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Americana: How USS Batfish became an Okie in Muskogee

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The USS Batfish, which was launched in 1943 and holds the record as the most successful submarine-killing sub, is a museum on a grassy depression above a river bank in Muskogee. [Beth Stephenson]
The USS Batfish, which was launched in 1943 and holds the record as the most successful submarine-killing sub, is a museum on a grassy depression above a river bank in Muskogee. [Beth Stephenson]

A Batfish is a particularly aggressive predator fish. So when the Batfish was launched in 1943, she was expected to live up to her name. She delivered in grand style.

The USS Batfish is a balao-type submarine, 312 feet long, with a hull 7/8 of an inch thick. Her skin was 50% thicker than the preceding class, so she could dive deeper. The submarine operated in the Pacific theater during World War II, sinking 15 Japanese vessels. Three of those vessels were other submarines. She still holds the record as the most successful submarine-killing sub.

By 1956, US Submarine Veterans from World War II organized nationally with chapters in each state. Fifty-two submarines were lost in World War II with 3,505 sailors placed on "eternal patrol" inside them. Some of the Sub Vet chapters began acquiring submarines for their coastal states as memorials to their fallen friends. The Oklahoma Sub Vet chapter wanted a submarine for Oklahoma.

It so happened that eastern Oklahoma was in the midst of a vast project to build the McClellan–Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. It made sense to coordinate the submarine museum and memorial with the completion of the channel.

By 1967, the channel progressed well. Albert Kelly was the commander of the Oklahoma Submarine Veteran group and successfully convinced state politicians and planners that Oklahoma needed a submarine.

Sub Vets visited and were impressed by Mobile Alabama’s USS Drum submarine memorial. It drew vast crowds of paying customers its first year.

Officials found a promising ship, the USS Piranha. She had been extensively cannibalized for parts, but she was available for the taking. Oklahoma officials agreed to accept her for the state.

Journey to Oklahoma

In 1970, Muskogee City-County Trust Port Authority donated five acres of Arkansas River frontage property for the submarine. Muskogee won the privilege mainly because of logistical problems of getting her any further upstream.

The problem was that the Navy refused to hold the Piranha for Oklahoma, and the Navigation Channel was still at least a year from completion. Oklahoma officials decided to bide their time.

When Oklahoma was finally ready for its darling in 1972, the USS Batfish was moored alongside the USS Piranha. Batfish was in better condition and more intact. Beside the physical consideration, the Batfish’s war record made her look like a great white shark compared to the Piranha. The Navy cheerfully substituted the Batfish for the Piranha.

They fastened barges alongside the massive submarine to float her upstream. After some expensive mishaps, Batfish made her way up the Mississippi River. The Army Corps of Engineers had to lower the river level by three feet so that the Batfish could squeak under a bridge. They reduced to a single tugboat when they got to the Arkansas River.

Batfish was moored alongside her future parking spot while a deep channel was being dug on the other side of the riverbank. In the meantime, the USS Batfish was unofficially open to the public.

The spring rains of 1973 flooded the Arkansas River so badly that Batfish looked like she would pull free of her moorings. Officials feared she would clog the river and/or take out the new U.S. 62 bridge downstream. They wanted to give Batfish back to the Navy, but the Navy said Batfish was officially an Okie and so she was an Oklahoma problem.

Happily, the moorings held, and the following year, the riverbank was opened into the trench. Batfish was aligned and floated into her permanent home. The trench was closed from the river and flooded to raise the Batfish 30 feet above the river water level. Then the trench was refilled and the heroic submarine rests in a grassy depression above the river bank in Muskogee.

My son-in-law, Walt Bowers, described the great fun of attending a Scout "camp out" overnight on the Batfish. The boys had the run of the ship to explore and imagine. The fees to tour the heroic submarine at the Muskogee War Memorial Park are reasonable, and they have a reciprocal agreement with over 800 museums nationwide for members.

Most importantly, The USS Batfish reminds us of the virtue of the cause of freedom and all those who sacrificed and are sacrificing to protect it.

Only in America. God bless it.

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