The Honorable Mission To Preserve The USS Orleck
By Kerri Cooke
Memorial Day is an important but underestimated holiday. It allows citizens to remember the past and show respect for the men and women who have served in all aspects of this country’s protection. It is also a good day to acknowledge not only the people who served, but also the vessels that have seen their share of conflict.
These great machines were huge operations built by human hands, and were controlled by massive crews. One such vessel is the USS Orleck, currently located here in Lake Charles.
She was named after Lt. Joseph Orleck after he died in service. The Orleck was the last destroyer built at the end of World War II, and was manufactured by the Consolidated Steel Co. in Orange, Texas in 1945.
This honorable ship began serving its country in 1945 when she was launched into the Sabine River. She began her life of service during the Cold War when tensions were high and no one knew whether a new conflict would emerge.
The Orleck was renamed TCG YUCETEPE once it changed hands It was used in the Persian Gulf by the Turkish navy.
Later, Turkey donated her back to the United States, and the Orleck found herself a home at the Southeast Texas War Memorial and Heritage Foundation in Orange, Texas.
The Orleck’s life back at its birthplace in Orange was cut short when Hurricane Rita came ashore and wounded the veteran. The ship was transferred to Lake Charles, and the USS Orleck Naval Museum was opened in April of 2011.
Many local citizens were proud to have the Orleck in Lake Charles because they had commuted to Orange to work on the ship when it was being built; were past sailors on the vessel; or were family members of those who had a connection to the ship. The Orleck was a great acquisition. Because of Lake Charles’ proximity to Orange, the ship is still considered to be at home.
Another important aspect of Memorial Day is to remember the volunteers and staff who work to preserve the memory and legacies of veterans who lived part of their lives on the sea.
There’s a group of local people who work endlessly and tirelessly to ensure that the Orleck gets the care she deserves. She requires a lot of upkeep, especially given how big and old she is.
The Orleck is basically run by volunteers. The museum can’t afford to hire the necessary number of full-time employees, so the preservation of the ship relies on the goodwill of locals.
Many of the volunteers are former crew members, retired veterans and women. Some volunteers can’t work consistently, so they do what they can when they can. Other volunteers have a more or less steady schedule year round.
Any and all kinds of contributions are helpful; even those for a seemingly insignificant amount of time.
Ron Williams, the executive director of the USS Orleck Naval Museum, and a retired major in the United States Air Force, says that the ship is “like a little city.” There’s always something to do, and it takes a lot of time, effort and people to keep the ship operating.
The Orleck would have needed around 300 crew members to operate when she was in the service of the Navy. However, once she was out of service, she had only about 15 to 20 volunteers year round. This left a big deficit in manpower, as a small number of people work to preserve a huge ship.
The museum is in desperate need. It takes a lot to preserve the glory of the Orleck. The ship needs volunteers in every capacity. Any talent is of use.
Some of the positions the museum is in need of include tour guides, general cleaners, painters, welders, electricians, air condition mechanics, and office workers. Many volunteers are jack-of-all-trades, and never know what they will be doing from one day to the next. Most of them do a little bit of everything.
One important event for volunteers is Field Day. The museum held its first Field Day in March of this year. At first, the staff was nervous about how it would go. They wondered whether they’d have enough people for the event. It would be a team effort and a big project on the whole. The volunteers had to make sure all the people were fed and had enough materials to complete the projects.
It was a weekend full of scraping, painting, and electrical and mechanical maintenance. The teamwork completed a big chunk of the restoration. The event was a success, with more than 80 people showing up from around the country. There was a mix of local volunteers and volunteers who traveled in for the project. Many of the out-of-town volunteers are involved in the upkeep of ships in their own hometowns — ships such as the USTS Kennedy in Massachusetts.
Eric Thibodeaux, the director of marketing for the USS Orleck, says it was a wonderful thing to see so many people come together in unity. It reinvigorated the regular volunteers on the Orleck to see other people so passionate and willing to give up their time for the well-being of the ship.
The Field Day was a success. But some of the things that needed to be done didn’t get finished. So another Field Day is probable in about four to six months.
It not only takes a lot of manpower to run a ship of this size, but it also takes a lot of money. The USS Orleck Naval Museum doesn’t rely on federal funding, but instead, tries to be self-supporting. The museum raises money from admission fees, laser tag events, and donations. But the insurance, utilities, maintenance and supplies cost an enormous amount.
The ship earns as much as she can on her own, but it isn’t enough.
The valuable circle of volunteers do the best they can with limited supplies and help because of their passion to preserve an artifact of American history. Thibodeaux says they want to keep the Orleck as a memorial to the things veterans experienced. She represents the preservation of the memory of the people who worked onboard who were exposed to places they never would have seen and had adventures they never would have experienced in normal life.
The USS Orleck Naval Museum honors experience, and gives locals a keepsake from the past. The museum is a valuable tourist attraction for Lake Charles. Many hold the ship close to their heart. The museum gives retired servicemen the opportunity to share their unique stories from their younger days.
Now retired from service, the Orleck’s new job is to help educate tourists on her particular history. She helps history come alive and live in the hearts of the public.
The museum seeks to preserve, remember and restore the glory of the Orleck. Last year, that dream became even more of a reality when she was awarded the title of being the official Vietnam Memorial Museum Ship for the state of Louisiana.
After a few years in obscurity, the Orleck is now being recognized for her service alongside with the men and women who served on board.
Volunteering time to the USS Orleck Naval Museum is good for anybody interested in history or anyone wanting to make a difference in the community. Potential volunteers can call the ship office at 337-214-7447, email firstname.lastname@example.org or drop by the ship’s office. A picture identification and a social security card will be required; everyone is subject to a background check and drug screening.
Admission prices, hours of operation and guidelines for visiting the USS Orleck Naval Museum can be found at www.orleck.org.