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Sailor visits Mars bell he once shined

David Phlieger, who served on the USS Mars, polishes the ship's bell Wednesday in Mars, where it has resided since 2006. It has been on permanent loan from the Navy and federal government ever since.

MARS — David Phlieger can’t imagine how many times he has polished the USS Mars’ signature bell.

When asked, all he could muster was a pained, knowing look, as if to say he became very familiar with the 300-pound bell, which hung on the ship’s deck.

Phlieger found himself in familiar territory Wednesday, as he once again worked to polish the bell — which is now situated at the corner of Pittsburgh Street and Grand Avenue in the borough. This time, though, the choice was his.

“I’ve been wanting to come out here for some time,” he said.

The bell was originally moved to the borough in 2006 and has been on permanent loan from the Navy and federal government ever since. The monument it sits upon was installed as a way to honor those who served on the namesake ship, a 581-foot vessel that provided about 27 ships per day with food and supplies in the South China Sea during the Vietnam War. The ship was named for three entities — the planet, the Roman god and the 1-square-mile borough — because it was the first supply ship to combine a stock of aviation parts, a general store and a freezer.

A formal dedication ceremony, which saw the bell removed and polished to a 1963-level shine, was held in 2008 — a year after the ship was intentionally sunk off the Pearl Harbor coast. During that ceremony, 47 Navy veterans and their families were on hand to get a look at the bell and the plaque that honors them.

Phlieger, an Ohio native who now lives in the Akron suburb of Barberton, was not at that ceremony and had not seen the bell since his days on the ship between 1982 and 1984. A member of the gunnery division, Phlieger said he learned about the bell’s home through a Facebook page.

Earlier this month he and his wife, Ellen, made the two-hour trip to Mars to see the bell. He posted photos to that page, and received an interesting response.

“Some of the guys on the Facebook said ‘it looks awful dull,’” he said. “I said to my wife, ‘let’s drive back out there again, get some stuff and put a shine to it.”

Phlieger eventually got in touch with John Clutter who, along with his wife, borough council member Christine Clutter, care for and clean the bell. Clutter said he typically performs maintenance about once a month, sometimes using sandpaper to strip away the dirt.

“It’s here and it needs to be taken care of,” John Clutter said of his work on the bell.

On Wednesday, Phlieger used a drill-powered buffer — as well as his own elbow grease — to remove the dirt and debris and bring the bell’s shine to life. He noted he was using the same brand of polish he used more than three decades ago. As he worked, he recalled his time on the ship.

Phlieger said he remembers two bells, one of which was rung each day at noon, during drills and whenever the captain would enter or exit the ship. The bell on display in Mars, he said, was mounted and not rung.

As he worked to meticulously buff out rough patches, Phlieger said he would likely spend a few hours Wednesday getting it back into shape. However, he said he didn’t have a definitive reason for being there, hours away from home, revisiting his history and the memories associated with it.

“It’s kind of like a debt I felt I owed,” he said, pausing from his work. “I can’t really explain it.”