Men who died on U.S.S. Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor honored with gift

Published 12:32 am Friday, April 21, 2017

The U.S.S. Oklahoma has permanently docked in the main display room of the Military Memorial Museum in Brookhaven.

A crowd filled all but the central display space in that room Thursday, and spilled out into the two rooms adjoining. Some attendees never made it inside the building.

Veterans from every major branch of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families squeezed in for attendance, as well as state and local dignitaries and curious area residents.

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Forming a right wing to the museum’s central display area, a vaguely ship-shaped form sat covered by a drape atop an eight-foot long blue wooden stand.

Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, thanked everyone for attending, especially veterans. “We have a great opportunity to honor a lot of our Greatest Generation tonight,” Doty said, “and we have a lot of our Greatest Generation sitting right here.”

The opportunity Doty referred to was the unveiling of a new donation to the museum, made by Lincoln County resident and Army veteran Randall Smith, in memory of Fireman First Class Jim H. “Jimmy” Johnston and the men who served with him and perished with him when the Oklahoma was sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.

Johnston, of Wesson, was only 23 years old when the Axis attack claimed the lives of 429 men and triggered the United States’ entry into World War II. His remains were identified in 2015 and returned to his hometown to be buried on the 75th anniversary of his death. Johnston’s nephew Frank Springs and niece Mary Howell, along with her husband, were given seats of honor.

Doty, Rep. Becky Currie R-Brookhaven, Rep. Vince Mangold, R-Brookhaven, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves joined together to present Springs and Howell with a resolution passed by the state legislature acknowledging the great sacrifice made by Johnston and honoring him for his service. Reeves called the resolution “very, very important” because it was an official way for the state to say thank you.

U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper also made a presentation to the family, giving a framed U.S. flag that had been flown over the nation’s Capitol Building. “We talk about Jim Johnston and the sacrifice he made … on Dec. 7, 1941, which defined us as a nation,” Harper said. “This not only defined us as a nation, it made this country what it is today.”

Then Smith stood and explained why he built and donated the replica. He talked of being part of Johnston’s funeral procession from Brookhaven to Wesson on Dec. 7 last year. Many people lined the roads, but Smith especially noticed a woman who appeared to be well into her 90s standing at the end of a long driveway waving a small flag. Her gesture sparked something in him, Smith said, to do something to honor those who had been on the Oklahoma.

As Smith’s granddaughter and son-in-law removed the canvas covering the model, onlookers applauded the reveal of the seven-plus feet long replica of the ship that had taken several torpedoes on the “day that will live in infamy.”

A board covered with photos of the project build, Johnston and the actual Nevada-class battleship on which the replica was based was also revealed. The museum’s new display sits opposite a replica of the U.S.S. Princeton, also built and donated by Smith.

As people began to take a closer look at the displays, Johnston’s nephew asked for everyone’s attention. “What the people of Wesson and Brookhaven did blew me away,” Springs said of the funeral preparations and procession in December. “To be here tonight, and to be able to observe what you have taken your precious time to build in memory of all those young men is … is just special.”