Historic Navy aircraft carrier bell found, restored and now part of college's NROTC
By DAN SCANLAN | The Florida Times-Union (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 14, 2017
The silver bell was supposed to peal from the USS Shangri-La as its planes flew into battles in World War II’s Pacific theater. When the aircraft carrier was decommissioned in 1971 at Mayport Naval Station, the half-ton bell should have also rung its farewell.
But fate interceded in 1944, before the bell ever made it to the USS Shangri-La. Fire hit the warehouse it was stored in near the Portsmouth, Va., shipyard where the carrier was under construction. Afraid heat had damaged it, the U.S. Navy cast a new bell that lived with the carrier until its last days.
The bell that never sounded a battle cry instead disappeared until its rusting shape was retrieved 60 years later in a farmer’s yard on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Now fully restored, the bell has a new home at Jacksonville University’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps, 15 miles from Mayport where the ship it should have shipped out on spent its last active years. Plans are afoot to let it ring for the men who never heard it when the USS Shangri-La Reunion Group gathers in October 2018 in Jacksonville.
“It was originally supposed to be on the ship,” said group president Gary Clark, ship serviceman on the Shangri-La from 1966 to 1968. “We are planning a memorial service at the university so everyone can see the bell. And if it is possible, we will replace the clanger and ring it, which will be very sentimental.”
Capt. Neil Karnes, the NJROTC unit commander, said having a piece of U.S. Navy history there for midshipmen to see is a “wonderful thing,” as he looks forward to them meeting the Shangri-La’s crew.
“Having a piece of history like that helps cement the heritage they are inheriting. It is something to connect the morals and goals that we want our midshipmen to gain,” Karnes said. “… To connect between those just entering the Navy and veterans who served so honorably is something we want to do.”
The Shangri-La was built in the Norfolk Navy Yard at Portsmouth and launched in early 1944. But it’s original bell and other equipment were damaged when fire struck the warehouse before the ship was commissioned.
“The Navy was afraid the heat took the temper out of the bell, afraid it might crack, so the shipyard cast another bell,” Clark said. “… They normally only cast one bell per ship, and each bell on those Essex Class carriers have a different tone. This one is supposed to be a B-Flat.”
The carrier went on to a long career, fighting the Japanese until World War II’s end, then routed to atomic bomb testing in the Pacific in 1946. In 1960 it was assigned to Mayport, ultimately handling duties in the Vietnam War until it was decommissioned in 1971. It was used for spare parts until finally sold for scrap in 1988.
No one knows what happened to the bell cast aside after the fire. But four years ago and 214 miles away from Mayport, it was discovered rusting in peace in a farmer’s yard in Hudson, north of New Port Richey. Clark said group members got a call from the farmer, saying his grandfather got it from a salvage yard.
“We had some people who wintered there and looked at it and said sure enough it has the same writing as the ship’s bell, now in the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola,” Clark said. “We started a conversation. Money was a big issue, of course.”
Crew members John Lyons and Al Miller purchased the bell, then had it restored at a body shop. The association got permission from the government to own it but had no place to display it. Pensacola’s museum was out — it has the bell that did make it on the Shangri-La. Then the Naval Order of the United States, which preserves naval history, proposed Jacksonville University’s NROTC. It went on display a month ago.
Clark estimated 60 to 75 former crew members could attend the 2018 reunion and see the bell on permanent loan at the Tillie K. Fowler NROTC Building at the university.
©2017 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)
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