by Paul C. Quillian, Volunteer Archivist and Lorie L. Quillin Davis
The USS Oklahoma Association Collection is now available for public use and research projects in the Research Center of the Oklahoma History Center. The collection consists of papers, records, publications and other ephemera spanning nine decades. First formed in 1949 as the “Commissioning and World War No 1 Crew – USS Oklahoma Veteran’s Association,” then renamed in 1954 as the “USS Oklahoma Veteran’s Association,” the Association was officially incorporated as the “USS Oklahoma Association” in February of 1975. This name carried through the late nineties. The association’s members consisted of sailors, marines and officers who served aboard the USS Oklahoma BB-37, berthed on the east coast as part of the Atlantic Fleet following participation in World War One, from the ship’s commissioning in 1916 through Pearl Harbor in 1941 and finally to when its name was struck from the List of Ships in the Navy Register by Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, in November of 1944.
The members of the association made numerous contributions of personal memorabilia and records to the association throughout its existence, including correspondence, membership rolls, reunion notes, business meeting minutes, attendance books and reports from association officers including the Ship’s Writer, Ship’s Paymaster and Historians. Official Navy records found herein contain copies of muster rolls, daily orders, promotion lists, salvage records, blueprints of the ship and salvage equipment configurations. Scrapbooks for each year between 1916 and 1941 were kept and are now accessible for viewing. Crew donations include menus, bar bills, souvenirs from around the world, holiday cards, and letters to and from sweethearts or family members. These contributions give poignant insight, uplifting stories and, sometimes, very humorous and interesting anecdotes about life aboard this famous battleship.
The title of this article is derived from the sports editorial page of the USS Oklahoma’s weekly newspaper, The Sea Bag. Lieutenant A. G. Berry Jr., athletic director in 1924-1925, was responsible for this section of the publication and called it “Chips from the Ole’ Oke,” paying homage to the ship’s nickname the “Oke” or “Okey,” given to her by crewmembers, who called themselves “Okeys”. The ship’s crew participated on teams for baseball, football, basketball, wrestling, track, boxing and rowing. This created an opportunity for competition between various ships where trophies and victories were greatly coveted. Competitions of sport between various ships were highly contested and trophies greatly valued. However, talent among the crew was not limited to the athletic arena.
Within the crew, more than a few thespians and musicians could be found. An orchestra and swing band provided musical entertainment. Numerous plays and musicals were written and performed with the sailors and marines in true Shakespearean form, meaning both male and female roles where played by men. A testament to the dramatic talent, the “O-Kay Follies”, a musical written and produced by members of the crew ran for a week at New York City’s Lexington Opera House, entitled for the run as the “O-Kay Follies of 1919.” The New York Tribune reviewed the follies with an article headlined, “Gobs’ Score Hit First Time Here in O-Kay Follies.”
Between World War I and World War II, the crew and ship carried out various missions and training exercises. For a short time in 1925, the Oklahoma transferred to the Pacific Fleet for the “Great Cruise of the White Fleet”. Dividing the ports of call amongst the fleet, the Oklahoma visited Hawaii, Samoa and Melbourne, Australia, while other ships went to Sydney, Australia and New Zealand. In 1936, a change of orders interrupted a midshipmen’s cruise, sending the Oklahoma to Spain after dropping the middies and their gear in Cherbourg, France. As part of the “Spanish Rescue Mission,” the ship boarded many American citizens, as well as other people of different nationalities threatened by the rampant violence of the war in Spain. One passenger, a pregnant woman, went into labor and delivered a baby after coming onboard the ship, giving its crew a completely new experience to brag about. In October of 1938, the Oklahoma was again transferred to the Pacific Fleet and moored at several ports until moving to Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, in 1940.
One of the more amusing anecdotes that can be found in this collection involves Richard A. Schlink, who joined the Navy in 1938 and was assigned to the Oklahoma as a Pharmacist Mate 3rd Class in March 1940. On December 7, 1941, he reported to his battle station, the After Battle Dressing Station, located on deck three, starboard side when the attack on Pear Harbor began. He and four stretcher bearers heard the order given to abandon ship. While he made his way up to the main deck, carrying a first aid kit, the ship listed approximately forty-five degrees. By the time he made it on deck at the No. 4 Gun Turret, the ship was at a ninety degree list. Schlink removed his shoes, climbed over the railing, throwing his shoes and the first aid kit away before diving into the water.
After swimming a short distance, he stopped to look back and got fuel oil in his eyes. He submerged and swam as far as breath allowed, opening his eyes underwater, hoping to flush out the heavy substance. He repeated this process several times before being picked up by a launch filled with 30 or so men. The rescued sailors disembarked on the shore near the submarine base, and the launch returned to Battleship Row to pick up more survivors.
Once on shore, Schlink tried to wipe the oil from his eyes and face with his shirt, but soon discovered that it, too, was soaked in oil. He removed his shirt and threw it away. He then took off his pants, turning them inside out to wipe his face. In his account, he said, “Better, but still too much oil on my face. So I took off my under shorts and wiped my face fairly clean.” It was at that moment, his face in his under shorts, that he heard a female voice ask, “Can you use a towel sailor?” Luckily for him, she stood behind him. He donned his shorts in a hurry. According to his own words, “her towel was a Godsend.”
Illustrating how amazing this collection of naval history is, one narrative, which spans the duration of the USS Oklahoma’s service, is related by RAdm J F. Hellwig in a letter to a fellow officer. As a lieutenant stationed in France in 1919, Hellwig was responsible for removing items from the trenches that had been sent by Americans with the intention of comforting the troops. He estimated there had to be a ton of goods per American soldier left behind in France. These items, furniture, books and musical instruments, were collected, packed, and then shipped back to the United States. He did, however, keep one thing for himself, an Edison Victrola that went with him when he was reassigned to a ship. He became part of the Oklahoma’s crew in 1927. While on board, he realized he was not alone in his appreciation for music; his fellow officers and crew members enjoyed listening as well. Upon leaving the ship, he donated the Victrola to the crew. To commemorate the gift, a plate was made and riveted to the front of the box which read, “Presented to the Crew by Captain J. F. Hellwig on his Detachment on 30 May 1930.” Fifteen years later, in 1945, Hellwig retired from the Navy and settled in San Francisco, California.
A year later, in 1946, at a beach near San Francisco, a lawyer and his son were walking along the surf, when suddenly the boy ran into the water and grabbed a piece of broken wood with the brass plate on its underside. That piece of wood and brass, a memory from the USS Oklahoma, took five years to drift its way from Pearl Harbor to California, by way of Mongolia, Korea and Alaska, traveling a distance of ten thousand miles. The lawyer contacted a Naval recruiting officer in San Francisco who confirmed that Hellwig was still alive. After calling him with regards to the plate, the lawyer mailed it to Hellwig, who placed it on his library wall, once more commemorating the ship and its many years of service.
This collection is a wonderful resource for any person who may be a student of Oklahoma, Naval, or Military history. It is a rich, living store of information, memories and events surrounding this proud ship and its proud crew and the amazing contribution to the ongoing story that is our Oklahoma history.