in shorts and a T-shirt. He didn’t shave today. He’s running his fingers through wispy blond hair that goes to his shoulders.
The tattooist, a mohawked man named Stan Finchem, asks if he’s ready.
In a chair in the back, Carr pulls up his left sleeve. Finchem runs a razor across the skin above the elbow, then applies the stencil. He asks Carr to look in the mirror to check the placement.
“It looks good,” Carr says.
Finchem dips needles into black ink. He starts with the lettering: Battleship Iowa across the top. Brotherhood at the bottom. The number 47 big in the middle.
It hurts, but Carr’s face doesn’t show it.
People have all kinds of ways of dealing with trauma, loss and survivor’s guilt. Ink into skin is one of them.
Twenty-five years ago, on April 19, 1989, Carr was 23 years old. He was a second class petty officer and gunner’s mate in the Navy, assigned to the Norfolk-based battleship Iowa.
It was a vessel that made its name during World War II, when its giant guns, which fired 2,000-pound shells propelled by 600 pounds of powder, helped pummel the Japanese. There were nine barrels in all, divided evenly among the Iowa’s three turrets. Turrets one and two were forward. No. 3, where Carr was assigned, was aft.
That is where he was just before 10 a.m. that April 19th. The ship and its 1,500 sailors were at sea for a training exercise off the coast of Puerto Rico.
“The admiral wanted to see the guns shoot, so we were gonna shoot ’em,” Carr remembers.
Turret No. 1 was to go first, then two and three, then a nine-gun salvo.
No. 1 fired.
Then came the explosion in No. 2.
But the sound wasn’t right.
Then over the ship’s speakers: Unexplained detonation in turret two!
Then: Fire! Fire! Fire in two!
“What’s the 47 mean?” Finchem, the tattooist, asks.
Carr doesn’t hesitate. That’s how many people died, he answers.
“That’s unacceptable,” Finchem says.
He’s on to the colored ink now, the blue in the American flag that’s underneath the 47.
He does the red next, then wipes away blood and steps out of the room for a short break.
With his phone, Carr posts a photo of the work in progress to Facebook, which he uses to keep in touch with other survivors. Hundreds of them are coming for the anniversary – a long weekend of events that includes a Saturday ceremony at Iowa Point at Norfolk Naval Station, a Sunday brunch, and an open room at a Virginia Beach hotel where guys can drop in and talk with whoever is there.
Carr isn’t the only one getting the tattoo. A group tried to coordinate a place and time to do it together while everyone was in town. It proved too complicated, though, so they decided to get them done individually.
Carr has attended more than a dozen of the anniversaries. He says a lot of the others have only recently started coming – they’ve only recently started talking about what happened.
Carr is an exception. He’s been talking for years.
Some of Carr’s memories from the hours and days after the explosion are seared in, so that the faintest smells call them up. Other things he knows only because people have told him, and some things he doesn’t know at all.
He knows he put on firefighting gear, including a breathing apparatus, and climbed a ladder with other sailors to the top of turret No. 2, which stood high above the deck, pouring out smoke. He knows that a Marine in a dress uniform was waiting at the rim to heave him over and in.
Inside the turret, entire walls were gone. He could hardly see his hands in front of him. He aimed a fire hose. He kept spraying long after an alarm warned him that his breathing apparatus would soon be out of oxygen.
When the fire was out, he helped move victims. Later, someone passed him on the deck carrying remains that he recognized as Petty Officer 3rd Class Heath Stillwagon, his best friend.
What he remembers from the cruise back to Norfolk is the muster, after which the names of sailors who didn’t turn up were called repeatedly over speakers to make sure they weren’t just asleep somewhere.
What he remembers about arriving at the pier is the silence, even though thousands of people were there waiting, including Stillwagon’s mother and girlfriend.
In a parking lot outside the McDonald’s on base, where Carr had wandered looking for his father, a group of gunner’s mates from another ship wanted to know what happened. Carr told them, then collapsed on the asphalt, where his father finally found him.
The blue and red are done now. Finchem reaches for white.
He fills in the stars, then the stripes, then switches back to black for a few touch-ups to the 47.
He asks about the tattoo higher up on Carr’s left arm – clearly a cover-up, but a decent one, Finchem says.
“It was my ex-wife’s name,” Carr says.
He has two other tattoos, on his right arm. They’re both for the Iowa. He got the first one, an eagle with a rose, while he was assigned to the ship. He got the second, an anchor and the date, around 2004.
Like the other survivors, Carr says what happened in the months after the explosion made a nightmarish tragedy worse. Navy investigators theorized that one of the dead sailors had deliberately caused the detonation because he was suicidal after a failed gay relationship with a shipmate – one of the few who made it out of turret No. 2 alive.
The story added hatred and rage to sailors’ grief, and in the end, none of it was true. A civilian investigation ordered by Congress later pointed to an accident, probably caused by inexperience or bad gun powder. The Navy eventually apologized, admitting it had no proof of sabotage.
Unlike many of the survivors, Carr chose to stay in the Navy. He went to Japan, then San Francisco, then Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach.
At every new command, people asked about what happened on the Iowa. Carr always told them, sometimes in gruesome detail.
What he did not share, for fear it would end his career, was how badly he needed help. Guilt, anxiety and nightmares about the victims who did not die instantly were constant. Certain ship smells made him vomit. He became an alcoholic. April was always the worst.
“I was known as a screamer in berthing,” Carr says. “Sometimes the only way to sleep was to drink until I was unconscious.”
He finally sought treatment around 2000. He was still in the Navy but chose a civilian doctor.
When he retired in 2004, he was diagnosed with PTSD. He got married, then divorced.
In 2009, he met Stacy, a nurse, who he says takes excellent care of him. They’ve been married for a little more than a year.
He goes to the VA hospital in Hampton for medication and to a center in Virginia Beach for group therapy with a handful of Vietnam veterans.
He hasn’t had a drink in years.
Every so often, he visits the memorial at Iowa Point.
“I think we’re good,” Finchem says, wiping away more blood.
Carr goes to the mirror. “It’s great,” he says.
They shake hands.
Finchem wipes the tattoo one more time and then covers it with a bandage.
In the lobby, Carr pays. Finchem gives him instructions, what to do while the tattoo heals.
“You wanna baby it like a wound,” he says.
Carr nods and smiles, then steps outside and looks up at the clouds.
The rain has stopped.