I Hope Aunt Rosalie Gets One More Look
Four AM came early in those days much like it will now. Rosalie Ferris didn’t hit the snooze button on the wind-up alarm clock. In WWII snooze alarms hadn’t been invented and people got up and went to work on time every day, especially when their job was helping beat back the aggression of vicious and cruel totalitarians that wished to dominate the world.
She’d wake up, have a small breakfast and pack a lunch into a little brown paper bag and join hundreds of other, mostly women working at Consolidated Steel Corporation in Orange, Texas. On 28 November 1943 the company had laid the keel for a new American Gearing-class destroyer.
A destroyer isn’t the largest warship in the Navy, it’s fast and maneuverable and designed to escort larger ships; to break off from the flotilla and seek and destroy threats to the fleet above, on and below the surface of the ocean.
Women helped build them as well as the rest of the United States arsenal of WWII and in all ways were as gallant as the boys on the front lines. Most of our men were elsewhere on the planet holding the safe end of weapons pointed at the enemy. Everyone did all they could because the threat of losing the war was very real.
How real? The Army had heavy artillery batteries at the entrance to Galveston Bay. Have you ever spent a night at the San Luis Hotel on the Island? Its foundation is largely the remnants of a gun emplacement to ward off attacking enemy ships in the Gulf of Mexico. In fact very near the Point Bolivar lighthouse you can still visit the ruins of such an emplacement just like the one under the hotel. It’s called Fort Travis. There you can walk among the ruins, the gun emplacements and galleries, and stand along the parapet looking out over the sea with the salty air in your face you can feel what sentries may have felt as they scanned the horizon for trouble.
And by the way, the Germans did try to enter the Galveston Bay a time or two, there are sunken U-boats not too far offshore, and on the bottom of the ‘Louisiana Gulf’ too.
My aunt Rosalie worked with the electricians at the shipyard, her short stature and small frame allowed her to pull electrical cables through pitch black confined spaces and voids that today OSHA would declare uninhabitable by human beings without tons of safety gear, fresh-air tanks, lights and a rescue team standing by.
The specific destroyer in this story was named after a young naval lieutenant – he was killed in action in a naval battle in the Gulf of Salerno near Naples, Italy on 9 September 1943. But before and as he died he fought so bravely and gallantly until his last breath the US Navy awarded him the Navy Cross for Valor.
Aunt Rosalie was helping construct the USS Orleck (DD-886), christened after Lt. James Orleck. His widow was allowed to break the traditional bottle of champagne across the bow at launch into the Sabine River, four days after the Germans officially surrendered in 1945.
After the war, Rosalie Ferris met a handsome B-17 crew chief, who’d served in England keeping the bombers flying: Lamar Keenan. They had six children, my first cousins.
Today the USS Orleck, one of the most decorated US Navy ships since WWII lays awaiting a new berth and a new birth. Docked off Enterprise Boulevard in the Calcasieu River she waits alone. If no new berth is found – a salvager is eager to get its hands on her. Scrap steel prices must be up.
She’s out of sight and out of mind on that lonesome bend of the river. One of the two proposed buyers of Isle of Capri has vowed to dock it near the casino, that’d be a great and very visible place for this museum and a wonderful tourist draw. But he’s been largely muscled out by another potential buyer from New Mexico who isn’t so keen on the idea of having 390 foot long relic around. And no matter who the Isle ends up with, the paperwork for buying a casino is monstrous and would take longer to float through Baton Rouge than the old battle-axe may have left.
The USS Orleck Naval Museum Board does not have the funds to maintain the old girl who saw action in Korea and Viet Nam – the time-limited offer from the scrapper looks real good to them.
Wouldn’t she look grand moored at the Veterans Memorial Park at the Civic Center? Oldsters and youngsters could see close up, touch and feel and walk where heroes once stood and fought in pitching seas under deadly fire giving better than they got.
My aunt is still around too, the old girl now 95, that shinnied up and down through tiny openings in sweltering claustrophobic darkness is berthed in a local rest home in Lake Charles.
I have no power to intervene in the future of the USS Orleck. But I hope somehow the Naval Museum Board, a new casino owner or the City of Lake Charles will step up and find a way to spare her from the torch and snipping shears. For posterity.
For the brave young lieutenant who left a widow and a full life never lived.
And I hope Aunt Rosalie gets one more look at her soon one cool sunny day, somewhere.