For a city that doesn’t have much of a nautical tradition, Spokane did pretty well by itself some 50 years ago today.
One of its most famous daughters swung a bottle of champagne that splattered against the bow of a shining new warship.
“It slid down the ramp into the water,” recalls opera diva Patrice Munsel. “All the people who built it were there, screaming and hollering and waving.”
Years of lobbying Congress, the Navy Department and the White House by Spokane organizations had finally paid off for Washington’s second-largest city. The USS Spokane, a 6,000-ton light cruiser, completed in just over a year in the wartime naval buildup, was in the water for the first time on Sept. 22, 1945.
“I didn’t think it would be exciting, but it was,” Munsel said recently. “It’s like meeting the Queen. You don’t think it’s any big deal…then your heart just starts pounding.”
Today, Munsel and the local chapter of the Navy League will mark the anniversary of that launching with a formal dinner at Mukogawa-Fort Wright Institute.
For Spokane, the launching was a very big deal, in a year of big deals - the end of the war in Europe, the end of the war in the Pacific and the return of local residents from military service.
The day Japan announced it was quitting the war, The Spokesman-Review carried a full page ad from the committee raising money to help outfit the city’s naval namesake.
The Junior Chamber of Commerce’s “Quarter for the Cruiser” campaign had placed red, white and blue boxes in many stores and offices, hoping to raise some $7,500 for gifts for the officers and crew. Part of the money paid for a silver service for 12 that would be used for formal dinners on the ship.
When the quarter campaign fell short, Playfair contributed proceeds from admissions and bets on a day of racing to make up the difference.
Women’s organizations collected some 200 new books for the ship’s library.
Munsel, who at 20 was already a star with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, was the natural choice for the christening. She was the most famous Spokane resident after Bing Crosby. And tradition says only women christen ships.
Crosby was represented in spirit, if not in body. Among the gifts to the ship were a phonograph and a collection of 200 of Bing’s records.
A half-century later, Munsel’s recollections of the christening are a little cloudy.
“I think I missed the first time I swung the champagne. But we were a hell of a long way away from the ship,” she said.
Launching the ship was just the first phase in getting the USS Spokane into its place in the Navy. It still had to be outfitted with certain equipment, manned and tested. The ship wouldn’t be formally commissioned for eight more months. When it was, Harry Heiden came aboard as a 17-year-old deck hand.
“It was out of this world,” recalls Heiden, now a resident of Slingen, Wis. “We hit so many countries. In some of the ports they really went all out for us.”
Miles Medearis, another young deck hand in 1946, thought “the Spook,” as the crew called her, was the most beautiful ship in the world. After 20 years in the Navy, he still thought so.
“She had that high sweeping bow. In port, we could always pick out the red lights on the mast,” he said. The ship was too light and didn’t handle well in rough seas, but it was fast.
“She would do 35 knots (about 40 mph). Not for long, but she would do it,” Medearis said. “Not many ships back then could do that, other than battleships.”
The USS Spokane was a warship in a time between wars. After her shakedown cruise, she was part of a flotilla sent to Europe on a goodwill tour.
The job of the ship and its crew was to show the American flag in European ports, some of them still recovering from years of war.Clinton Miller of Ashippun, Wis., called the Spokane the best ship he ever served on. The crew won two consecutive annual awards for efficiency and gunnery, and Miller “saw half the world before he turned 21.
“That ship never had no barnacles on it. We went everywhere,” said Clinton Miller of Ashippun, Wis.. “It was so tall that when we went under the Brooklyn Bridge, they had to take the antennas down.”
After tours of northern Europe and the Mediterranean, the Spokane was called back to the United States. The nation was reducing its military forces and the Spokane, although less than five years old, was sent to the reserve fleet.
For 23 years, the Spokane stayed in mothballs. Its silver service was given to other ships, its flags were put in storage.
In 1973, the Navy decided it would never need the light cruiser and sold it for scrap.
“It made me cry when I heard they scrapped her,” Miller said.
Some members of its crew wondered whatever happened to the ship, and the friends they had made in the late ‘40s.
Heiden has been searching for 35 years for some word of the Spokane or her crew.
“It’s the first thing I’d look for every month in my American Legion magazine. Is anybody going to do anything for the USS Spokane?”
Members of the Navy League said that’s what Friday’s celebration is all about. They plan to recall the ship with a dinner and music from the era.
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