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The Stained Glass Saga

One of the eight stained glass windows at the Tinker Chapel is dedicated to the life of Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker, who was killed in action in June 1942. (Courtesy photo)

One of the eight stained glass windows at the Tinker Chapel is dedicated to the life of Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker, who was killed in action in June 1942. (Courtesy photo)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Every decade, we revisit the story of the historic stained glass windows that enhance the Tinker Chapel. The endeavor presents the opportunity to reveal any new light on the subject and tell the story to newcomers while reminding seasoned workers of the events that any history detective could appreciate.

Four of the eight windows were originally installed in a small, wooden chapel building at Morrison Field Fla., during World War II. They were created by an unknown artisan who was commissioned to commemorate the deaths of special individuals who gave their lives in the service of the nation. One memorialized Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker, who lost his life on a flight near Wake Island in June 1942.

General Tinker had established himself among Floridians as a key, military aviation leader during his command of both McDill Field and Drew Field in the Sunshine State. Another window honored Col. William Sumpter Smith, a native of Alabama, who spearheaded the development of airfields all across the Deep South and was killed when flying from Puerto Rico to Florida in January 1943. Neither remains were ever recovered.

The other two original windows are more obscure as memorials with pieces of the puzzle coming to light along the years. Both have the word "MIZPAH" as their center focus, and both have the initials "G.B.A." and "E.H.A." in two corners. However, just one has "S.E.T." and "H.J.T. 3rd" in the other corners of the glass pane while the second window substitutes the date April 28, 1944.

MIZPAH is a Hebrew term found in Genesis 31:49 and on older tombstones in Jewish cemeteries. The word reflects the sustained emotional bond between loved ones separated by distance or death. Because the two sets of initials have the same last letter, we can surmise that they are possibly a spouse or family member that felt the pain of sacrifice during war. The combat event of April 28, 1944, was "Operation Tiger," a pre-D-Day training exercise on the southern coast of England. As Allied Forces practiced landing attacks that would be employed in just a few short weeks at Normandy, Utah and Omaha beaches, German E-boats discovered the gathering of forces facing inward and opened fire on the unsuspecting congregants. Sadly, 749 Americans lost their lives that day; and we can only hope to one day find the list that might include two Jewish servicemen from Florida.

No doubt the people who contributed to the memorial windows expected the special symbols to honor their heroes, en perpetuity. But Morrison Field became one of the scores of airfields closed in the postwar era and turned over to civilian use. As the base was dismantled and the last Army Airmen departed, the true value of the windows was appreciated. The right people decided they should be saved and used in a similar chapel building located at Bolling Field in Washington, D.C. The windows were shipped along with many items that could be used at other military locales across the country and all the personal household goods of transferring families. Unfortunately, the windows never arrived in the nation's capital and the supply and transportation experts could not find out what happened.

Several years past and the windows' story grew cold. Then in early 1954, a huge packaging crate containing the historic windows was found in storage at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. Upon inspection, the supply managers elevated their shrouded discovery through the proper channels until one official simply called the base commander at Tinker AFB and asked if he would be interested in having the windows. Tinker's base commander at the time was Col. Hardin W. Masters, a true Renaissance man and son of Edgar Lee Masters, a notable contributor to American literature. Not only did Colonel Masters accept the stewardship of the windows but spearheaded a drive to produce four similar stained glass windows to balance both sides of the Tinker Chapel.

The four newer windows bear the names of the contributors that made them possible. They were the Protestant Chaplain Fund, Catholic Chaplain Fund, the Air Force Association of Oklahoma and Col. Hardin W. Masters. They were all installed in the Tinker Chapel building in late 1954. After the new, large brick chapel building was opened and dedicated in December 1960 as the primary place of worship on base, the older building continued to serve another 10 years as Chapel No. 2. However, once it faced demolition, different supporters arose again to save the windows and have them transferred to the newer facility.

The Officers' Wives Club donated $4,900 to the cause; it was supplemented by the Noncommissioned Officers' Wives Club offering of $500 and the Tinker Management Club's gift of $400. The transformation project was finally completed in 1973.

In 1986, a major wind and rainstorm severely damaged two of the windows. The storm blew one inward, causing it to crash on the pews below. The window of the opposite side blew outward and shattered on the church yard. Only a master of working with stain glass could repair the windows, but it was accomplished; and once the windows were reinstalled, all eight windows received a protective, exterior glass shield to prevent future breakage.

Today, Tinker's stained glass windows still reflect the light of history, art and religion; and perhaps their constant rebirth can serve as a sermon to all who see them.