Team effort brings Oklahoma mast to name state

  • Published
  • By Brandice J. Armstrong
  • Tinker Public Affairs
The Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor will "forever live in infamy" but, June 21, 2010 was a date that brought a piece of that history back to Oklahoma and maybe a piece of closure for one survivor.

On Monday, outside Bldg. 268, Tinker participated in history and accepted a piece of the USS Oklahoma mast that arrived on base en route to Muskogee. The 40-foot pole came from Hawaii on a C-17 Globemaster III, flown by the Mississippi Air National Guard, on its way to eastern Oklahoma for restoration and display at the Muskogee War Memorial. Watching the unloading of the mast was Ed Vezey, a 90-year-old survivor of Pearl Harbor, who was on the USS Oklahoma that fateful morning.

"It's hard to convey to non-Sailors how important this ship is when you're a Sailor," said Mr. Vezey, whose roommate was one of the men killed. "It's your mother, your home and if you spend a lot of time at sea like we did, it's the fundamental island security. This is a piece of Oklahoma coming home."

The USS Oklahoma, like the USS Arizona and seven other battleships, was assaulted at Pearl Harbor when the Empire of Japan initiated a sneak attack against the U.S. Navy. The USS Oklahoma was hit in the side by nine torpedoes, rolled over and within 11 minutes, her keel was out of the water. More than 2,100 Navy and Marine officers and enlisted personnel were assigned to the ship and the attack killed 429 of them.

The USS Oklahoma was one of three ships hit that day that did not return to battle. She sunk to the bottom of the harbor. In 1943, the vessel was recovered from the harbor. The plan was to drydock the ship, strip it of the guns and equipment and repair enough so it would be watertight. But, the ship was found to be too badly damaged. In September 1944, the USS Oklahoma was formally decommissioned. In December 1946, the vessel was sold for scrapping, but five months later, sank en route from Hawaii to California.

In 2006, the mast, buried in the mud, was discovered by Navy personnel dredging the bay area. It was removed and placed in a hangar at Ford Island, in the middle of Pearl Harbor, where it has continually deteriorated.

"History is important to the U.S. Navy," said VQ-4 Command Master Chief Jerry Helton stationed at Tinker. "It is leadership's responsibility to ensure our Sailors know and are connected to their past to promote the values we hold dear and embrace pride in service to our country."

In 2009, Navy personnel built a cradle for the 12.5-ton mast, so it could be shipped by air, as the hangar that housed the mast was scheduled to be demolished. But, due to funding issues, the mast wasn't immediately shipped anywhere even though Muskogee War Memorial representatives requested the mast, said Tech. Sgt. David Dries, noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the 72nd Logistics Readiness Squadron's Air Terminal Operations, who helped to coordinate the downloading of the mast from the C-17.

By mid-June there was a solution. Air National Guard leadership offered to fly the mast as part of a training mission using a C-17. They chose Tinker as a mid-point destination due to its proximity to Muskogee and it's capability to download a six-pallet train.

"This project illustrates the close relationship that we have with the Oklahoma community," said Maj. Gen. David Gillett, Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center commander. "It's especially important to recognize that the Air National Guard has been instrumental in making this effort happen. I am proud to serve with our total force professionals in the ANG and am grateful for their efforts on this particular project."

Upon arriving at Tinker, the mast was placed on a tractor-trailer rig and driven to Muskogee.

"The idea of actually seeing a part of the USS Oklahoma should touch the emotions of anyone who has been to Pearl Harbor and seen the almost sacred memorial to the USS Arizona," said Dr. James L. Crowder, OC-ALC historian since 1980.