A Submarine in Oklahoma?
During World War II, the United States lost 52 submarines. Of these 52 submarines, 3,505 sailors are considered on Eternal Patrol. In 1956, the United States Submarine Veterans of World War II incorporated itself as a national fraternal organization with chapters is each state. As the Navy began to retire the obsolete fleet submarines in which these men served, SubVet chapters in coastal states began acquiring them as war memorials for their communities.
The idea of acquiring a submarine for Oklahoma did not appear until a 1962 meeting of the Oklahoma chapters of the United States Submarine Veterans of World War II. As part of the nationwide plan, the Submarine Veterans sought to build submarine memorials in every state. What better way to honor lost friends than getting a submarine and educating Oklahoma citizens about the triumphs and sacrifices of the United States Submarine Force.
Albert Kelly, one of the pivotal visionaries of a submarine in Oklahoma, served as the State Commander of the Oklahoma chapter of the Subvet organization, proposed the idea as a way to honor their fallen brethren.
Kelly, who worked with several politicians in Oklahoma, knew that the construction of the McClellan–Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System would enable the Submarine Veterans the opportunity to transport a submarine to Oklahoma. Timing the construction of the navigation system with the Subvet desire to acquire a submarine seemed perfect.
By 1967, the Submarine Veterans gained support from both Oklahoman politicians and the United States Navy. As construction of the McClellan-Kerr progressed, the Sub-Vets prepared to acquire a submarine to place in Oklahoma.
Where? No one had any idea.
By 1969, the Oklahoma SubVets were impressed with the U.S.S. Drum in Mobile, Alabama, which drew over 300,000 paying visitors its first year. A delegation from the Oklahoma City and Tulsa chapters asked the Navy if they could adopt a retired submarine. On hand at the New Orleans Naval Yard was the U.S.S. Piranha, which the Navy agreed to turn over to them if they could fulfill the donation requirements. Wanting the Piranha for his hometown, Republican State Senator James Inhofe agreed to sponsor a bill accepting the submarine for Oklahoma.
The initial reports claimed it was impossible to get a submarine as far upriver as Tulsa because the Arkansas River Channel above Muskogee was not deep enough. It was later determined that a direct tow upriver to Muskogee was not possible, therefore another method of transport other than direct towing would have to be devised. In the meantime, on October 2, 1970, the Muskogee City-County Trust Port Authority agreed to donate five acres of prime waterfront real estate – worth about $90,000 an acre – for the submarine berth and memorial park.
The submarine procurement committee met with the Navy for preliminary arrangements for the transfer of the Piranha. However, the Navy would not hold the Piranha unless the committee made a formal application for her and possession would be immediate once the donation contract was approved. Since the Arkansas River Navigable Waterway system would not be open for at least a year, interim docking charges would be prohibitive. The committee decided to wait and take their chances.
In September 1970, the committee inspected Batfish, an alternative to the Piranha. Although both submarines had suffered considerable neglect, Piranha had been almost completely cannibalized whereas Batfish was much cleaner and better outfitted. Nearly a year had passed before the committee made a formal application for the Batfish, now mothballed beside Piranha at the Naval Inactive Ship Facility at Orange, Texas. Batfish had a far better war record. Piranha was commissioned in February 1943 and had made five war patrols, claiming seven sinkings for 19,300 tons. JANAC, however, credited her with only one sinking – on her first patrol. The committee was very pleased with Batfish and the Navy made no objection to the last-minute swap.
The donation contract was drawn up on June 24, 1971. The Secretary of the Navy approved the transaction and congressional approval was obtained on November 8, 1971. On December 9, 1971, the Batfish belonged to Oklahoma – at least on paper. The towing of the Batfish was divided into two phases: a direct offshore tow from the Orange Naval Inactive Maintenance Facility to the Avondale Shipyard at New Orleans. Then, after Avondale raised and cradled Batfish between two pairs of bare-decked barges on steel lifting straps, the 1,350-mile upriver tow proceeded.
Batfish was towed to the Bethlehem Steel drydock in Beaumont, Texas after the Orange drydock went on strike. At Bethlehem Steel, after a general inspection of her hull and compartments, all air salvage valves were made operable, fuel, oil, and most of her ballast were removed, and all her tanks were flushed clean. Then the hull openings were sealed.Batfish was ready on March 1, 1972, to be towed to the Avondale Shipyard in New Orleans.
At Avondale, it became obvious that the specified four barges would not provide enough buoyancy to reduce Batfish’s draft. The revised flotilla design, incorporating six 120-by-32- foot bare-deck barges, would be ballasted to the outside, bound together by steel stabilizing and breasting cables. On March 13, the barges were partially secured to Batfish by lifting straps, but no cables had yet been placed to bind them together. That afternoon, the English tanker Silvermain sped by at 11 knots in a 5-knot zone and her wake hit the flotilla broadside at Avondale’s Wet Dock #2. Two barges were seriously damaged and a third went to the bottom. The deck of the only barge not torn away from Batfish by the breakup was buckled by the strain though Batfish herself escaped serious damage.
After the flotilla was re-assembled, Batfish was slowly moved up-river by two tugs at four knots. On May 3 she passed with ease through Lock-and-Dam Number 6, but her superstructure would not clear a bridge on the way into Little Rock. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lowered the river level by three feet allowing Batfish to “squeak” under the bridge. The tugs refueled at Little Rock and one tug returned downriver. Under single tow, Batfish proceeded cautiously and even more slowly toward Fort Smith.
Becoming an Okie In Muskogee
Batfish crept alongside her temporary berth at the Will Brothers Port of Muskogee Terminal on Sunday, May 7, 1972. The next order of business was the trenching of a 120-foot wide, 1/4-mile long trench from the main channel to the foot of Batfish’s park site. On July 4, 1972, the Batfish, still in her temporary mooring, was unofficially opened to the public.
Nearly a year passed as the financial situation between the Batfish and subcontractors and banks making the initial loans were settled. On Monday, March 12, 1973, heavy spring rains flooded the Arkansas River. Batfish gave the appearance of tugging so violently at her mooring cables that the Army Corps of Engineers feared she would rip loose and crush the Muskogee port docks or the new U.S. Route 62 bridge downriver, blocking the channel.
Batfish listed precariously to port and shifting sand and mud increased her tilt even more to nearly forty degrees. Batfish held fast, but the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Commission wanted the Navy to take back the submarine, whereas the Navy expected Oklahoma to honor its contract. Batfish was clearly an Oklahoma problem.
|Moving the BATFISH into place|
On April 4, a hole in the riverbank was started to allow the Batfish access to its donated land. On April 21, dredging between the slip and the river was begun. Batfish was aligned with the slip, secured broadside to the strong current by cables. Then four bulldozers began to tug at her with 300-foot cables as a Port of Muskogee tug pushed from behind. By 4 pm on April 4th, Batfish was in her slip. Over the next week, the hole in the riverbank was replaced and the slip was flooded to float the Batfish to her final elevation. My May 1st, Batfish had been realigned to overlook the Arkansas River, thirty-six feet below her deck.
Approximately 50 people turned out in the crisp, windy weather for the Memorial Day re-opening. By the end of August, Batfish was steadily attracting a thousand visitors a week. Over the seven-week period, income from paid attendance had doubled.