By Chief Mass Communication Specialist (SW/AW) John Lill, NRD Seattle Public Affairs
SEATAC, Wash. (NNS) – A Navy Recruiting District (NRD) Seattle Sailor took part in a Deck Transfer ceremony of a historic battleship at the United Services Organization (USO) located in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Feb 7.
Navy Counselor 1st Class William McKenna, assigned to the nearby Navy Recruiting Station Kent, represented all Navy service during the ceremony by presenting a ceremonial plank of teak wood from the decks of USS Colorado (BB 45). The World War II-era deck plates will serve those who serve again – this time as flooring in the airport’s new 7,000-foot facility, currently under construction.
“It’s truly an honor to be part of this ceremony where I am able to represent the U.S. Navy by presenting a piece of our history and heritage to the USO in the presence of some of the original crewmembers” said McKenna. “There is a strong significance between the battleship and this new facility. As the war [World War II] ended, USS Colorado was responsible for the safe transport and return of Soldiers and Marines, many who slept on the decks at night. Those same decks will soon be walked on by today’s generation of Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen who are looking for a place to rest and relax as they make their way back home.”
Two surviving USS Colorado crewmembers attended the ceremony and were once again able to touch a piece of their ship, which was decommissioned in 1947. Larry “Sparks” Clemets, now 92 years old, served aboard Colorado as an Electrician’s Mate 1st Class from 1940-1943 and Whittaker “Moose” Hemion, age 97, served from 1943-1945 as a Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class.
For Hemion, seeing the specific piece of teak wood at the ceremony brought a rush of memories of a very significant event in Naval history.
“As a Boatswain’s Mate, it was my responsibility to take care of maintaining the decks but this particular piece brings back some emotions that I did not anticipate” said, Hemion. “ In late 1944, we participated at the Battle of Leyte Gulf and we were hit by a couple of kamikazes which killed 19 of my friends and wounded almost 100 more. These scorch marks on this plank of wood were from that kamikaze attack.”
The battleship, although decommissioned in 1947 at Bremerton Navy Yard, was kept in reserve in case there was a need to reactivate. In 1959, the ship was sold for scrap and it was at this time that a representative from Boeing purchased the teak deck wood for the company cafeteria. In 1961, the cafeteria opened and for 53 years the battleship’s deck adorned the walls.
For Pam Valdez, who serves as a USO Board member and works at Boeing on the KC-14 Tanker, she felt like a caretaker to history and made it a priority to ensure the ship wasn’t forgotten.
“In 2003, I found out about the Colorado deck in the cafeteria and reached out to the ship’s alumni association to inform them of its existence and invited the surviving crewmembers and their families out the following year for Memorial Day” said, Valdez. “Last year was serendipitous timing for both Boeing and the USO as the cafeteria and the USO were to undergo extensive renovations for 2014 and that’s when I presented an idea to donate the wood to serve as the new facilities flooring allowing more service members and families to experience the deck of the Colorado once more.”
The new facility currently undergoing an extensive renovation will open in April 2014 and will be more than double the size of the original facilities, taking it from 3,400 square feet to 7,000. The facility will offer a place for service members to rest, shower, eat and use the internet.
Established at Sea-Tac Airport in 1966, USO Northwest is a non-profit organization that serves on average 120,000 service members and their families each year.