BY CHRIS LAWRENCE
The man who hatched the idea to bring a piece of history to Morgantown was honored by the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Jack Bowman, a former law school professor at WVU, was the student body president at West Virginia University in 1959 when he learned through a letter of plans to scrap the U.S.S. West Virginia. He began the campaign to get a piece of the ship to put on permanent display on campus as a tribute to all who served.
“Mr. Bowman contacted the Navy and asked for something, a piece of memorabilia, to be housed on campus,” explained Elizabeth Hotchkiss, chair of the DAR’s Historic Preservation Committee, during the organization’s 132nd Continental Congress in Washington, D.C., last week.
Bowman was presented the DAR’s Historic Preservation Medal for his efforts to preserve the mast of the famous warship at his alma mater. It was a project Bowman believed was worthy of the effort considering the ship’s legacy and impact on the War in the Pacific.
“I organized the university’s student government and decided to bring the ship’s mast back to the campus as a memorial to all West Virginians who have died serving our nation in war time,” said Bowman in accepting the DAR’s award.
The ship was heavily damaged in the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941. Aboard the West Virginia, two officers, including the commanding officer, and 106 enlisted men were killed. She was towed to a shipyard in Bremerton, Wash., where repairs were made. She was back on the high seas and back in the fight by 1944.
During the Battle of Surigao Strait in October 1944, the West Virginia sank the Japanese battleship Yamashiro. It was the last battleship engagement in history. From there the West Virginia supported U.S. landings at Mindoro, Luzon, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The U.S.S. West Virginia put in 223 days of combat after her repairs. She was the only ship that survived Pearl Harbor to be on hand in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered aboard the U.S.S. Missouri.
Bowman received a letter in 1959 that announced the West Virginia would be scrapped at the same shipyard in Washington where she had been rebuilt after Pearl Harbor. The new mast, which had been installed after Pearl Harbor, was offered up.
“All he had to do was get it moved across the country to West Virginia,” said Hotchkiss.
Initially, Bowman had plenty of support. But it wasn’t an overnight task and the momentum he enjoyed early on for his idea started to sour.
“I announced our intention to secure the mast and the news spread quickly through a very excited student body. However, after a couple of weeks when the mast had not arrived, I became the target of ridicule,” Bowman said.
It was a process that took several years, but for the duration of his tenure as student body president, Bowman stayed the course and endured withering criticism.
“I explained in vain we had to wait first until the Navy would give us the mast. Then until the ship had been scrapped sufficiently so the mast could be removed and finally until we found some way to bring the mast from the West Coast to Morgantown. I said we could not send two guys in a pickup truck out to Bremerton, Wash.,” he said.
Bowman left office in spring 1961 and was still the target of ridicule for what many perceived as a folly. However, in spring 1963, the mast finally arrived and was installed on the downtown campus at the corner of College and University avenues.
Although honored for his work, Bowman offered credit to many more who continued to work on the project to make it happen. Bowman noted his successor at Student Body President Darrell McGraw who was in office when the mast was dedicated. He also credited his vice president at the time as well as Congressman Harley Staggers, U.S. Sen. Jennings Randolph and WVU Vice President Joe Gluck, who Bowman said served as a personal confidant during some difficult days.
“I am proud to be remembered as the student body president who began the effort to bring the mast back to our campus, but it’s important to understand this was a joint effort that involved a great many people. I proudly accept this honor personally and on behalf of many others on and off our campus,” Bowman told the crowd.
He also thanked Hotchkiss, Joan Gibson, Regent of the Woodburn Chapter of the DAR and West Virginia State Committee Chair April Norris.