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Oklahoma Memories

USS Oklahoma Commissioned

2010-05-24

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"I love that ship like a floating palace. It was home to me, was most important thing. There never was a ship as beautiful as that Oklahoma, really not."

That was Jerry Jerrett who was serving in the Navy when in 1917 he was assigned to the Navy's newest Battleship, the USS Oklahoma.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

In March of 1914 the daughter of then-Governor Lee Cruce, Lorena, stood on a high scaffold in New York City and christened the newest of the U.S. battleships, the USS Oklahoma. She smashed the bottle of champagne onto the ship's bow, and it slid gracefully into the water. It was to be three years later, however, before the Oklahoma was fully outfitted and ready for duty. The USS Oklahoma along with her sister ship, the USS Nevada, sported the latest in US Navy technology; they were the first battleships in the fleet to use fuel oil instead of coal, and they both held technologically-advanced engine designs.

It was in this week of 1917 that the USS Oklahoma became fully commissioned in the U.S. Navy. Only a few months earlier, the Navy began assigning sailors to the ship. They were to be the "commissioning crew" and among them was Robert Graham.

"Oh lord I thought that was the biggest thing I'd ever seen in one piece, and I thought it was the prettiest thing, you know."

Graham joined the Navy, in his words, to see the world. He had just graduated from boot camp. Before joining the Navy, he had worked in his father's machine shop, and there he learned a skill that the Navy would use.

"Well, I made whatever was necessary to make on a machine, you see. If it's a bushin, if it's a bolt or whatever, why, you made it on the lathe, because you made it on a planer, of course, and, you, whether it's the head light, the electricity or anything electrical, you had to be capable of doing…where I've been…of doing whether it's electrical or whether it's on the machine or whether it was replacing whatever it was."

During World War One, the ship was held up for repairs and served on escort for only one Atlantic convoy. Following the Great War, the Oklahoma went on to a variety of important tasks. Under President Wilson, the mere presence of the Oklahoma at places like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Vera Cruz, Mexico, and the Panama Canal helped to enforce and strengthen the influence of the United States. When President Wilson went to Europe to urge creation of the League of Nations, the Oklahoma was a part of the convoy. Jerrett describes seeing Wilson during the voyage.

"He had a high hat on and he was like Harry Truman. He fought the same war that we did. World War I. Everybody said he could never win, but he did…and one of the finest presidents we ever had."

The Oklahoma was not involved in any high profile battles or duties, something that Graham felt bad about.

"And, I don't know, the Oklahoma was kind of a hard luck ship in a way, she was, because they never – nothing we did was ever spectacular or anything like that, you know."

The hardest luck for the USS Oklahoma came on the morning of December 7, 1941, while she was moored on Battleship Row at Pear Harbor. Jerrett by now had been out of the Navy for several years, but he still kept track of his old ship.

"It took a while for me to sink in. I couldn't understand it, because I understood that Japanese embassies came and were talking with the President at that time. And while the talk was going on, that's when they hit the ship."

The USS Oklahoma was hit by seven torpedoes and capsized shortly thereafter. The ship lost 448 men, the second-largest loss of life the Navy suffered in the attack. The USS Oklahoma proudly served the United States for 24 years and did so, as various crew members have pointed out, without ever having fired a shot in anger.

The story of the USS Oklahoma is just a part of the military history of our state. The research library at the Oklahoma History Center holds extensive interviews with a number of crewmen who served aboard the Oklahoma, from those original commissioning crew in 1917 to the survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor. All are available for you to read. The Oklahoma History Center is located just east of the state capitol on NE 23rd Street in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Memories a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.