By James S. Tyree
Friday was a long time coming for Ed Vezey, a Pearl Harbor survivor who was aboard the USS Oklahoma.
It was the day Gov. Brad Henry and others announced a memorial for the 429 sailors and Marines killed aboard the battleship on Dec. 7, 1941, will be constructed in Hawaii, near the site where it capsized.
“I don’t think there’s any way to convey what a great day this is for survivors,” said Vezey, who flew from his rural Colorado home to Oklahoma City for the announcement.
A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled Dec. 7, 2006, and a dedication is planned exactly one year later as part of Oklahoma’s centennial celebration.
The project will have a $750,000 price tag for the memorial itself and an endowment for the site’s ongoing maintenance. Henry said the state, through the Centennial Commission, will give $100,000 for the memorial and the Inasmuch Foundation pledged another $50,000.
The rest will come from people who contribute to a fundraising effort that will continue through Sept. 1.
“Tomorrow is Armed Forces Day,” Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin said Friday. “What a fitting time for Oklahomans to come together to honor the men who lost their lives on the ship named for our state.”
Architect Don Beck will design the memorial he said remains in its planning stage. Envisioning “more than a brass plaque,” Beck is “striving for a three-dimensional memorial that could speak to you.”
The memorial will cover an area on Ford Island, in Pearl Harbor, that measures approximately 150 feet by 80 feet. Beck is considering 429 aligned vertical sculptures that will include the name and rank for each person who died in the attack.
Most of the memorial’s materials will come from Oklahoma and be transported to the site. Beck hopes family and friends of those killed will donate mementos from their fallen loved ones, so those items can become part of the sculptures.
“This is really about honoring what those 429 individuals did for us,” Beck said.
Vezey appreciates the fact each person will be recognized including Frank Flaherty, his roommate aboard the USS Oklahoma.
“He went to his battle station, to his death,” Vezey recalled, “and I went to my battle station and did nothing but survive.”
Most ships that came under attack at Pearl Harbor were rebuilt and saw action in World War II, but the USS Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah were sunk. Henry said of the three ships, Oklahoma is the only one without a memorial at Pearl Harbor.
State Sen. Jim Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, said clashing interests in the area - an active military base, private property owners, the National Park Service - prevented a USS Oklahoma memorial from happening sooner.
“Everyone said, ‘We like it, but not in our back yard,” Reynolds said.
Tucker McHugh, a retired Navy commander and co-chair of the memorial’s fundraising effort, said “We found our 900-pound gorillas” to make it happen in U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe and U.S. Rep. Tom Cole. The Oklahoma lawmakers wrote legislation that provided federal clearance for the project.
Only 125 USS Oklahoma survivors remain, all in their 80s or older. Reynolds said of the project, “If we don’t do it in Oklahoma, it’s not going to happen.”
Vezey, ready to celebrate his 86th birthday on June 3, said those who died were his friends and a “very important part of my family.” He believes the memorial will be of lasting benefit to Americans living now and in years to come.
“People can look back and see where we came from, and that gives me confidence for the future,” he said.
Anyone wishing to contribute to the memorial may send a tax-deductible donation to USS Oklahoma Memorial, P.O. Box 7734, Edmond, OK, 73083-7734.