Tag: uss ponchatoula

Warship Named In Honor of 1942 Efforts to Collect Scrap Metal

By Kim Howes Zabbia, The Last Hurrah, c.1985; p. 24.

In 1942, the federal government asked Ponchatoula High School to work on a homeroom wartime guidance program. The report which Principal Will Ed Butler submitted was the basis for the national high school victory corps in which youngsters all over the country collected scrap metal and worked to add their bit to wartime efforts.

PHS, though, collected the largest amount of scrap in Louisiana. “I remember stopping the car to pick up pieces of metal on the side of the road. It was wonderfully patriotic,” beams then student Mary Lou Pierson Burris.

As the metal was brought in, it was piled around the outside of the football field. The students collected so much that the circular pile could be seen above the top of the stadium.

“It looked like Mr. Vesuvius around the football field,” Mr. Butler said, “The kids went around with chalk and wrote Tokyo-Bound on the metal.”

The collection drive lasted about four to five weeks. The U.S. government gave the school about $1400 for the scrap, and Mr. Butler gave the kids a holiday. The army had to use over fifty trucks to haul away the scrap.

A year later, Mr. Butler received a letter from Washington, DC. A warship was to be christened the MS Ponchatoula in honor of the students’ effort.

“To celebrate, we had an assembly,” Mr. Butler remembers. “They sent a Colonel from the army, and he spoke to the grammar and high school. I think he took them in three shifts.”

On Sunday, July 30, 1944, at 4:00 P.M., the Merchant Ship Ponchatoula was launched at the East Coast Shipyard in Bayonne, New Jersey.

USS Ponchatoula – Two Ships – Same Name – Which is Correct?

Much has been written and much has been said about the USS Ponchatoula but sometimes differing numbers on her bow, pictures, and dates of service confuse the uninformed.

Which is correct – a ship in World War II or a ship in the Vietnam War?

The answer is, “both”.

We’re familiar with the story locals tell about our cities collecting more scrap metal for World War II effort than any other community in the country and being honored by having the U.S.S. Ponchatoula named for our waterway. Many locals tell it from first-hand experience because they were some of the school children in the early 40’s who helped collect.

To further verify it, the teacher who spearheaded the effort of the winning 5th-grade class’ collection, Julia Welles Hawkins (age 101 in 2017) pops up now and then anywhere from here to national television.

Records show the first U.S.S. Ponchatoula (known as AOG 38) was a Sequatchie Class tanker, commissioned on October of 1944, leaving New Jersey for Norfolk, Virginia. She then traveled through the Panama Canal to California where she left January 19, 1945, to arrive in Pearl Harbor, February 1, 1945.

In March, she set sail for Canton Island in the Phoenix Islands as a ship for refueling during the war. She then continued to Okinawa in convoy to anchor off the beaches shuttling fuel from large tankers to smaller ships.

Websites for the U.S.S. Ponchatoula contain typewritten first-hand accounts by some of those on board describing bombing attacks by the Japanese, especially the feared suicide attacks that killed so many. One tells of the typhoon that hit, creating waves 60-80 feet high, enough to drive one large ship aground and onto an enemy mine on the beach. The website also includes heart-rending stories by those who endured Mother Nature in addition to the hundreds of Japanese attacks often over several days at a time.

AOG 38 remained in Okinawa until December 1945 when she returned to the States and was decommissioned in California, April 1946.

Since the Navy had begun replacing smaller and slower ships with larger and faster, a second USS Ponchatoula (AO 148) was commissioned January 12, 1956, and began her many years of service, being three times as long and twice as fast as the AOG 38.
She, too, was assigned to the Pacific Fleet and leaves a history too extensive to list including rescue operations and even aiding in the recovery of earlier spacecraft that splashed down in the Pacific. Ever in danger, her main duty was refueling war ships in the Far East from off the coast of Communist China to the South China Sea off the coast of Viet Nam.

The City of Ponchatoula is doubly blessed to share its name with these two ships as well as have a special kinship with the USS Ponchatoula shipmates who risked their lives in such perilous times and dangerous waters.

We continue to honor the surviving members and we continue to pay tribute to those who have gone.

A few written articles simply cannot begin to tell the story. Please visit the USS Ponchatoula Shipmates Association sites to learn more.

Visit the USS Ponchatoula online or on Facebook: USS Ponchatoula Shipmates Association

USS Ponchatoula Shipmates Reunion off to Great Start

Hugs and handshakes, memories and musing, laughter and longing – the scene behind the scenes as USS Ponchatoula shipmates from across the country began their reunion in the Strawberry Room of Microtel the day before the official ceremonies at City Hall.

If it hadn’t been for the bright shirts with USS Ponchatoula embroidered on them, these folks are so much a part of Ponchatoula, one couldn’t tell the shipmates from the residents in their greetings. Some said they can’t make every reunion but are sure to make every Ponchatoula reunion, that the people are so friendly, it feels more like home!

One tall guy with a big smile, Kenneth “Smiley” Lawson, said he started out in Chicago and enlisted in the Navy at 18, retiring to Hawaii after 26 years as Chief Boatswain’s Mate. Another crew member joked, “Lawson wins the prize every reunion for coming the farthest.”

President Phil Rehlander of Dallas said the core group numbers 45 with some 150 in membership, but due to medical problems, not all can travel. Rehlander was on the ship from late 1964 through 1967 and did three tours of Vietnam. He paid tribute to former Tangipahoa Tourism Director Betty Stewart for first bringing the reunions to Ponchatoula, saying upon arrival, some of the crew had gone to Stewart’s to offer condolence in the loss of her husband, Roy Harris. Pointing over to effervescent Emily McKneely Matise, greeting and being greeted, it was evident before he said it, that she’s also been a long-time help in bringing them here.

Steve Van Meger of St. Louis said he’s been to every reunion here and served aboard the ship from 1963 to 1966. Last week he had lunch with a friend of Ponchatoula’s late Raoul Laurent who could be seen each year in dress uniform at the annual July Fourth flag-raising. His friend asked him to call Raoul’s widow, Carolyn.
So, a meeting within a meeting took place in the lobby as the two met for the first time. Mrs. Laurent said she and her husband had moved here from Destrehan and he’d been in service three years on ships Mellette and Cambria then in the Reserves for 25 years. So, she fit right in.

James and Carol Ball, originally from Sacramento came from Sierra Vista, Arizona. He was on the ship from 1964-1967 as a ship fitter, working in the laboratory testing oils and fuel. John Hearn of Texas said he served aboard the USS Ponchatoula from 1964-1967, in the “early stages of the Vietnam Conflict”, expressing beautifully what a ship is all about:

“When the Navy brings in a newly-commissioned ship, it’s just a piece of machinery until the ‘plank owners’ come aboard. For it is first officers like R. P. Miller and Tom Davis who bring heart and soul and the ship stops being just machinery. Those of us later rejuvenated the heart and replenished the soul.

“When the ship is decommissioned, it goes back to being machinery. But when you folks made a home for it, your city rejuvenated its heart and replenished its soul.”

Hearn went on to say, “When 9 July 1955, I. N. Kiland broke the bottle of champagne on the ship, the USS Ponchatoula was released and slid into the water and into service. The remnants of that bottle have remained in that family for 52 years and they have decided that the City of Ponchatoula be its repository.

“Our organization is preserving history – that we preserve the history and teach our kids that these artifacts actually existed and for a purpose.”

And, so it is, that the artifacts entrusted to our city are also entrusted to our hearts and souls that we never forget, nor let future generations forget, what the USS Ponchatoula represents.