One of the advantages of traveling the country the way we do is the serendipity we run into. We arrived in the Tahlequah-Muskogee area with little research, less planning, and no real schedule. But the day after we got here, we discovered that the USS Batfish was having a work day to help replace the deck on the 69-year-old Balao-class submarine.
I’m a history geek, especially when it comes to World War 2. There was a time when I could tell you more than you’d ever want to know about various aircraft used in the war, from their ceiling and airspeed to their armaments and development history. I knew a lot about the bigger picture of the war: the battles, dates, locations, and some of the strategic reasons for certain battles, but what I really enjoyed were the stories from the lines and trenches, the cockpits, and the boiler rooms. One of my most treasured books is 100 Best True Stories From World War 2. I loved reading about the smells and sights and sounds of the battle and glorified it as many young boys do. Much of that glamor has lost its sheen as I grew older and understood the toll war takes on everyone, especially the survivors.
But I still love seeing the hardware of war. Liberty Belle flew over my stick house a couple of times, and the sound of those radial engines never failed to stir something in my soul. Four years ago, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Mustangs and Legends airshow, and revel in the roar of dozens of World War 2 aircraft. Having the chance to help restore something from that era really got my attention.
I think as that war and others fade from memory through the deaths of those who fought it, we become poorer as a country as we forget the sacrifices made during that time. Consider the industrial surge we went through to build the machinery of war. At its peak, the US was turning out a completed combat vessel almost every day. We produced 22 fleet aircraft carriers in that time. To put that in perspective, it took over three years to finish the USS Ronald Reagan and two and a half years for the George H.W. Bush, the last two ships in the Nimitz class of carriers. The USS Gerald R Ford will take six years to complete if she comes in on schedule. But I’m veering off on a tangent, so back to the original topic.
I traded emails with Mark Allen, Volunteer Coordinator and Historian/Webmaster for the Batfish. He explained what was going on and suggested it might be too cold for the younger kids, but that they’d be able to find work for the older ones. Adam, Ian, Owen and I arrived under blustery gray skies a little after 8 Saturday morning. We would be putting plugs in the new deck planks where the planks were bolted down to the steel frame.
Wait. Deck planks? On a submarine?
If the only real knowledge you have of subs comes from photos of the USS Dallas in “Hunt for Red October,” then going aboard a World War II sub will be an eye-opener. They were a far cry from the sleek cigar shapes we see today. Subs were more a light cruiser that could sink on demand than a purpose-built submersible. Balao-class boats carried a 5-inch deck gun as well as a 40-mm and 20-mm cannon along with 10 ready torpedoes – a formidable opponent! The deck gun and the cannons stayed mounted even when submerged.
Between the hull and the deck, you’ll find huge pipes and trunks for the diesel engine intake and exhaust systems as well as the ballast tanks. Early fleet subs were not models of streamlining!
We had some time to kill before all the supplies were available, so we took a tour of the boat. Batfish has most areas open to the public, with the exception of Officer’s Quarters and the Conning Tower. The former is due to space – it really is cramped in there! The latter is due to safety, since the only way to access the conning tower is via a vertical ladder, and the Navy is concerned about civilians getting on and off the ladder. Miss a rung and it’s 10 feet down to a steel deck.
It was eye-opening for the boys to see what sailors had to deal with during the war, and certainly put our 400 square feet in perspective. Our RV was positively roomy by comparison!
Once the supplies arrived, it was time to plug the deck. While Ed Williams and Mark Allen cut 2×2 Brazilian Purple Heart planks to the correct length and bolted them to the frame, the boys and I started working around the sail to plug the bolt holes.
It was tedious work: pour some glue in the hole, grab a wooden plug, and tamp it down in the hole. They’ll have someone come by at a later date and sand all the plugs flush, then paint the entire deck. The boys seemed to enjoy working once the wind died down and the sun came out. For me, it was humbling to be able to help preserve such an amazing piece of history.
I had the chance later to talk by email with Mark and with Rick Dennis, Manager of the Muskogee War Memorial Park, about Batfish and how they came to their current positions, as well as the future of the park.
Mark: My background is varied. I have a Master’s degree in Geology, and currently work in the oil and gas industry as a geological technician. I’ve been volunteering at the Park since 1998 and am now the Historian, Webmaster and Volunteer Coordinator. I’m completing a book on the boat due out in about a month. I also just completed another Master’s degree in Military History with an emphasis on WWII. My thesis was on Japanese and U.S. submarine actions at the Battle of Midway, which I will submit for publication in a month or so.
Rick: To be perfectly honest this job was the result of divine intervention. When I moved to Oklahoma in 2007 I was working through the usual job hunting procedure (i.e. send as many resumes out as I can and hope someone will eventually answer). I responded to an ad in the Muskogee newspaper for my current position. Once the interview process was complete, the Board of Trustees decided that I was the best suited applicant they had for this job. I have been running and enjoying every minute since, and anticipate beginning work on a degree in Museum Sciences in the next year.
After the boys and I were done working, we took some time to tour the museum and the War Memorial Park, with its “Walk of Honor.” The park recently received a section of one of the bridge masts from the USS Oklahoma, and has plenty of naval artifacts on display. What short- and long-term plans for the boat, and for the site?
Rick: We have great plans for both the boat and the park as a whole. We are currently working to bring the museum into current industry standards as defined the Oklahoma Museum Association, American Association of Libraries and State History, and the American Association of Museums. That includes a current project of cataloging the current museum collection and stabilizing that collection. The immediate goal for the boat is to finish the paint job for the boat, complete the deck work and begin the steel restoration of the superstructure. We are also working to raise $250k for the construction of a new museum building that will house the battleship’s Mast, several displays for the sub, and new displays for the other branches of service and wars. It is our goal to make the Muskogee War Memorial a nationally recognized museum based on our current mission statement: “To honor military veterans from all branches of service by retelling their stories and providing experiences that will bring us closer to the sacrifices made for our nations freedoms.”
Certainly, museums have had to deal with economic issues as everyone else has. How has the Muskogee War Memorial Park been affected?
Mark: Volunteer availability is kind of a mixed bag. Some come out very regularly, some irregularly. The reasons are many and I respect each viewpoint. Economics does play a part as most come from Tulsa or farther. As gas prices climb, it becomes harder to get people to come out. That’s just a fact of life.
Rick: We are very fortunate in that the current economy has not affected us. In fact, our current attendance is up from previous years. I suspect that as current gas prices go up, people are looking for things to do closer to home.
Muskogee has a great thing in the Batfish and the War Memorial Park. If you’re in the area, make the time to come out and visit.