Thursday, June 24, 2010

USS Oklahoma Mast Arrives at Muskogee's War Memorial Park



Perseverance pays off - a perfect example was the recent acquisition of the mast from the USS Oklahoma by Muskogee's War Memorial Park.  This historical artifact made the long trip from Pearl Harbor in Hawaii to its new home.  But the process was not an easy one according to museum director, Rick Dennis.

"Honestly I didn't think we were going to get it here, but now that it's here, it's real," said Dennis.  "It's just very exciting."

The USS Oklahoma was part of the fleet of American ships attacked at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The ship capsized within 12 minutes after being struck by Japanese torpedoes. 429 lives were lost when the ship went down, many trapped inside the submerged vessel.  More than 65 years went by before an official memorial was erected to honor those fallen servicemen.  The USS Oklahoma Memorial on Ford Island, Hawaii, was dedicated on December 7th, 2007. 

State Rep. George Faught (R-Muskogee) began working on this project nearly 3 1/2 years ago. “There have been many ups and downs along the way, but we are thrilled that this valuable piece of history has finally arrived at the War Memorial Park," he said 

Faught said his office first got involved when Rod Mish, a volunteer at the Park, contacted him to ask for help.  Mish explained that early in 2007, he called the curator at the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii to see if any pieces from the USS Oklahoma were available for display in Muskogee's war museum.  The curator told Mish that a section of the mast to the battleship had recently been discovered during a dredging operation at Pearl Harbor, but that the Navy was planning to cut it in pieces and dispose of it.

At the time Mish placed that phone call, his landlady, Judy Moody, was vacationing in Hawaii.  He contacted her to see if she could take a look at the piece for him.  She agreed, and the decision was then  made by the War Memorial Park to pursue trying to acquire the mast for display at the museum.

Moody, a computer technology instructor at Northeastern State University, volunteered to fill out the appropriate paperwork, but soon discovered that there was a lot of "red tape" to get through.  Since approval from the Navy was required, assistance was sought from Senator Tom Coburn's office, as well as that of Congressman Dan Boren. “Getting the Navy to relinquish the section of mast turned out to be a lengthy process,” said Moody.

Faught's office was tasked with arranging for transportation from Pearl Harbor to Muskogee.  His legislative assistant just happened to be a long-time family friend of then Major General Loren Reno, the commander of the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center at Tinker Air Force Base.  This connection opened doors for possible transport in conjunction with training flights and other missions.  "About 18 months ago, we thought we had a date set for a training flight from Hawaii, but then someone in the Navy decided to stall the project and the waiting game was back on", explained Faught.

Then they were notified that General Reno had received a promotion to the Pentagon.  When he transferred, so did his assistant who had been heavily involved in making arrangements for the mast.  So the process was once again delayed.

"Each completed step in the process revealed more hoops to jump through", said Faught, "and many delays seemed to take us back to square one."

But, not easily discouraged, museum director Rick Dennis, Moody and Faught continued to work on moving forward. Then, rather unexpectedly, earlier this month Moody received a phone call from a contact at Tinker Air Force Base, telling her that an Air National Guard training flight that could accommodate the large cargo had been scheduled and the mast was being crated for transport.   

Rod Mish, Judy Moody, Rep. George Faught, Rick Dennis

When the C-17 touched down at Tinker Air Force base on Monday, the four individuals who persevered were on hand to witness the mast arriving in Oklahoma.  They were joined by USS Oklahoma survivor, Ed Vezey, 90, who recently moved to Moore, OK from Denver, CO.  "This is a piece of the Oklahoma coming home,” Vezey said.

The mast was transported to Muskogee on Wednesday by the Oklahoma Air National Guard.  As the truck pulled into the War Memorial Park bearing a banner that read “From Pearl Harbor to Muskogee – Mast of USS Oklahoma”, a crowd of around 50 people gathered in anticipation.  Some had come specifically to see the mast arrive, but several groups just happened to be there, not knowing of the scheduled delivery.

The mast was offloaded by a crane from Cook Construction  of Fort Gibson. The 45 ft. artifact weighs over 22,0000 pounds and is covered with barnacles from 65 years of being underwater.  The piece from the mast is technically “on loan” from the U.S. Navy and is planned as the centerpiece of a new building that Dennis hopes to see built at the War Memorial Park.  Preservation efforts will be performed on the mast and plans for establishing a foundation for the USS Oklahoma exhibit are being discussed.

Members of the Oklahoma Air National Guard help offload the mast

“This is an opportunity to help students in Oklahoma to realize the value of our history,” said Moody.     

“It took an awful lot of work,” stated Mish, recalling the journey over the past 3 ½ years.

"I am honored to have been a part of this project and to have played a role in bringing this to Muskogee.  I look forward to helping the War Memorial Park expand this exhibit, commemorating the service and sacrifice of our armed forces,” stated Faught.   

A dedication ceremony will take place on Saturday, July 10th at 10:00 a.m.  The War Memorial Park will unveil the mast at that time.  It is expected that numerous Pearl Harbor Survivors, including several from the USS Oklahoma will be in attendance, along with veterans groups, state officials and other dignitaries.  

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