Following a nearly three-year-long ordeal trying to get memorial design plans approved, John Bailey, 78, has finally succeeded in preserving one of the last two remaining pieces of the now-decommissioned and scrapped World War II-era destroyer USS Nicholas — the top third of the ship’s mast.
It is now displayed next to the Bell AH-1 Cobra helicopter and the “Desert Fox” Republic F-105 Thunderchief in front of the Veterans Memorial Museum in Chehalis.
Bailey is a member of the USS Nicholas Veterans Association.
While he’s happy the mast is standing once again, Bailey is now working on the finishing touches to the mast memorial, which will include adding mock radar equipment, a replica of the USS Nicholas’ bell and memorial plaques with quotes from U.S. Navy admirals Chester Nimitz and William Halsey commemorating both the Nicholas, DD-449, and her sister ship, the USS O’Bannon, DD-450.
“The Navy really treated both of these ships special and always kept them together,” Bailey said. “They were built next to each other in Maine, sailed alongside each other during WWII, decommissioned and mothballed together, then recommissioned and upgraded together before serving together during Vietnam.”
Bailey served on the Nicholas during the Vietnam War as a drone anti-submarine helicopter (DASH) operator. Along with the finishing touches, Bailey is organizing an official dedication ceremony for the mast memorial the first weekend of next August.
“The (U.S. Navy) Blue Angels will be up at Boeing then,” Bailey said.
He is reaching out to U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps officials to invite them to next year’s dedication ceremony.
“Hopefully, we can line up the four-stars (general and admiral), one or both, because this is unique. They’re Navy ships both named after Marines,” Bailey said.
Both the O’Bannon and Nicholas were Fletcher class destroyers built side by side by Bath Iron Works in Maine and put to sea in 1942. They were some of the first of a total of 175 Fletcher class destroyers built during WWII.
The Nicholas was named after Major Samuel Nicholas, the first commandant of the Marine Corps during the Revolutionary War, and the O’Bannon was named after Marine Corps First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, whose exploits are immortalized in the Marine Corps hymn with the line, “to the shores of Tripoli.”
The other remaining piece of the Nicholas, its bell, is currently housed at the Center House Marine barracks in Washington, D.C., home to the U.S. Marine Corps silent drill platoon, among other units.
Both ships were involved in numerous battles during the island-hopping campaign in the Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal as a part of Admiral William Halsey’s fleet during WWII. The ships both earned the Presidential Unit Citation, according to Bailey, and the O’Bannon earned 17 battle stars during WWII, the most of any destroyer.
The Nicholas earned the nickname “Road Runner” as it was the fastest ship in the fleet, topping out at nearly 40 knots, and the O’Bannon became known as the “Lucky O” because despite the numerous battles the ship’s crew endured, not one crew member was given a Purple Heart for being wounded, Bailey added.
Bailey also said it was rumored Nimitz viewed the Nicholas as his favorite ship, and Halsey was known to love the O’Bannon.
Nimitz held all 175 Fletcher class destroyers in high regard, as evidenced by his Jan. 28, 1944, speech during the Nicholas’ Presidential Unit Citation award ceremony.
“Our destroyers have truly been the silent part of our service, but their exploits and their capabilities are well known to those who have to know. Congratulations from the Pacific Fleet to every officer and man of Nicholas. Well done,” Nimitz said.
After the Japanese surrendered in August of 1945, the Nicholas was given the honor of being the lead destroyer escorting the USS Missouri into Tokyo Bay for the signing of surrender documents.
Bailey and his fellow veterans rescued the top section of the Nicholas mast from where it was displayed at the Portland Sea Scout base along a frontage road near the Portland International Airport.
In 2020, the Sea Scouts were told by the Portland Airport Authority the mast needed to go, so they reached out to the USS Nicholas Veterans Association and asked if they wanted the mast. It was cut up into pieces then transferred up to Chehalis where it has now been reassembled and mounted.
Aside from his work at the museum helping preserve the Nicholas’ mast, Bailey and his wife, Roberta, tour the country interviewing other veterans who served on the Nicholas.
“Roberta actually sewed the ‘Lucky O’ flag for the O’Bannon since they didn’t have one,” Bailey added.
For more information on the ships or to get into contact with Bailey, visit http://www.sisterships.us/.
The Veterans Memorial Museum is located at 100 SW Veterans Way in Chehalis. For more information, visit https://www.veteransmuseum.org/.