Mark Kennedy's Life Stories: Ship's bell finds a home, a purpose

Mark Kennedy's Life Stories: Ship's bell finds a home, a purpose

December 31st, 2015 by Mark Kennedy in Opinion Columns

An old photograph of the USS Chattanooga is displayed next to a bell from the ship, stamped with a date of 1904, on display at the National Medal of Honor Museum at Northgate Mall on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

One hundred years ago, the USS Chattanooga was a proud ship. It was as long as a football field and home to more than 300 sailors.

A World War I-era armored ship with an array of 10-inch guns, the USS Chattanooga was commanded for a time by Arthur MacArthur III, brother of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Mark Kennedy

Mark Kennedy

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Officially a "peace cruiser," the USS Chattanooga was once the flagship of the U.S. fleet, according to Navy records. In 1906, two years after it was commissioned, the ship escorted the USS Olympia to France to recover the body of John Paul Jones, a Revolutionary War figure sometimes called "the father of the United States Navy," who had died more than a century earlier.

Although the ship was sold for scrap before World War II, the USS Chattanooga's 200-pound deck bell survived and somehow found its way in 1929 to a Lions Club hall in Shelbyville, Tenn., where it remained in relative obscurity for more than 85 years.

Gowan Johnson, a Chattanoogan and petty officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, learned about the bell's existence — but not its location — several years ago during a meeting of model-ship builders. Johnson made it his job to track down the bell. He had a vision for using the bell as part of a memorial for the five servicemen killed here in the July 16 shootings.

"After the attack on the [U.S. Naval and Marine] Reserve Center, I thought, 'I need to find this,'" Johnson, a Navy culinary specialist, said in an interview this week.

Johnson contacted the Navy's History and Heritage command in Washington, D.C. in an attempt to track down the bell, but soon hit a dead end. The Navy was unaware the bell still existed, he said.

Undaunted, Johnson contacted sources in the model boat-building club where he had first heard about the bell. The source of the information had since died, but Johnson thought the key to the mystery might be found in his personal papers.

He was right. The model ship-builders club helped Johnson track the bell to Shelbyville, a town in Middle Tennessee known for its annual Tennessee Walking Horse celebration. Since the 1930s, the USS Chattanooga's bell had been in the possession of the recently shuttered American Legion Post 23, Johnson said.

After the shootings here, Johnson sent a request to the Legionnaires in Shelbyville asking that the bell be brought to Chattanooga, where it will become part of a permanent shrine to the five fallen servicemen when the Naval and Marine Reserve Center reopens sometime next year.

In September, Johnson and another serviceman traveled to Shelbyville to retrieve the bronze magnesium bell, which measures 24 inches wide at the base and stands about 21 inches tall.

An old photograph of sailors is displayed next to a bell from the USS Chattanooga, stamped with a date of 1904, on display at the National Medal of Honor Museum at Northgate Mall on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

An old photograph of sailors is displayed next...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

While the Navy's reserve center quarters here are being modified, the USS Chattanooga's bell has found a temporary home inside the National Medal of Honor Museum in Northgate Mall, where it is displayed along with vintage photos of the ship and crew.

"It's open to the public to view, and touch, if they like," explains Charles Googe, a museum volunteer.

Meanwhile, Johnson is hard at work preparing the bell for a more permanent home at the Reserve Center. A cast-iron yoke is being fabricated for the bell, he said, and the shrine will be anchored to a black granite base with a plaque honoring the dead. The emblems of the U.S. Navy and Marines also will be part of the exhibit, he said.

"We are thinking that we could toll the bell five times on July 16 when the names are read for the [shootings anniversary] ceremony," Johnson said.

In the meantime, Petty Officer Johnson has begun to muse about another possibility, now that the Navy is commissioning a new class of ships bearing the names of American cities.

"How about another ship called the USS Chattanooga?" Johnson said.

Perhaps people in high places will get wind of his idea and answer the bell.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

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